Fleur la Libre n u m b e r o n e the passed on issue
Next to losing your income, the hardest part of being laid off –with no real warning it was coming – is … oh, it’s a pop psychologyphrase from the world of relationships I hate to use but must: lack ofclosure. No proper goodbye. I worked 13 years at The Courier-Journal, during which I attendedmany coming and going celebrations for coworkers, threw parties forsome myself, wrote up funny presentations for some of them. I can’tcount the times I stood in the middle of the newsroom as journalists,copy editors, photographers -- professionals who had worked decades inthat deteriorating building at Sixth and Broadway -- retired amid well-deserved fanfare. I also stood by at plentiful, awkward cake ceremoniesfor passers-through who were leaving to pursue better opportunities. Well, fuck some cake. I had no opportunity to say goodbye to coworkers: no one wantsto be seen crying and in shock in the newsroom or to be the object of somuch pity. I also didn’t have a chance to officially say goodbye to thefuneral directors and other sources whom I’d gotten to know in so manyphone calls, who helped me, among other things, track down familieswho might be willing to talk to me for a newspaper story at the worstpossible time. There was no time to ease into the idea that my obituary writeridentity was being taken away. I wrote a lot of other things, butobituaries were considered by most everyone to be my forte. I have aknack for it, people have told me. I’m not bragging. Survivors andfriends told me I got some essence of the real person into those stories.It’s as much a mystery to me as anyone how exactly that happened. This zine is my personal goodbye letter to that obituary writer,who remembers bits and pieces of all those stories and will always begrateful for having been able to write them, for being trusted with them.These are my personal reflections about a few randomly selected peopleI often remember because I frequently see reminders of them and theyinspired me. Most of these people had news obituaries published in TheCourier-Journal when they died and Ive tried to attribute thatinformation accordingly. A few pieces are personal essays on the topicsof death and obituary writing. -- Paula Burba
So I’m sitting here thinking I’ll probably take most of my Room & Board meetings here now and come here to do some writing from time to time. I’m waiting for someone now to talk about possible business. I’m facing the gigantic bulletin board by the front door. If there is one there are 50 posters, flyers, photocopies and whatnot tacked onto that bulletin board and taped around its perimeter. The side of an adjacent soft drink cooler is almost covered, too. Most notices don’t cover up the next one, but keep a respectable-though- I’m not a regular at the original Highland Coffee. I’ve thin distance so as not to block anyone else’s news.been in a handful of times, interviewed and wrote about the Everything interesting going on in this city must beowners once and got more than one lead for newspaper stories represented on that board. Some of it I’ve heard about and some of ithere, but I haven’t been in as patron often. They once had a I haven’t. Nothing’s outdated: it’s by-and-large dedicated to thedowntown location close to the paper where I stopped in at least possibilities of events still to come, not full of yesterday’s news.once a day for a couple of years, but they closed that shop quite a Mainstream stuff like “Avenue Q” at the Kentucky Center andwhile ago. This original spot feels so much more intimate, like “The Three Musketeers” by the Louisville Ballet have their big-everyone else is a regular and I’m just a sitcom walk-on. money posters tucked in amongst more modest flyers for hustle-for- I’m not sure why I feel that way. The least condescending it folks like the Alley Theater and the 23 String Band CD releasebaristas anywhere, ever, work here. “Everyone welcome here” party. Guitar lessons, boot camp, portraits, fundraisers for rescuingvibes ooze from here. It’s reminiscent of the heyday of Haight- pit bulls...Ashbury or Greenwich Village, puts you in the mind of what you I wrote newspaper stories in one way or another about at leastknow about those places: flower children and punk rockers, folk a quarter of the stuff on that board. I’m a civilian now, but I still seesingers and poets, Stonewallers and Black Panthers, meetings, one blatant story up there begging to be written and at least half aorganizing, pushing change, the like -- even if, I imagine, it’s dozen leads on other stories. Not my job to pitch them anymore.cleaner and tidier here. I’m just going to sit here and wait, contemplating a sheet of I’ve been coming here more often since I was kicked off the white paper with a an octopus sketched on it in black marker withcorporate grid. If there’s one thing that’s not overwhelming or this message: “The guy who was teaching me how to draw anobvious here, it’s any notion that corporations control anything octopus died before we were done.”that matters.
