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In Defense of Kentucky

On Tuesday, Gallup-Healthways issued its annual State of American Well-Being Report. This is a study that has been conducted since 2008 to rank states according to six sub-indexes, which assess things like work environment, emotional and physical health, access to basic necessities and healthy behaviors. As seems to be the case too often, Kentucky once again has made news by ranking 49th in the study; only West Virginia ranks lower.Just a few months ago, Louisville ranked second in the nation’s list of fall allergies—a slight improvement of 2012, when we ranked first. We recently ranked 10th among cities in obesity—and Kentucky ranks 6th among states, according to CBS News.  We’re No. 1 in smoking rates, and also at or near the worst in deaths by lung cancer, COPD, heart disease and stroke. (Indiana doesn’t fare much better on any of these charts. Gallup-Healthways ranked the Hoosier state 40th – certainly nothing to cheer about.) When an editor sent me a copy of this report, he made a gentle request: To place this report in some context, to defend Kentucky's reputation.  At first I found the prospect daunting. The issues pointed out in the Gallup-Healthway report are valid, and some of the things that our state used to be hailed for are less likely to get national praise today. But my predicament also was a challenge. And with some help, I began to realize that there are a whole lot of reasons we can be proud of the Bluegrass State (and as a former Hoosier and a proud graduate of Evansville North High School, I am equally proud of Indiana). So I will try to list just a few of them, and if you are so moved, perhaps you can add more in WFPL’s comments space or on Facebook.

To begin with, Kentucky produces some of the top writers in America today. There’s Jessica Bird—who also publishes under the name J.R. Ward—and Sue Grafton, maybe the most popular women fiction writers in the nation.  Then there’s Sena Jeter Naslund, Wendell Berry, Silas House, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frank X. Walker, and the list goes on and on. We also are second to no other state in the movie stars who came from the Bluegrass: Jennifer Lawrence and George Clooney, perhaps the two two top stars in Hollywood today, are Kentuckians. So are Ashley Judd, Johnny Depp and—how could we forget?—Tom Cruise. The father of motion pictures, D.W. Griffith, was born in Oldham County near Crestwood and spent his formative years acting on the stage in Louisville. Other actors who hailed from Louisville include Irene Dunne (whose films included “Cimmaron,” “Show Boat” and “I Remember Mama”), Jane Withers (the child star who was Shirley Temple’s foil and spent her early childhood in Shively), Victor Mature (“Samson and Delilah”), Warren Oates, Ned Beatty and others. “The Waltons” star Richard Thomas’ grandparents were from Eastern Kentucky. And Oscar winning actress Patricia Neal was born in Packard, Ky.

Though times have been tough for the arts in many sectors, Louisville still is a national leader. We were the first city in America  to create a community chest for the arts—The Louisville Fund—which continues to flourish today under the leadership of Barbara Sexton Smith. Actors Theatre of Louisville is by most estimates one of America’s most significant regional theaters, and the host of the Humana Festival of American Plays, now marking its 38th season. I was fortunate to be there at the beginning thanks to my spouse, Meme Sweets Runyon, who was a board member during the first festival. We saw every play, and read the scripts too. Meme had become associated with the theater in its early days, when Jon Jory, Trish Pugh and Sandy Speer came together as its invincible troika. Our Kentucky Opera, which just performed Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” has been ranked in the top 20 of 

American opera companies, and our Orchestra is nationally recognized, most recently because of the film “Music Makes a City,” which was broadcast nationally on PBS last month. Nobody disagrees that Kentucky leads the way with America’s favorite beverage—bourbon— and we also boast some of the most famous brands the world knows including Old Forester, Maker’s Mark, Pappy Van Winkle and Heaven Hill. We’re home to the world’s favorite fast food (possibly excepting McDonald’s hamburgers): Kentucky Fried Chicken.  No matter where we may go, the Colonel is with us. When I was a college student in London in 1971, Kentucky Fried Chicken had a hot (and I mean that in several ways) spot right in Piccadilly. More than 20 years later, I went climbing Mount Fuji in Japan, and who do you think that the snack bar at the train stop? KFC.

Our state’s culinary delicacies are unique—from Rebecca Ruth’s bourbon balls to the Hot Brown at the Brown Hotel. I am particularly fond of Benedictine—not the liqueur but the unique concoction of cream cheese, cucumber juice and other assorted ingredients best spread over crackers or in finger sandwiches. It was invented by Miss Jennie Benedict, one of the city’s early successes at catering and restaurant operation, a kind of early 20th Century Kathy Cary. Then there’s Derby Pie, Owensboro barbeque, beaten biscuits (those tooth-cracking wonders that are best eaten with country ham on Oaks Day) and Modjeskas—the marshmallow-filled caramel cushions invented in Louisville and sold for over a century by Muth’s Candies. When it comes to basketball, we’re so No. 1 nobody can challenge us. The Louisville Cardinals, the Kentucky Wildcats, Bellarmine Knights and others have won national championships in recent years. Our healthcare system is excellent, and medical breakthroughs have made headlines from Louisville, most notably the world’s first mechanical heart and the first hand transplant. Then there’s horse racing. Louisville is the home of the world’s greatest race, the Kentucky Derby, and Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May is the international sports capital. The thoroughbred industry sets Kentucky and its glorious Bluegrass farms apart from anywhere else in America.

Louisville was the birthplace of one of the most important justices of the Supreme Court, Louis D. Brandeis, and Danville was the birthplace of another, Justice John Marshall Harlan, who struck an early blow against segregation in the dissent of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Justice Brandeis is buried under the entrance porch of the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law. UofL, by the way, is often called America’s oldest municipal university. Louisville was the first city in the South to pass a local public accommodations law in the 1960s, and Kentucky became the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to do that shortly thereafter. Visionary local leaders like Marlow W. Cook and William O. Cowger as well as state figures like Govs. Bert Combs and Ned Breathitt had much to do with those achievements. The Louisville leaders were Republicans; the state leaders were Democrats. United we stand, divided we fall. Other notable Kentuckians? Henry Clay. Abraham Lincoln. Whitney M. Young Jr. Bert Combs, Wilson Wyatt, Barry Bingham Jr. and Sr., Patty Hill Smith, Louise Marshall, and on and on. I’ve traveled through most of our country, and a little bit of the world, and I do not believe that any other spot can rival the beauty of Kentucky—especially the Bluegrass and Appalachia—in the spring and fall. The terrain is rolling, the temperatures are sublime, and the colors are riotous. To be sure, some of that terrain has been ravaged (mostly by outside forces) through strip mining, mountaintop removal, etc., but even so, the sun still shines bright on this lovely state. Although it’s always tempting to focus on our shortcomings—and we should work to resolve them—it’s high time we stopped dwelling on those things and embrace what we do and have done well. Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He'll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during  Here & Now. Listen to Runyon discuss this commentary below: Read his past WFPL commentaries  here.