Sunday, January 2, 2022

Kentuckian of the Year

We didn't do one of these posts for 2020, largely because we just wanted to forget about that year as quickly as possible.  But it seems obvious that in 2020, the Kentuckian of the Year was Governor Andrew Beshear for the second year in a row.  The big story of 2020 was, of course, COVID, and the whole Commonwealth spent most of the year going back and forth over how to manage that crisis.  For better or worse, Governor Beshear was at the center of that controversy.  For months, his press conferences were must-see television for anyone wanting to know what was happening in Kentucky.  So whether you agree with him or not, he dominated life in the Commonwealth during 2020.

So that brings us to last year.  Let's start with the Honorable Mentions.  Governor Beshear was again a huge presence in Kentucky life, as COVID issues continued to dominate the news cycle.  Senator Mitch McConnell was once again in his element as the GOP went on defense.  McConnell is the Buddy Ryan of American politics -- his record when in charge is only so-so, but he is a defensive genius.  As he did in 2009, the last time a new Democratic Administration came into power, Sen. McConnell persuaded his very disparate team to hunker down and hold that line.  Mark Stoops led Kentucky's football team to victories over Florida, LSU, and Louisville, and a fourth consecutive bowl win in the Citrus Bowl.  To put his record in perspective, here's a list of UK's football coaches since Bear Bryant left:

Blanton Collier:  41-36-3 (.531)
Charlie Bradshaw:  25-41-5 (.387)
John Ray:  10-33 (.233)
Fran Curci:  47-51-2 (.480)
Jerry Claiborne:  41-46-3 (.472)
Bill Curry:  26-52 (.333)
Hal Mumme:  20-26 (.435)
Guy Morriss:  9-14 (.391)
Rich Brooks:  39-47 (.453)
Joker Phillips:  13-24 (.351)
Mark Stoops:  59-53 (.527)

If you take out the first three rebuilding seasons, when Stoops went 12-24, his record from 2016 through 2021 was 47-29 (25-25 in the SEC), with six consecutive bowl appearances, and four consecutive bowl wins.  The Cats won 10 games in 2018, and won 10 games again this year.  To anyone who has lived with the UK football program as long as we have, these are extraordinary numbers.  And under ordinary circumstances, this performance would have been more than enough to win Mark Stoops the Kentuckian of the Year award.

But 2021 was not a normal year, and we do not face ordinary circumstances.  For everyone in Western Kentucky, 2021 will be the year of horrible tornadoes.  Two of the jewels of Western Kentucky -- Mayfield and Dawson Springs -- were virtually destroyed, and many smaller communities have suffered enormously.  The tornadoes present an existential question:  so much of our lives turn on small towns, with shared histories, long family memories, church registers, cemeteries, and schools.  The towns define who we are, who we know, what we do, and how we see the world.  Mayfield's always good at football.  Marshall County's band went to the Rose Bowl Parade.  Hopkinsville's economy is driven by Fort Campbell.  Princeton is the home of Emma Talley.  And on and on -- every town with its own story.  So what happens when a town disappears?  Do enough people still care to rebuild?  Or does its story come to an end?

It's not easy to keep a small town alive.  Brewers, Sharpe, Cuba, and Heath weren't just communities in the Twentieth Century -- they were communities where the local high school achieved a sort of immortality by winning the State Basketball Tournament.  But those schools are all gone now.  Any drive in Western Kentucky takes you through ghostly places that are little more than names these days:  Mexico, Blandville, Melber.  And that's not even counting the towns that were lost when we built the dams and turned the Land Between the Rivers into the Land Between the Lakes.

So this year, we honor all of those trying to keep these small towns alive.  In Mayfield, Kathy Stewart O'Nan has been an eloquent advocate for her town, and we award her an Honorable Mention.  But Mayfield is almost certainly big enough and strong enough to survive.  In fact, we are already excited about the first game of next year's football season at War Memorial Stadium.  The bigger challenges are faced by even smaller towns.  So our Kentuckian of the Year is Chris Smiley, the mayor of Dawson Springs -- the home town of Steve Beshear, former Governor and father of the present Governor.  It will be up to Mr. Smiley and his neighbors to determine the future of Dawson Springs.  We will keep them in our prayers.

As we leave 2021 behind, this is a good time to remember that life in Western Kentucky is almost never easy, and is certainly never fair -- but it is often heroic.  For over 200 years, folks in this part of the world have survived wars, plagues, fires, tornadoes, floods, and even the occasional earthquake.  We believe that in 2022, the folks in Dawson Springs, and Mayfield, and lots of other places across the Commonwealth will show their heroism once again.

Here is the list of all Kentuckians of the Year since the HP began:

2010:  Rand Paul (Bowling Green)
2011:  John Calipari (Lexington)
2012:  Darius Miller (Maysville)
2013:  Jennifer Lawrence (Louisville)
2014:  Mitch McConnell (Louisville)
2015:  Matt Bevin (Louisville)
2016:  Mitch McConnell (Louisville)
2017:  Justin Thomas (Louisville)
2018:  Stephanie Winkler (Richmond)
2019:  Andy Beshear (Louisville)
2020:  Andy Beshear (Louisville)
2021:  Chris Smiley (Dawson Springs)

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