Phyllis Knight I wrote an obituary for Phyllis Knight Gifford in October 2008,but my conversation with her about her husband, Sam Gifford, whenhe died in 2002 was one of my most memorable obituary conversations.I could almost literally feel her charisma over the phone. Phyllis Knight (her professional name) represented, to me, theepitome of the golden age of media in Louisville. She told me a littleabout it, too -- those glorious Bingham years I’ve heard so very muchabout. She was at the television end of the Bingham empire at WHASand then, after a full career on-air, became the the first full-timedirector of WHAS Crusade for Children. Even though it was a golden age, women were still widelyregarded as second-rate journalists (at least from what Ive gleaned)except a few who just weren’t having it. I think she was one of them. I was unaware how naive and uninformed I was when I spoke toher, but I instinctively knew she was being gracious with me. Iremember thinking I’d give anything to sit down to lunch or coffee orbourbon with her and listen to as many of the stories about those saladdays of local media as she could stand to tell -- the good and the bad. She came to Louisville in 1955 and worked at WHAS radio beforemoving to television, where she became Louisvilles Oprah whenOprah was still a toddler. Among the countless people she interviewedwere Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Buster Keaton,Minnie Pearl, Johnny Unitas, the Rev. Billy Graham and Ralph Bunche(I had to look him up, add one more thing I learned because of PhyllisKnight.). Her Kentucky Derby coverage and hats were legend, but she alsoreported on topics not discussed in polite society at the time, likeadoption, cervical cancer, sex education and mental illness. She haddepression and endured some publicity nightmares while ill. She madea comeback after a seven-year struggle, boldly going public with herown experience and reporting on the need for better mental health care. As she told me about Sam Giffords career at WHAS shementioned without reservation or skipping a beat that he was marriedto someone else when they met, but they fell in love. They weremarried 45 years. Taboo and scandal didn’t seem to phase her. "I wasalways somewhat of a renegade," she told The Courier-Journal in a 1975story. She was 81 when she died, a 1992 inductee into the KentuckyJournalism Hall of Fame and 1999 inductee into the Jefferson CountyOffice for Womens Hall of Fame.
The Flock of Finns at Waterfront Park always reminds me that "I thought everybody had aneven though he was a celebrated folk artist with an impressive roster idea. Ive got ideas I havent evenof collectors, 89-year-old Marvin Finn was not wealthy when he died turned loose yet," he said in thatin January 2007. story. It wasn’t because Finn mismanaged money or was necessarily He first sold his work yard-exploited by the art world. He just didn’t seem to care about money. sale style in front of his apartment “Money isnt everything,” a retired Finn said in one interview in the old Clarksdale housingfor The Courier-Journal. “I could care less about it. Like I said, I project and later at a hobby show.dont do this to make a living or nothing. I just like to meet people Even after he was “discovered” bywho enjoy my work." the local art world proper, Finn still He was born poor in Alabama, grew up poor, and as a young sold his pieces for beyond modestman followed an older brother to Louisville, where he married and amounts -- reportedly in the ballpark of $15 to $60. This spring Thehad five children. His wife Helen died in 1966 and he raised their Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, where Finn’s work has beenchildren by working whatever jobs he could get with no formal featured since the museum opened, raffled one of Finn’s signatureeducation -- on barges, in construction, at gas stations. roosters. The piece was valued at $2,500. Raffle tickets were $20 each. But he was far from uneducated. When he wasn’t working in I will eternally be in awe of Finn’s imagination and his distastefields as a child, he was watching his father, a sharecropper, carve for greed to the end.and whittle wood and build things out of whatever was on hand. And I’ll always be proud of Louisville for doing something soFinn made toys for his children as his own father had done for him; honorable and imaginative as installing the Flock of Finns atelaborate toys like doll mansions and construction machinery that Waterfront Park before Marvin Finn passed away.moved, all built from materials like clothespins, popsicle sticks and I hope hethread spools and painted with whatever leftover paint people gave enjoyed that bit ofto him. recognition and At some point he branched out into bigger, more imaginative appreciation. I hope itprojects. He once described his creative method to The Courier- was more meaningfulJournal: "I always have in my mind how Im going to make a thing to him than cold, hardlook, and when I get it done, thats how it looks. ... I have a different cash. I hope he knewimagination every time I start doing something.” how high he set theFlock of Finns bar for folk art around here.
