And George Ella Lyon was one of many who visited those roots in “the hills of home” during Thursday's opening of the 19th annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Harlan.
More than 300 attended this year's conference, last held in Harlan County in 2000 at Benham's School House Inn. And while community leaders and local officials throughout the state were preparing for the conference's first day, many of the region's youngest minds were brainstorming ideas and opportunities in discussing topics that most affect teens in eastern Kentucky.
“Tomorrow for the Youth of Eastern Kentucky” was one of many sessions scheduled for this year's event, which also opened with a health fair presented by Harlan Appalachian Regional Hospital and a health session featuring the role of women leaders in changing the region's health statistics. A reception and dinner followed at the Harlan Center, where several congregated to applaud eastern Kentucky's top leaders and achievers.
William Weinberg, chair of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation, opened this year's awards ceremony by recognizing Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop and Harlan Mayor Danny Howard. Howard introduced one of the evening's awards recipient, Harlan native George Ella Lyon, an author whose writing is about “real-life issues,” he said.
Lyon, creator of many published works - from novels to essays and poems - explained through her narrative talents that issues facing eastern Kentuckians, and their children, have to be put “at the top of our list.”
“They are in our care, like it or not,” she said of the region's children. “They are our future, just as our own children and grandchildren are. We have to care about what happens to them and stand up for their rights to health care, education ... a future.”
Lyon was honored with the East Kentucky Leadership Conference's culture/arts awards.
“Writing is only half of my work life. The other half is teaching, and most of that is speaking to kids. So I am in touch with the promise ... the hopes for a fresh start that kids bring to the world,” she said. “I don't care as much about the University of Kentucky's being a top 20 research institution as I do about raising teacher salaries and the amount we spend per child, which is among the lowest in the nation.”
The evening's special award went to Bernie Bickerstaff, a Benham native who has more than 30 years of service in the NBA.
“This next recipient is a role model for our entire region - a shining example of what we can accomplish through hard work, dedication and determination,” said WYMT-TV's Neil Middleton, who presented the awards along with colleague Danielle Morgan.
Bickerstaff now resides in North Carolina as the coach and general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats. He was also the head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, Denver Nuggets and Washington Bullets, and boasts an all-time ranking of 33rd for his total wins among head coaches.
The boy from Benham, a former NBA Coach of the Year, became a 10-year player, assistant coach and head coach at the University of San Diego and played for the Toreros from 1964 to 1966, in which he was the team captain and most valuable player his senior season.
Bickerstaff was unable to attend Thursday's ceremony, but prepared a short video of appreciation to the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation “for honoring me for this special award.”
“I would also like to thank the other recipients. I know that from my region comes a lot of challenge,” he said, explaining that his own success has “a lot of fingerprints - those I've competed with, those I've grown up with, those who have taught me and those who have nurtured me.”
Bickerstaff said it is his “endeavor” to shed light on “how great and talented those are from Harlan County.”
“I'll do it and I'll do it with pleasure,” he said.
The Eastern Kentucky Social Club, Lynch chapter, was the recipient of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation's organization award, which goes to the group that best promotes community - “neighbors helping neighbors,” Middleton said.
Bennie Massey, president of the Lynch chapter, accepted the award on behalf of the organization that has helped keep Kentucky's “mountain heritage alive.”
“I've been here all my life, was born here, was a coal miner. And now I get the chance to give something back to the community and have the chance to work together with our community. We have some good people here in Kentucky,” Massey said.
The public and private individual awards went to Dr. Bruce Ayers, who began his career at Cumberland's Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in 1969, and Cornelia Dozier Cooper, who accepted her honor on behalf of the Lake Cumberland Performing Arts.
“We really want to keep our home-grown talent here as much as we possibly can, and because of that we do emphasize programs that will allow them to stay in the region,” said Ayers, president of Cumberland's Southeast.
“Our best days are ahead,” he said.
Al Smith, the host of KET's “Comment on Kentucky,” was the recipient of this year's media award.
“There are so many wonderful people from Harlan who have done so much for Kentucky and really for the world,” Smith said. The Harlan Center, he said, is a great tribute to the vision of eastern Kentucky's leadership.
Locals Jim “Muggins” Bennett and Mike Howard were honored with the Tony Turner Award, given to citizens who strive to make a difference in their communities. Bennett and Howard, also known as “Muggins and Mike,” have a combined 55 years of gathering and delivering Christmas gifts to children in Harlan County.
“We love people, not just at Christmastime - that's just a special time,” Bennett said. “I know what we're doing is a sincere thing.”
The evening also featured local musical talents through performances by individuals and groups, including instructors and students from Harlan's Studio of Piano Fine Arts. The crowd was also entertained with a performance from the cast of the “Higher Ground” play, which opened last year to rave reviews.
Dr. Roma Prindle, a graduate of Harlan High School and music professor at Morehead State University, also performed “The Hills of Home,” a song she dedicated “to all the mountain people who left the mountains and returned.”
More sessions are scheduled for today's second part of the conference, beginning with a continental breakfast at 7 a.m. at Harlan's Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. Today's topics will include: Coal Severance Revenue Sharing, presented by Paul Patton; Bootstrapping Tourism; Education for a Global Economy; RX for Medicare/Medicaid; Building Effective Local Governments, presented by Stephanie Stumbo, of the Governor's Office for Local Development; Drugs: It's Your Problem, Too; Putting Your Community Online; and New Ideas for Job Creation in Eastern Kentucky. Dr. William Turner is today's guest speaker.