A Kentucky Poet Laureate: Part 1

Dr. Vivian Blevins And then

January 3, 2014

A lifetime appointment by the Kentucky Legislature as Kentucky Poet Laureate (1984) and English professor at Southeast Community College (1965-67), Lee Pennington has an impressive seven-page, single-spaced resume that spans the globe.

The focus of this column will not be on his impact on notable Harlan County high achievers such as Bruce Ayers, Faye Simpson, and James Goode who were his students in his short tenure at Southeast but rather on what he has been doing since he retired from teaching at the community college in Louisville in 1999. Part II of a column on Pennington’s will address his tumultuous time in Harlan County and other issues.

In 1990, nine years before Pennington and his wife, Joy, retired from the community college in Louisville, they began a video production company making documentaries. The idea, according to Lee, was “by using as small equipment as possible, we could get into places many others could not, and we could capture many things being lost.

“Our first jump off was Papua New Guinea, where we did a piece called “In Search of the Mudmen,” covering rituals hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.”

By their retirement in 1999, they had made 13 documentaries, including “three on Polynesia, three with Appalachian subjects, and others concerning Wales, South America and other places.”

And since the 1999 retirement, there have been 11 documentaries.

But back to the present and Appalachia. The world premiere if “Room to Fly: Anne Caudill’s Album” by Lee and Joy was held on Nov. 12 at the Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville.

Anne Caudill is the widow of attorney and writer Harry Caudill from Whitesburg, best known for Night Comes to the Cumberlands, a volume that had a major impact on the anti-poverty movement of the 1960s.

Following the publication of that book, according to the invitation to the screening, “All sorts of people came from everywhere and were guests in the Caudill’s modest home in Whitesburg. President Lyndon Johnson came. Bobby Kennedy came.” Anna Caudill became “a superstar host for thousands of visitors from all over the world.”

Fascinating as that is, what is even more so is “At 89 years old, she still keeps a schedule that would scare the daylights out of most people. Her correspondence, reading, researching, writing, attending club meetings, cooking meals, hosting all sorts of things, being politically and community involved are simply amazing.”

In June of 2013, the University of Louisville honored Lee and Joy (Joy passed in 2011), with the opening and dedication of THE LEE AND JOY PENNINGTON CULTURAL HERITAGE GALLERY. All of the Pennington papers, films and artifacts will be archived at the University of Louisville, the source for Pennington’s latest film on Mrs. Caudill.

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