Andrea Pecchioni its 10th season there in 1988 and eventually had two theater spaces and offices there until it became too expensive to maintain. They sold the building to KDF in 1995. She resigned the next year and KCT soon folded. I’ve never been inside that building, but I imagine much evidence of her heart and ambition and vision has faded by now. I secretly hope not. Andrea Pecchioni died of cancer in February 2003 when she was just 58 years old. She moved here in 1978 and worked as a reporter at WHAS for a bit. She performed at Actors Theatre in at least one of the early Humana Festival plays, as well as working in the subscriptions department. She was acting in Shakespeare in the Park when she got the idea to start KCT. I imagine she loved acting in Central Park: she struck me as the epitome of an Old Louisvillian. I think like many who live in that neighborhood, she wasn’t a native Louisvillian. I remember she lived on Ouerbacker Court because it was the first time I’d ever heard of it. Her daughters made it sound like an inviting, near-magical place. I remember meeting her daughters, who came to The Courier-Journal and Every time I see “Kentucky Derby Festival, Inc.” on the talked to me about her in the lobby. They must have been there to drop off herfront of this building, I think of local theater matriarch Andrea picture -- the majority of people didn’t have digital images they could email onPecchioni. short notice back then and they’d either bring a picture to me or I’d send a She started the Kentucky Contemporary Theatre and was courier service to pick one up at their home.its artistic director for 16 years. The company was reportedly the I quoted one of her daughters in the CJ obit: “That theater really didnt runfirst modern alternative theater company in Louisville, on money. It ran on her heart.”presenting such avant-garde work that an alderman (precursor to Pecchioni herself once described her vision to the newspaper as this: "MyMetro Council representatives) tried to shut down one feeling is that a theater makes its mark in the world not by doing works that areproduction. done by other companies, but by doing works that will soon be done by other This was a woman after my own heart. companies." She raised a quarter of a million dollars from investors – I hope the history of KCT survives somewhere in Louisville. Thatwho does that? – to buy that building, which had last been a used building, sometimes literally and sometimes more subconsciously, makes mecar dealership, and renovate it into theater space. KCT opened cheer for her and then it breaks my heart every time I pass it.
Baryshnikov married Big on “Sex and the City,” and who probably really did hang out at Studio 54). Harlowe Dean supposedly talked the iconic ballet dancer into accepting a thoroughbred as payment, instead of was here. cash, for the big Memorial Auditorium show. The show sold out and has been cited as a turning point for ballet in Louisville. I suppose we have iconic performers who come to Louisville now, but it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to see Baryshnikov perform here, in that building with a dedication plaque outside that (still) says “The World War.” xoxo, I remember talking to Bill Mootz, long-time arts critic for The Courier-Journal, when I was writing Dean’s obituary. He knew everything about the arts here, it seemed, and vividly remembered Harlowe Dean hanging out (or some classier, artier term for “hanging out”) with Baryshnikov and Dean the night of that performance. Mootz remembered who attended the party and what they were drinking. Mootz died just a couple of months after I talked to him for Dean’s Every time I pass Memorial Auditorium, I think of two things: the obituary, but one of his successors wrote his obituary instead of me.one time I’ve been inside it for an Ani DiFranco concert (so long ago I Baryshnikov was here in the 1970s but Dean was here to stay.don’t want to think about the number of years and why I couldn’t begin After leaving the staff of the Louisville Ballet, he started HBA Ltd.,to remember what it looks like inside) … and the time Mikhail which brought acts like the Peking Opera and Isaac Stern and theBaryshnikov came to dance in Louisville. Vienna Boys Choir to perform in Louisville. Baryshnikov came to Louisville because of Harlowe Dean, who had He lost his hearing infound his way here to lead some of the city’s big arts groups. He the last few years of hismanaged the Louisville Orchestra and was an officer of Music Theatre life. His daughter told me he was even moreLouisville and then became general manager of the Louisville Ballet. He appreciative of theeven performed with the Kentucky Opera once. ballet during those He was a voice instructor, a native of Michigan who studied at the years, as a vehicle forUniversity of Kentucky and then spent 40 years in New York where he him to continuewas a behind-the-scenes kind of guy in the entertainment industry. experiencing the fine arts. He died in May Those New York connections facilitated that performance by 2006 at age 89.Baryshnikov (yes, the one who played Carries last boyfriend before she
In addition to its convenient spot downtown, the building was Madame owned by attorney Larry Jones. I did write an obituary about Jones. He built his own theater upstairs from the restaurant, Squirrelleys Tea Room, where he regularly performed. I remember him, too: a charming lawyer who loved to entertain with magic, by all accounts. Zelda A gracious, no- nonsense lady, Madame Zelda summed up her palm-reading career to me about a year before she died: “Its been really very interesting, because Passing Bearnos by the Bridge, I often remember Shirley A. were all after theDrake, better known to many as Madame Zelda. same thing--love and She died in August 2008, but her obituary in The Courier- money and moneyJournal made no mention of her intriguing careers – only one of and love. ... We allwhich was reading palms in her gypsy-decor alcove of restaurants want our lives to beoccupying that space at Second and Main streets. (Neither did it running smoothly. ...mention her age. "Im like my mother. ... She always thought a lady Ive had some funnydidnt tell her age. ... Im old, lets put it that way," she once told me experiences induring an interview.) there. ... Dealing with I wouldnt have known she died if a friend of hers hadnt the public, its just...called and told me. I didnt write an obituary about Madame Zelda, sometimes its funnybut I once did a memorable interview with her for a business piece. and sometimes its Before she was Madame Zelda, she told me, shed done sad. But mostly I commercials, have really happy theater and voice- memories." over work. There I remember having my palm read by Madame Zelda three times. The on the site of the first time I had just moved to Louisville and wouldnt even get a job at the original Galt CJ for several more years. The second time was, I think, a few years later, House, shed read during a party. The third time, I wrote down every bit I could remember of the palms of many what shed told me as soon as I got back to my table in the restaurant. It attorney, judge and was the summer of 2007. She said lines in my left hand indicated prosecutor types everything converging, but not connected. Id come into more money, she who frequented the said, and noted my tendency to be guarded about money comes from old Timothys and childhood. She said she saw a big, sweeping move, very good move, in the then Bearnos. next 10 or so years. She said Ill win awards and find success with writing.
