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Kentucky by Heart: Northern Kentucky’s John G. Carlisle; new book of work from Northpoint prisoners

Life’s full of those “just not fair” times when it seems that we’ve followed all the rules, yet have had severe misfortune fall right smack into our laps. The historical record shows as much. Northern Kentucky’s “favorite son” politician John G. Carlisle is a clear example, according to The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky.

John G. Carlisle (Photo provided)

Carlisle was born in a small Campbell County (now Kenton County) community called Key West in 1834. He was the eldest of eleven children and very smart. Before he reached age sixteen, he became a teacher in the Covington schools. Early on, success and respect followed Carlisle. Then, misfortune came. His father died in 1853 and he suddenly became the sole supporter of the large family.

Amazingly, he moved forward with his life without yielding to that obstacle. About three years after his father’s passing, he studied law under John White Stevenson, a Covington lawyer. For Carlisle, that experience was with a high profile individual, as Stevenson later served as Kentucky’s governor for a four-year term (1867-1871).

Carlisle joined a Covington law firm at about the same time he married Mary Jane Goodson in 1857. Sadly, all five of the couple’s children died before them, another challenge to the steadfast minded John G. Carlisle.

He continued his upward professional climb, however, and then started on a long political career. He served a term as a Kentucky state representative (1859-1861) and followed that by being elected to the state Senate (1867-1871). Then he became lieutenant-governor under Preston Leslie (1871-1875). From there, Carlisle served a long stint in the U.S. House of Representatives (1877-1891) and was Speaker of the House from 1883 to 1889.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood day trips (and sometimes overnight ones) orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points being in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion for the state now. After teaching 28 years, Steve spends much of his time today writing and reading about the state and still enjoys doing those one-dayers (and sometimes overnighters). “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes, and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Carlisle became a U.S. senator from Kentucky in 1890. By most all accounts, there was a magical aura around his political career endeavors; he was a winner. But then, in 1893, the worm turned in that realm of his existence. It happened after President Grover Cleveland appointed him his national secretary of the treasury, an office he held until 1897. Those years in office paralleled the infamous economic “Panic of 1893,” a time when Carlisle’s support of remaining on the “gold standard” was blamed by many, especially farmers, as contributing to their difficult economic times.

In a speech on his home turf of Covington in 1896, he reportedly was pelted with rotten eggs and driven from the stage over his policy decisions as the Secretary of Treasury. It was a terrible blow to a person who had been embraced by most of his adult by the support of his state’s citizens. The Encyclopedia states, consequently, that he “retired from public life. He sold his Garrard Street home in Covington and moved to New York City, where he died in 1910.”

On a more uplifting note, Carlisle was buried at Linden Grove Cemetery, in Covington, and the grade school named after him, John G. Carlisle Elementary, still holds classes today. One might wonder how far up the ladder he’s climbed if he had not accepted President Cleveland’s request to head America’s treasury department.

President Carlisle, anybody?

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I just finished reading a book of short plays (each about ten minutes long) written by prisoners at the Northpoint Training Center, near Danville. It’s called I Come From: A Voices Inside Anthology. Bill McCann, Jr. is the editor of the collection and I must say that I enjoyed the authenticity of the fledgling writers’ work.

In many of the stories, I see a deep yearning for a new path to follow that leads to being productive citizens, and the hope to divest themselves of the destructive baggage of their past. Some seem genuinely excited about the chance to share their worlds; some seem scared and wonder if they’ll be understood…but they’re trying.

Writing these plays is a start to possibly something better. At least, that is what is envisioned by Robby Henson, artistic director of Danville’s Pioneer Playhouse, a leader in establishing the Voices Inside playwriting program at Northpoint. Robby is invigorated by the possibilities.

“There is a huge amount of suppressed creativity struggling to be heard behind prison walls,” writes Robby in the introduction to the book. “Creativity personal expression is a means of staking claim to ‘self’ inside a system that understandably treats the incarcerated as numbers: they all wear the same clothes; there is constant lining up, waiting; their daily regimen chips away at self-worth. Through writing and performance, the incarcerated are able to become individuals again.”

According to Robby, arts programs behind bars help lower recidivism, as many in jail are released and lack a good foundation to keep from making repeat mistakes that would bring them back behind bars.

In the book, an inmate/writer from Tennessee talks about being abused as a child. He wrote a play about conflict arising when an inmate has two different girlfriends visiting him. One individual said he comes “from a life of seeing people wear masks to make themselves into something they are not.” He wrote a play—one of my personal favorites—called “Screen Warriors,” about two guys talking trash to each other in the final minutes of an on-line auction.

There are many more of these works of creativity I could share except for time limitations, but hope you’ll find out yourself by getting a copy of the book. You can find it on Amazon.com or contact Bill McCann via email at wmccann273@gmail.com for more information.

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I enjoy speaking to groups around the state about inspiring Kentuckians I’ve written about, many of them formerly “unsung heroes.” For information, contact me at email sflairty2001@yahoo.com or private message on Facebook.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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