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Robert Treadway: Creason was to Kentucky what Cronkite was to America, and I miss him

I miss Joe Creason. That’s why I was thrilled to pick up a used copy of Crossroads and Coffee Trees: A Legacy of Joe Creason, posthumously published by the Louisville Courier-Journal, for which Creason wrote for 33 years. The book is a sequel to the 1972 Kentucky classic Joe Creason’s Kentucky, a collection of Creason’s shorter columns, published a couple of years before his untimely death in 1974.

Joe Creason (Photo from uky.edu)

Joe Creason (Photo from uky.edu)

The first thing you need to know about Joe Creason is that his name was Joe, not Joseph, as it is sometimes mistakenly listed. Creason was sensitive enough about this point that he founded the JOES (Joes Only and Exclusively Society), open to membership by any person whose full given first name was Joe. Creason elected himself Head Joe.

Creason’s first work appeared in the sports section of the Courier-Journal in 1941. By the late ’40s, after a couple of years in the service during the World War II, he was a full time feature writer for the Courier-Journal’s award-winning Sunday magazine. He wrote feature-length articles about people and stories all over Kentucky, from the apprehension of moonshiners in Bell County to the excitement of Western Kentucky State Teachers College (as it was then known) and its flashy basketball coach Edgar Allen Diddle. The coach’s mangling of the English language livened up Creason’s columns. “That big center from Indiana,” Diddle said about a new recruit, “sure is an amphibious player – he can lay them in with either hand.”

One of the joys of Crossroads, Creason’s second and sadly, last, anthology, is that it collects a number of his early longer articles, including the ones about moonshiners and Coach Diddle. That moonshine article gave such a detailed explanation of the process of making homemade whiskey that a reader attempted the process himself and got arrested for his trouble.

Creason was the first major Kentucky journalist to write about the peculiar Appalachian custom of the handling of poisonous snakes (serpents, they call them) during church services. His 1947 article about snake handlers in Harlan County appeared not long after Kentucky’s legislature passed a statute making the handling of poisonous snakes illegal, leading one interviewee to conclude that more veterans should become interested in the movement, because “they’re trying to destroy over here what we fought for over there – the right to worship as we please.”


And that is the second thing you need to know about Joe Creason: He gave everyone in his stories a fair break; despite his own obvious skepticism about such things as snake handling and moonshining, he allowed his interviewees to tell their own story, and he resisted the impulse to turn them into either buffoons or saints.

In 1963, Creason took to the road and began a column first called “Joe Creason’s Kentucky,” and later simply “Joe Creason.” The column appeared six days a week until his death in 1974. Creason was to Kentucky what Walter Cronkite was to America: He chronicled and reported, but never politicized or preached, and never lost the ability to respect his audience. For most of his career, Creason’s Kentucky was a poor state, held together loosely by roads that were little better than cow paths.

Creason tried to visit each county in Kentucky at least once a year, in search of stories. He traveled these roads day in and day out, listening to Kentuckians and reporting on what they did and said. A photo in the book shows Creason and a Courier-Journal photographer on horseback in Leslie County in 1954.

Soon his column was the most popular feature in the Courier-Journal. He always presented even the most rural and remote areas of the state as being rich in natural beauty and peopled with hardy Kentuckians with enough natural wit and wisdom to make up for a lack of formal education.

Improving Kentucky’s inadequate public educational system was one of Creason’s dreams. He writes glowingly of Jesse Stuart, whose The Thread That Runs So True presented a fictionalized account of his own experiences as a rural schoolteacher.

“Stuart was a restless kind of schoolteacher, one whose stomach was all but turned by the obstacles faced by students in rural schools. He worked Siberian-salt-mine hours in trying to right the many inequalities. As a result, he was branded a born troublemaker, a malcontent who was out to wreck the school system of his own county because he dared preach the gospel of consolidation and because he advocated elimination of the trustee system, whereby, often a man who couldn’t so much as write his name exercised control over a school,” Creason wrote.

Another hero of Creason’s was Kentucky’s great Sen. John Sherman Cooper, who, between his various terms, was Kentucky’s longest-serving Senator until current Sen. Mitch McConnell edged him out. Cooper was a hero of my longtime law partner Joe Johnson, as was Creason himself. I never met Creason, but Joe introduced me to his widow at the Keeneland sales years ago.

Cooper was a towering figure in politics, whose moderately progressive policies allowed him to work with both Republicans and Democrats, and who was so well respected by the Washington establishment that he was appointed to the blue ribbon Warren Commission by Lyndon Johnson and as America’s first ambassador to East Germany by Gerald Ford. An early opponent of America’s involvement in Vietnam, Cooper co-sponsored (with Democrat Frank Church) legislation to limit the US military’s role in Southeast Asia. Cooper, and Kentucky’s other Senator, Thruston Morton, both Republicans, also both voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, unlike most Southern senators.

It was Cooper’s Kentucky background, though, that interested Creason, who judged Cooper as no orator; he would “stumble through a campaign speech and come away with most of the crowd openly sympathetic because he sounded so much like one of them.”

Creason wrote of the time when Cooper, freshly graduated from Harvard Law School, returned to Somerset to practice law. One day an old friend appeared, telling Cooper that another driver “just ran smack into my car. It was her fault and she admits it!” Cooper began to anticipate the fee that the case would generate when the friend blurted out: “Now, Johnny, we’ve been friends for years. Tell me straight: Where can I find myself a good lawyer to take the case?”

I miss Joe Creason’s style of writing, and I miss John Sherman Cooper’s style of politics. Current journalists and politicians could learn much from the past.

Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.

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