Death Becomes Her I don’t “see dead people,” but I do remember them. All the time, everywhere. I wrote obituaries for years. Many, many years. There’s one corner on Main Street where three stories converge. A lot of people think: what an interesting occupation. Other I see places for things that once happened there, routinely look forpeople think: what special kind of touched or stupid is she for them: sidewalk spots where civil rights leaders picketed forstalling out so low on the journalism ladder? integration of now-disappeared movie theaters; abandoned, Most people will never have to cold-call someone rife with downtown, family-owned department stores; stages in upstairs loftsgrief, quiz them about someone beloved who isn’t yet resting in the where theaters started; schools and churches where teachers andcold, hard ground or returned to dust and ashes. preachers impressed those who grew up to preach and teach more, It was almost 20 years ago the first time I called a brand-new again. Passing hospitals I think of doctors, professors, scientists whowidow. Her husband dropped dead that morning of a heart attack. left research to help cure what killed them. I look for evidence of oldAn editor wanted a specific date I did not know (it was pre-Internet clubs where the single mother welder sang torch songs some nights.journalism). I couldn’t afford to, but I would rather have been fired Painters, dancers, writers, poets, photographers – artthan call this woman that day, asking newspaper-story questions. makers with gusto and prophecies and legacies: they stay with I protested, stalled. I finally had to make the call, hoping she me. I’m agnostic at best, but nuns have blessed me and I don’twould not pick up. mind it. She picked up. She graciously answered questions. Sometimes I was struck speechless, a knot stuck in my throat I’ve made such phone calls hundreds of times since, written hearing a widow say “forgive me” for not controlling sobs whileprobably a thousand obits. describing her husband, a Pearl Harbor survivor dead of pneumonia I tried to do other things, outside newspapers, a couple of on their return from volunteering at Ground Zero, or a mother intimes. tears proudly describing her long-ill 9-year-old son’s bravery and There’s a cliché in the newspaper business about ink getting dignity. Men, too, ask for moments to compose themselves, talkingin your blood. I don’t know about ink, but life stories are in my about those they loved.blood now. Writing them is like second nature — but never routine. I have heard so many stories, been witness to the finish of soThe panic of making that phone call never goes all the way away many lives. I’ve adopted philosophies from some – simple, gracefuland the absurdity of summing up a life, or just some facet of one, in things like “do not hate” and offer “peace and blessings.”brief, tidy copy never stops being… absurd. I remain terrified of my own death.
assignment to cover Zimmerman and the Society for the Arts. (That photographer was Alfred Eisenstaedt, who shot the iconic “V-J Day in Times Square” photo of the sailor kissing a nurse, as well as 90 cover shots for Life.) In 1958 the Arts in Louisville House opened on Zane Street at Garvin in the former home of the old Louisville Athletic Club. (The enormous building burned l e o z i m m e r m a n to the ground in May 1969.) This art house had a theater, art galleries, music I’ve heard and read about many long-gone arts groups, but Leo room, library, restaurant and wine cellar/bar. The jazzZimmerman’s Society for the Arts might be the one that most captured my concerts were legendary (Dizzy Gillespie performedimagination and envy. there) and as a private club it was racially integrated Zimmerman was an abstract painter. A Male graduate, he got an art years ahead of the city at large.degree at UK after World War II -- during which he served in the Army The society broke up in 1963, due to “staff culturalMedical Corps (hed planned to become a doctor like his father) and spent exhaustion,” according to an entry in “The Encyclopedia of Louisville” Zimmerman wrote himself. After that hesome time in France, where he studied painting. He entered an art contest stepped back from the public arts scene.when he got home after the war and won first prize -- enough money to He worked as a facilities manager at the Louisvilleget him back to Paris where he continued studying and producing art. He Free Public Library for a little over a decade andand a friend partially funded their life in Paris by selling popcorn – somewhere along the way in the 1950s had invented theapparently an unfamiliar concept to Parisians at the time. Silicoil Brush Cleaning System, materials and a method Back home in Louisville to stay, in 1953 he opened the Carriage to clean paint brushes without damaging them that’s stillHouse Art Supply Store on Fifth Street. Literally a carriage house, he had around today. Meanwhile, he hadnt stopped producinga gallery in the former hayloft and offered art lessons to the public. Also art.using the space was a theater group led by C. Douglas Ramey, who would With his “Rural-Mural” and conventional oil onlater found the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival (Shakespeare in the Park). canvas days mostly behind him, in the last quarter of his In 1955, Zimmerman founded the Society for the Arts, a nonprofit life Zimmerman created his Sluball and Slu Cubethat published an arts magazine in several incarnations – beginning as paintings (best seen and not described). These involved“Arts in Louisville Magazine,” then “The Louisvillian” and then a shorter paintings rigged to present optical illusions with circlesbiweekly “Gazette of the Arts in Louisville.” In a couple of years they and cubes. When he got an Apple computer, he set aboutbegan sponsoring an arts festival. producing thousands of works now known as his “Apple This group was so vibrant, avant-garde, successful, renowned, or all Art.”of the above, that Life magazine sent a photographer to Louisville on Despite his shunning of the arts spotlight, a show of his Sluball paintings was held in 1989 at the University of Kentucky under the name Leo Wrye. Zimmerman died in April 2008 in Louisville at age 83. A retrospective of his work was held this spring at the Cressman Center on Market Street. The show was titled “Return to Main Street,” reminiscent of his early “Main Street Facade” prize-winning painting that financed his return to Paris as a young artist after the war.
