Growing up in Louisa – Famous People I didn’t know
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
When I tell people that I grew up in Kentucky they will often ask if I knew so-and-so, a person of celebrity from the Bluegrass state. The world is definitely smaller than it was, but frankly, I’m not sure I ever saw or greeted any of those more famous folks who came from, or were related to people I knew from the foothills of Lawrence County. Memories are funny things. Even if we could get past the false memories caused by the tricks of time and an over-reactive imagination, it’s hard to look back really understand the big picture. First of all, there are truths and perceptions, which don’t always relate. As a youth, I was usually only privy to quick snapshots of life. Often those pictures were not connected or fully comprehended. It turned out that people are more complicated than we can ever fully appreciate.
My high school class only had perhaps eighty kids and we’d grown up pretty much together. Certainly I knew them all, but some better than others. Still, I sometimes struggle to pull their faces out of the shadows. Once I grab one of my annuals, a surge of memories overtakes me with long forgotten faces and experiences that flow in with them. I had nearly daily contact with many, but with others less. To ask me how well I know someone who’s really not part of my old social network, is bound to bring stutters while my mind riffs through the dusty mental files.
In the case of the famous, or those with celebrity, I would be honored to meet them primarily because of the commonality of community and heritage, but meanwhile I probably know less about a given musical artist than the person asking. After all, if they know a star was from my area of Kentucky, then they are likely a fan. As one who has reached the winter of life, my interest is not in popular music of the day, but throw-back melodies of former times. I listen to the classics that play on satellite radio with the purpose of calming my soul. Even the more famous of the locals escaped my attention back in the day. Some were not even born when I left for Virginia. Some were from other generations barely connected to mine.
Take my non-relationship with the Vinson family. I said it right, non-relationship. Oh, I was privileged to see the Chief Justice once or twice, but after all I was just a little child. I think my family knew the Vinson family well, but a snotty-nosed kid like me wasn’t much to notice if you were a big and powerful man. I doubt I ever spoke to him, nor he me. Once, when I was a teen my aunt introduced me to his sister when we ran into her at the library. The library had just opened in a small outbuilding behind the site it enjoys today. One look at that lady and you’d know at once who she was. She looked for the world just like the Honorable Chief Justice, except she wore a dress instead of a suit, or a robe. She was nice to me and was very friendly. I felt honored to meet her. I’d seen her brother enough on the street or in newsreels, so there would be no mistake picking either of them out in a crowd. I knew other Vinson’s, but have no idea of their respective relationships to His Honor.
I do remember seeing him at the dedication of the memorial of his birthplace. The crowd was the largest I had ever seen. I was told that the speakers and dignitaries on the raised platform were famous and important men from Washington and Frankfort. Wow! It was no wonder that the first traffic light in Louisa was installed then, just in time to citify the little town for the distinguished guests. What a day! I think nearly everyone in the county was there, and a few more to boot. There were men with cameras running around taking pictures while the Sheriff’s department was busy rerouting traffic. Remember, there was no bypass in those days. The new traffic light was probably helpful. I don’t think Bernard Nelson was on the force then, or maybe even out of high school, but either way he was surely at the event. Many of you readers were there and have memories of that day.
What’s my memory of other famous folk from around there? Well, who knows? I mean I went to school and knew many people with now-famous last names. I knew a number of Cyrus’s from everywhere, but not the two that most of America is familiar with. Harry Richard and Jack are two from my class, but I don’t know if they were distant relatives to those who became stars. I know both were characters in their own right. It was the same for the Skaggs clan. My grandfather knew Doc Skaggs really well and counted him as a close family friend. I saw him often but I’m sure he regarded me as some street urchin. No, wait a minute. That isn’t quite true. He knew me as the kid who came in regularly to pick up my grandmother’s medicine. Sometimes he’d see me coming and have it ready. I doubt he knew my name, though.
I don’t pretend to understand all the family relationships, but they were people with last names I knew growing up. Now, I live less than a half-mile from a venue where some of those Kentucky folks have played, but I haven’t turned out for any of the concerts yet. I live in a house once owned by a Hornsby, an apparent cousin of the star, and I’ve heard stories that Bruce was there practicing and learning his trade when he was a kid, but I haven’t met him. As far as I could tell he grew up and left before I bought the house. Ricky Skaggs has played some concerts with him and I’m sorry I’ve missed those. I enjoy Ricky’s music. He reminds me of Bill Monroe, a star I have heard in person, but didn’t meet.
I’ve seen a number of famous people, but more as a spectator. I’ve seen politicians, actors, writers, and ball players. Once I did toss a ball with some famous baseball players, but I was out of my league and way too young to impress anyone. I saw Satchel Page, and Al Kaline, Harvey Kuhn, and some others, but I’m not sure I really met them or exchanged names. I knew their names but there was no reason for them to care to know mine. I was in Detroit at a ‘day-camp’ held by the Tigers for young boys. We were to learn some fundamentals about baseball. I think it was a public relations thing where the team would have a special field day and meet kids, sign autographs, and teach something of the sport. It was a fun day.
To be real and getting away from the famous, what I really remember more are the folks who counted every day in my life. I will always remember those. Eddie Boggs would have to top the list. He wasn’t famous, but he was a good man, my best friend’s father, and a part-time surrogate father to me. He was my coach, mentor, and friend. I wrote an article about him a few years ago that you can look up and read for details if you missed it. I’d love to hear from others who shared his attention and support. I know that a lot of people benefited from knowing him.
I remember many episodes with Bill Cheek, a ‘John Wayne’ kind of a ‘man’s man.’ I rode in that red jeep with him a number of times as I grew older. We’d chat in the bookstore out back of the high school, but he was usually a very serious man. He didn’t swap many stories or jokes, per se, but could recite a poem at a blink. Whichever he chose, you can bet that it had a moral. He focused on providing leadership and teaching kids the real values of life. Whether it was a ‘grass killing’ demonstration around the flagpole, or a lesson on how to shake hands, he wanted to shape the character of his charges. He taught Sunday school at my church for the adult class, but I also know that every chance he had to bring an evangelist to speak to the student-body, he would do it. In spite of that being later asserted to be unconstitutional, a lot of students benefited from this guidance. He was sometimes gruff, opinionated, (like me today), but always focused on the lives of the young people he cared about.
There’s more, but I’ll hold off for another edition. firstname.lastname@example.org