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Appalachian Scene: Always Leading the Way

by Lynda McDaniel

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Photo of Gayle Lawson

On February 14, 1915, the night Gayle Faulkner Lawson was born, wintry weather forced the doctor to ride horseback over a frozen river to reach the family home in Knox County, Kentucky. Looking back over Lawson's extraordinary life, such a dramatic beginning seems only fitting.

Lawson began her professional life in 1937 as a teacher in Knox County. In 1953, she moved to Harlan, Kentucky, and continued to teach. In the mid 1960s, she earned a master's degree with a focus in special education and curriculum from the University of Kentucky, and in 1966 she joined Southeast Community College, where she served until she retired in 1980.

But these are only milestones on a resume, the barest outline of a life brimming with accomplishment. In addition to each of those jobs are hours and days, months and years of extra work on projects for such organizations as the Harlan County Committee on Aging, the Harlan County Justice Center, the Harlan County Recycling Center, the American Red Cross, and the U.S. 119 Pine Mountain Task Force. Throughout the more than two decades since her retirement, Lawson has kept up long hours working for the community.

Exemplary Service and Leadership

Her tireless public service earned Lawson the 2001 John D. Whisman Vision Award from the Development District Association of Appalachia, an organization of local economic development agencies. Named after Lawson's fellow Kentuckian John Whisman, this honor is given to an individual who has provided exemplary service and leadership in the Appalachian Region.

At the moment, the U.S. 119 Pine Mountain Task Force, a citizens' advisory panel appointed by the governor to study the reconstruction of U.S. 119 over Pine Mountain in southeastern Kentucky, is at the top of Lawson's list. It has taken about 25 years of negotiations, dozens of committee meetings, and no telling how many headaches to bring the effort this far, but she is determined to get the road completed in a way that is financially and ecologically advantageous for the county.

"She's never let it drop," says Gladys Hoskins, executive secretary of the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce. "When people get discouraged, Gayle is still there. She follows through. She's well prepared. And she will take it as far as it needs to go to see that it's completed."

The reconstruction of U.S. 119 is more than a safety issue. Proponents consider the road, a tie between U.S. 23 and U.S. 25, the missing link for economic development and tourism in Harlan County and neighboring Letcher and Bell Counties. "Gayle understands the road will provide a whole new world of access to the county," says John L. Bruner II, executive director of the Cumberland Valley Area Development District in London, Kentucky. "She has pumped new life into the project and promoted it. You can't find a politician at any level—congressmen, senators, the governor—who doesn't know of her interest in U.S. 119. And if she could get to George Bush, he'd know about it, too."

In the early 1990s, Lawson focused her energies on establishing a permanent home for the Harlan County Committee on Aging's senior citizens center in Harlan. As the former chairman of the committee and a board member, she was tired of seeing the center jockeyed between temporary homes in church halls and old buildings. A downtown property caught her eye—just a hull of a brick building with mud still on its floors from the flood of '77—but she saw its potential. She helped the group secure the building for $35,000 with funds from a bank loan, private donations, and proceeds from bingo fundraisers and the sale of quilts and crafts made by seniors.

Today, after an extensive renovation with a Community Development Block Grant, the building—estimated to be worth more than seven times its purchase price—houses the spacious, handsomely appointed eight-room senior citizens center, plus several rental spaces for small businesses. The center's 20 employees provide personal care, light and heavy housekeeping, respite for caregivers, and meals, both on-site and delivered throughout the county. The center also offers a small computer lab and exercise classes and frequently hosts speakers.

On any given weekday, as many as 50 people gather in the activity rooms and dining hall for games, a hot lunch, and fellowship. It's an important gathering place and outreach center for older community members, and Lawson plans to do whatever she can to keep it that way. "I want to help keep them in their own homes as long as possible," she adds. "They need the food and fellowship to keep their bodies and minds strong."

Lawson still lives in the house she designed and had built when she and her husband, Carl Lawson, moved to Harlan in 1953. He was a high school chemistry and physics teacher who later became a process operator for the Tennessee Eastman Corporation; he died in 1968. They had two children, a daughter and a son, who both have pursued professional careers in Kentucky.

Fostering Partnerships

Traveling across the state to meetings and conferences at her own expense, Lawson has put thousands of miles on her Ford Bronco. On a recent trip to Benham, Kentucky, she met with W. Bruce Ayers, president of Southeast Community College, at the Benham School House Inn, a converted high school that overlooks another Lawson accomplishment: the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. She's quick to qualify that she wrote only the original grant proposal, but it was the beginning of a process that evolved into the current museum.

At the inn's Apple Room Restaurant, she and Ayers are joined by F. Nicey Hazen, former mayor of Cumberland and Fleming-Neon and the chairman of the college's board, and Reecie Stagnolia, a local banker and former superintendent of schools for Harlan County. Over lunch, they talk about politics and projects-the road, of course, and the new Justice Center for Harlan County (for which Lawson serves as a citizen advisor, appointed by the county judge-executive); and ongoing projects at Southeast Community College that Lawson had started during her 15-year tenure there.

One such project was a community resource center, which was started with a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and was the forerunner of the college's Office of Community and Business Development. Lawson systematically contacted public officials and representatives of organizations throughout the service area, working with them on community projects and economic proposals. Not only have these associations informed and facilitated her long years of service following her retirement, they established a strong connection between the college and public officials and community leaders.

"Gayle helped us see that we needed to partner with the community, and because she had already established so many working relationships, her work saved us a lot of time and effort," Ayers says. "Once we formed the new Office of Community and Business Development, we became very much involved in issues related to infrastructure, economic development, and community expansion—issues all critically important to eastern Kentucky. We help communities with strategic planning, which is one of our primary purposes, and we are heavily involved in industrial recruiting. We have a full-time recruiter who works with the college, and we are always looking for businesses and industries that are compatible with the community.

"We provide a whole menu of services, and Gayle started it all. Many people today still ask about her. She's our 'elder statesperson,' and she speaks with a moral authority she's earned from all the years she's worked in the trenches."

While Lawson is passionate about projects such as the road reconstruction and the senior center, hers is a broad perspective, punctuated by pet programs but never limited to them. Other community organizations she serves include the board of the Cumberland Valley Area Development District, the Cumberland Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council, the Legislative Research Commission's Special Advisory Commission of Senior Citizens, Kentuckians for Better Transportation, the Harlan Baptist Church Women's Missionary Union, and the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce. The roles may vary, but she is consistent with her uncommon patience and energy, helping to bring together a wide range of people for the greater good.

"Gayle understands, probably better than most of us, that we are all interconnected," Ayers adds. "It's not only a matter of eastern Kentucky, but indeed the entire world. She understands that and can articulate that vision in a way so as not to alarm people, but to convince them that this is something that is worthy of their attention. She's a remarkable person. I don't think we shall ever see another quite like her."

Linda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.