I knew very little about Catholicism when I moved to Louisville Institutum Divi Thomae in Cincinnati. Later in her life she wrote andin 1995. As an outsider and a former Southern Baptist girl who once lectured about medical ethics.felt called to be a preacher when she grew up, I always thought Her enduring legacy to Louisville history was serving as the lastCatholicism was ancient and regimental and way too complicated. president of her alma mater, the old Ursuline College. She led theThe fact that there was a celebrated holy man at the helm of it all women’s college through its final five years before it merged in 1968didn’t win any points in my mind, either. I’d gotten full-up with with Bellarmine College (now the thriving Bellarmine University).sexism in my own denomination. When she assumed the college presidency her vision was clear. So how do you reconcile all that when you have to start writing She described it in a Courier-Journal story like this: “Here (in aabout beloved nuns and priests who made big contributions to this women’s college) they can realize their potentials of leadership andcity? Well, you have to open your mind. authority without encountering the psychological barrier that exists Nuns may be a mystery or a funny Halloween costume to most when women at a coeducational school compete for office with men.”people who aren’t Catholic, but my personal experience with them In hindsight, was that a feminist approach or the opposite of(granted, a limited number) has been to be inspired by them. When a feminist? Archaic or progressive?sister died, I would inevitably talk to other sisters from her religious No matter, it was the 1960s and enrollment was a little moreorder, who seemed to me to be genuinely good-willed. Once I learned than half the number needed for the college to thrive, Seibert said ina bit about what they’d done with their lives, I was awestruck. Case in Wade Hall’s “High Upon a Hill: A History of Bellarmine College.”point: Sister M. Angelice Seibert. The college made the decision before their situation reached dire to Sister Seibert was 82 when she died in October 2004. She’d been merge with Bellarmine.an Ursuline Sister of Louisville for 64 years and was Mother For a while the school went by Bellarmine-Ursuline College, butSuperior/president of the order for most of the 1980s. Her entire life that lasted only three years before reverting back to just Bellarmine.was centered around that Catholic compound on Lexington Road near I’m not Catholic, so I can say out loud: this fact has pissed me off -- ifthe protestant seminaries. She’d graduated from the Ursuline only on behalf of Sister Seibert -- as typically patriarchal since IAcademy and earned her undergraduate degree from Ursuline found out about it.College, then taught there herself. Some justice came about, however, in 1975 when Seibert was She was a science scholar, earning doctoral degrees in the first woman in Bellarmine’s history to deliver the commencementbiochemstry and enzyme chemistry in the early 1950s from the address. Bellarmine awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1992 and Sister M. Angelice Seibert recognized her as president emeritus in 1995. Pardon me, Sister Seibert, but it was about damn time.
