Ask any group of native Kentuckians this question and they will usually round up the usual suspects. Who is the greatest Kentuckian?
Before I retired, I posed this question to students in my History of Kentucky class. I suppose one’s response to the question depended on how one defined the term “great.” After all, the term has been attached to only a handful of individuals in world history — Alexander the Great, Peter the Great — and no Kentuckians that I know of, except, of course, Muhammad Ali, a native Louisvillian, who proclaimed of himself, “I am the greatest!” But I asked this question from time to time to my university students as well as to fourth graders in public schools in western Kentucky.
When I asked fourth graders the question, “Who is the greatest Kentuckian?” they invariably suggested … Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, James Harrod, Isaac Shelby, George Rogers Clark, and maybe Alben Barkley (we are in western Kentucky, after all). My university students included these names as well, but sometimes added Henry Clay and Harland Sanders. Don’t laugh. When I played on a basketball team in the Philippines the summer of 1978, Filipinos in Manila and Mendanao knew only two Kentucky names when they found out that I hailed from the Bluegrass State — Colonel Sanders and Muhammad Ali. Kentucky Fried Chicken had built restaurants in Manila and Ali had just fought Joe Frasier in “the Thrilla’ in Manila.” Somehow they knew that he had been born in Louisville.
A common trait of the lists generated by Kentucky fourth graders and university students is that they are composed of all males. No women! Only rarely does a Laura Clay or Martha Layne Collins or Mary Todd Lincoln (or once, Ashley Judd!) break into my students’ lists of greatest Kentuckians. Perhaps these male-dominated lists tell us more about our state and the written history of our state than about the students who suggested the names.
All I know is that the students have never heard of the individual that I might place at the top of the list. I write the name, Linda Neville, on a chalkboard, and the silence in the classroom is stunning. Fourth grade faces scrunch up and in unison the students mouth the timeless question, “Huh?!?” And then I tell them about Linda Neville, someone that I myself knew little about until my history professor friend, Dr. Thomas Appleton, told my son Wesley and me about her over dinner one evening.
Born in Lexington in 1873, the daughter of a University of Kentucky professor, Neville studied at home as a child and then graduated from Bryn Mawr College. After college she learned of the dreaded eye disease, trachoma, which afflicted over 33,000 residents of eastern Kentucky. Neville learned that untreated trachoma caused blindness, so she devoted her considerable energies and resources to found the Kentucky Society to Prevent Blindness and to establish 11 clinics in mountain hollows in eastern Kentucky. A decade before her death in a Lexington nursing home in 1961, Neville saw the disease eradicated, and the last of Neville’s clinics, no longer needed, closed.
One little boy, cured of the disease and his sight restored, wished to thank his benefactor. He had never learned her name, but he wrote her a letter anyway and addressed it to “The Lady Who Helps Blind Children See, Lexington, Kentucky.” The postman apparently figured out that the letter was meant for Linda Neville because you can find it among her papers in the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections today. Helping children see! Not a bad legacy for Linda Neville, a great Kentuckian by any measure.
Duane Bolin is Professor Emeritus of History at Murray State University. Contact him at email@example.com. “Home and Away” runs each Tuesday in the Murray Ledger & Times.