turned out we’d met once before through another friend. I’vethe always been glad you talked me into taking that place. I lived the hell out of life in that place, girl.Apartment I pass by your old house over this way more now, too, but truthfully I try not to too often because I get so sad. But sometimes I go by on purpose, just to keep remembering. Remember us sitting on that porch drinking beer and Girl, I pass that old apartment building sometimes now on smoking cigarettes? Sometimes we’d pass a bottle of Southernmy way to a friend’s place — remember that apartment with the Comfort, too. God, how the hell did we ever have so much to talkcrazy steep parking lot where Tony threw bricks through your about? We never, ever ran out of shit to talk about. Remember thatwindow or some such bullshit stunt after you left him for good? big-ass standing ashtray? It was like a fucking piece of furniture. Ha — remember how we used to analyze and dissect every We could fill that thing in one sitting.stupid fucking thing every stupid fucking boy we were fucking I wonder if we started to grow up after your baby. I guess adid or said all the fucking time? little. Remember how we pitched a blanket in your backyard and Then I remember just steps up the hill is the apartment still talked shit about fucking boys, but also stopped to watch thewhere you lived when you really fell in love, head over heels baby coo and smile, some crazy preemie miracle we couldn’t get(and vice versa, we’d say). Love of your life. over? Especially you. I still like it how those two buildings are back-to-back. Oh, you and your blissed-out joyful ass — so happy you Last year I moved back to that neighborhood where I lived made fun of your damn self. Your Gatlinburg shotgun weddingwhen I really partied. Remember that apartment with Fort Knox and your little bundle still make me smile sometimes. But fuck, Igates? You had a hell of a time getting in to feed my cats while I might not ever be able to look at one of those pea-pod Halloweenwas on vacation and flipped out because my car got towed and I baby costumes again, like you had already ordered and never got tonever thought to leave you keys to the goddamn car, too. How see him wear. Those still make me cry.the fuck were we supposed to know there’d be be street cleaning You remember how I hate to cry in front of people, right?that week? Stupid fucking city. You, you always threatening to go all cheerleader bitch on me to Remember the duplex you went with me to check out — make me laugh.the one sitting up that gigantic hill, with a red bedroom and I still miss you.orange living room and an off-street parking space? That girlstill living there let us in to look around and was so cool and
I lived in Clifton for about 10years, a few of them on the streetacross from Bussmann’s Bakery. I Jimnever went to Bussmann’s, but it was a landmark everyone fromLouisville seemed to know for the kuchens, doughnuts and pastries. I Willoughbylearned the story of that little bakery when Konrad Bussman died inApril 2004 at age 74. His family moved around Europe during World War II, as he barberstudied and became a master baker, married and had two sons. Heimmigrated to Louisville when he was 26, speaking no English, onlyto discover the family members who’d sponsored him to America shopwere sent abroad by the Army. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Willoughby in 2007 for a A Louisville minister helped find him a place to stay and a job at profile about him and his barber shop in Germantown. He ran that barber shop for exactly 50 years, according to thea bakery where he worked until he opened his own shop at 1842 small sign in the window from which “Willoughby’s Barber Shop”Frankfort Avenue, which he later moved to its current location at 1906 has recently been removed. Willoughby died last October at age 76.Frankfort Avenue. He owned his bakery for four decades. He didn’t close the shop until about three weeks before he died. I regretfully did not get to write an obituary for him. Now I He closed Bussmans Bakery in 1996, but not until he was drive past that empty shop on Oak Street all the time, making myfinished with all the Christmas baking for his regular customers. He way from Old Louisville to the Highlands, and remember him. Hesold the business in 1997, which continues under the Bussman name. was one of those people I could have interviewed all day, and did talk with for much longer than I logically should have. I couldn’t help myself. He told me about how the weather was wreaking havoc on the price of hay over in Southern Indiana and about riding his motorcycle from Pekin to the shop, 60 miles round trip, and how he rode the rodeo when he was young and liked to fly airplanes back when it was an affordable hobby. He’d finished the eighth grade in his native Crittenden County, where he was born in a log cabin. He earned his GED in the Navy then went to barber college in Louisville. He raised his family in quarters behind the shop and could tell you the history of Germantown and make it entertaining. It was easy to understand why hed been a successful barber: he was a pleasure to listen to.
M ay o r he was told. That is so common sense I feel confident hardly anyone would do it that way now. I can’t speak for all 55 shows held the first weekend of October, but every time I’ve been its been fair of St. James Court weather. Bird didn’t just get the neighbors together to raise money. Neglect and disrepair werent the only threats to the once-wealthy and elite-occupied Old Instead of looking at the St. James Court Art Show as a major Louisville. Urban planning was also bearing downhassle (as it really can be in Old Louisville), for the past two years on it. Bird was a leader in fighting the city’s plan toI’ve become a joiner. I even walked through it two different days build a major road through the neighborhood. Thatthis year. I do this solely because of Malcolm Bird. idea was finally defeated in 1969. Bird was 83 when he died in July 2010. He was born in He stepped down as chairman of the art showLouisville and lived more than half a century in the Old Louisville in 1967, two years before I was born. By thenneighborhood he helped revitalize. attendance was about 40,000 people for around 200 It was Bird’s idea to string up a few pieces of local art and sell exhibitors, according to the show’s web site, whichthem so the neighborhood association, of which he was president, also says now more than 300,000 visitors perusecould raise money to repair the courts famous fountain. That something like 750 exhibits each year.fountain has been there since just after the 1880s Southern It all started with Birds idea to hang a fewExposition -- where Thomas Edison premiered his fancy light bulb. dozen pictures on clothesline strung from tree to Bird was the unofficial “Mayor of St. James Court” in the tree so they could keep that fountain from ruin.1950s and 1960s when it and much of Old Louisville stood to That’s what I think about as I walk around the artdeteriorate into further and eventual ruin. Instead, he was at the fair now. Instead of cursing the behemoth, I marvelhelm of that now-celebrated Victorian hood reclaiming its at Malcolm’s legacy. Maybe next year Ill listen tolandmark status. chamber music as I stroll. His actual day job was physical therapist, but he also playedcello and loved chamber music. There are now a recital hall and astrings scholarship at the University of Louisville, both named forhim. A few months before the first art show (Oct. 12, 1957), theneighborhood association put on an operetta as a fundraiser on thelawn of Ethel B. duPont, whose story is also fascinating. HerduPont ancestors owned most of the area where the art show nowtakes place, as well as what is now Central Park. She wasapparently not a spoiled heiress, but instead an activist and labororganizer. I like it that she and Bird worked together. Once he had the idea for an art show, Bird set the date bychecking with a meteorologist as to which calendar weekend hadthe best odds for fair weather. It was the first weekend in October,
Educators from around the country, as well as reporters from Walker, Foster & Carter Time magazine and The New York Times, came to Louisville to learn from what Walker was doing here. He was a born leader, getting his educators incorporated first school superintendent post at age 27 and retiring as a school superintendent in Palo Alto 27 years later. He was 78 when he died. 1 Another educator I’ll always remember is Gladys W. Carter. She I’ve written about a lot of educators -- elementary school was 98 when she died in October 2007. She taught in one way orteachers and principals to college professors and presidents. I didnt another for more than 65 years – literally a lifetime spent educating.grow up here and dont have any children, so Ive never really Her own education was in segregated schools: the old Louisvillelearned the ins and outs of the Jefferson County school system. Colored Normal School and old Louisville Municipal College (the University of Louisville did not admit African Americans until theSometimes that felt like a handicap, but in the end, it was probably 1950s, when she was in her forties). She started teaching before shefor the best. At some point I found myself always rooting for the old was finished with college and did her graduate work at Indianacity school system -- the underdogs, but always (my impression was) University and the University of Chicago, teaching all along the way. After 31 years as an elementary school teacher -- her most famousfilled with grit and determination. pupil Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) -- most people would call it a 2 I remember speaking to Newman Walker on the phone from career. But Carter started working at the YWCA where she’d alreadyCalifornia when I wrote an obituary for Car Foster in March 2004. been a volunteer and then became a branch director. When she left there, she opened a tutoring center in the basement of her home.Foster was practically a folk hero of education to those who knew She taught the children of “Louisville’s black elite,” as one newshim. He traveled an unusual career path, starting out as a college clip I read put it. Those kids of the most well-to-do sat right beside theprofessor, then taking an administrative post in the old city school children whose parents couldn’t afford fees. In 1994 (around year 24 for this tutoring stint), she charged about $12 a week for tutoring. Shesystem, going to the elementary school classroom as teacher and later told The Courier-Journal: “People cant understand why I would teachstepped back up to elementary school principal. a child for $1.50 an hour. … Learning is more important to me than You know the sort of people who are obviously, giftedly money. … Our people will never be able to rise to the level of competition until we sacrifice to help them get there. Im willing tointelligent, but not conceited? The people other people always want make that sacrifice." 3to be around? I got the impression Walker and Foster were those kind I think when she said “our people” she meant Africanof people. I was pretty sure either one of them could have talked me Americans and who the hell am I to question that?into becoming a teacher, and I’m terrible with kids. She reminds me that I’ve written about several “black firsts,” as the generation that led the civil rights movement here in Louisville has When Newman Walker died in February 2009, I wrote his begun to pass away. I cant fathom the things people endured, theobituary, too. He was superintendent of the old city school system for courage they had or the willpower they maintained to remainits final six years -- before the city and county systems were forced to nonviolent while trying to desegregate the city. I count myself among those – what must be a countless numbermerge, unleashing controversy and, quite frankly, it seems, bitterness of people – who learned something from these three educators, even ifand spite that are still around 35 years later. I never met them.
Actors Inc. The first time I really paid attention to the history of ActorsTheatre was when Ewel Cornett died in June 2002 and Dann Byckcalled the paper to tell me about it. Most everyone who’s muchinterested in local theater knows about Jon Jory, the HumanaFestival, etc., but I’d never heard this story about how the whole So the race was on between Actors Inc. and Theatre Louisville.shebang got started until then. Cornett beat Block to the stage. Actors Inc.’s four-production season This story has a hand in all the fascinating elements of opened less than a year after the company was founded, withLouisville: drama, downtown, ego, money versus substance, and a Christopher Fry’s “The Lady’s Not for Burning” on May 29, 1964, in aBingham. theater improvised on a shoestring budget in a loft above the Gypsy Cornett was an actor. He graduated from Male High School, Tea Room on Fourth Street. It was reportedly legend.appeared in the first season of “The Stephen Foster Story” in At some point, the powers that be decided Louisville wasn’t bigBardstown and was performing in musicals at Iroquois enough for both theater companies and a merger was negotiated theAmphitheater when he was 16. He went to UK and earned his following year, forming Actors Theatre of Louisville. Cornett andbachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois. Then it was off to Block were both kept as co-directors. Cornett gave it a go, but didn’tNew York City to work on Broadway, off-Broadway and with like the arrangement and so gave an ultimatum to the board in 1966:touring companies. him, Block or someone altogether new -- pick one. Forced to choose, He came home in 1964 to start a resident theater company. they picked Block, who stayed a couple more seasons, until JoryAround the same time, his former Male classmate Richard Block arrived in 1969.was getting together a new theater company for Louisville, too. After leaving Actors, Cornett left Louisville. He directed aThese two even played the same role in their senior play at Male, dinner theater outside Baltimore, then co-founded and served asalternating performances -- practically foreshadowing their role in executive director of the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Council.local theater history. He moved back home in the late 1980s and started a business Block was more concerned with the logistics and financial teaching people to speak to audiences. Byck told me Cornett wrote aplanning for his undertaking, Theatre Louisville. His board was memoir about the early days of Actors, but I’ve had no luck findingheaded by Barry Bingham Jr. any trace of it online. Cornett was focused on actors and named his company Actors There aren’t many of the heyday resident actors of ActorsInc., with Dann Byck as president. Byck was CEO of his family’s Theatre left. At one time the company had a cast of resident actorsbusiness, the old Byck’s department store chain. (Byck resigned in well-known to Louisville theater-goers, but that practice has gone by1981, in his mid-40s, and moved to New York to pursue a more the wayside. The number of people who remember those early daysartistic career. He became a Broadway and film producer -- is also quickly fading.including producing “Night, Mother” on Broadway, the Pulitzer I, for one, will always secretly (or not so secretly) admire thePrize-winning play by Marsha Norman, his wife at the time. I fact that it became Actors Theatre instead of Theatre Actors. For that Iwrote an obituary for Dann Byck, too, when he died in March believe we might have these two to thank.2009.) Ewel Cornett was 65 when he died. Dann Byck was 72.
Hixson was co-organizer of the Kentucky Pro-ERA Alliance and the Kentucky Womens Agenda Coalition, spoke at the National ERA Rally, was chair of the Kentucky International Womans Year and led Kentucky’s delegation to that Houston conference. I had little knowledge of that conference or the significance of Allie the 1970s events before I wrote an obituary for Allie Hixson. She was born on a farm in Columbia, Ky., graduated from high school there and borrowed $10 for the bus to Louisville to look for work so she could pay for college. She gave up that dream after three Hixson years of secretarial work, but met her future husband who was stationed at Fort Knox. They got married on V-J Day (1945) and both International Women’s Year was 1975 and two went to Oklahoma State University, sharing his G.I. Bill. She got heryears later the National Women’s Conference was held in Houston, bachelor’s degree, but when he got a fellowship to Harvard, sheTexas. Delegates to the conference were to form a National Plan of became a full-time mother to their three young children. When theAction to promote women’s equality. At that conference were Rep. youngest got to kindergarten, she started teaching and working on herBella Abzug, Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Maya graduate degree at U of L, then her doctorate.Angelou, Coretta Scott King, Jean Stapleton, Betty Friedan, Billie Jean She was the first person to earn a Ph.D. in English from theKing … and Kentucky feminist Allie Hixson of Louisville. University of Louisville. When Hixson joined the feminist cause at age 50, she did it with She led the English department at Louisville Collegiate Schoolgusto. In just two years, she was delivering the opening speech at a for four years, but resigned to move to a farm in Greensburg. There,rally of thousands in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 57th she added the causes of rural woman to her itinerary. She held officesanniversary of women’s right to vote. "We will make it in our time," in all sorts of organizations, local to state level, from Americanshe told them. "We will become first-class citizens, every woman in Association of University Women to Rural American Women and allthe USA. ... For my entire lifetime, women have begged and pleaded points between.and argued and reasoned - and some have died without seeing I hope to remember her example, all her work on my behalf andpassage" of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. her ability to take up such dedicated activism when most people are Unbelievably, so did she. She died in November 2007 at age 83. beginning to countdown to retirement.
“Do not hate.” Ernie MarxNovember 8, 1925 – July 8, 2007
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