By RONNIE ELLIS / CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — A Massachusetts native who came to Kentucky to pursue a broadcasting career, but spent 10 years traveling the commonwealth to get a statewide public television network off the ground after visiting a poor mountain school has been named the 2012 Vic Hellard Award recipient.
O. Leonard Press is the founding director of Kentucky Educational Television, widely regarded as a national model though it serves a state viewed in some parts of the country as a backwater, is the 2012 Hellard Award recipient.
The Hellard Award is the highest honor bestowed by the Kentucky General Assembly, named in honor of long-time Legislative Research Commission Director Vic Hellard. The award has been given annually since 1997 to those who embody the professional and personal qualities exemplified by Hellard.
“I’m honored, I’m touched, and I can only accept this award humbly,” Press said when he learned of the award. “Vic Hellard was a special man and this is a special honor, even more so since it at least in part recognizes my heartfelt commitment to connect Kentuckians more closely with their government through the simple, obvious, but hard-won act of just showing it to them.”
Press, 91, grew up in Depression-era Lowell, Mass., and became a broadcaster in the northeast after serving in World War II. But what Press often calls his “geography of opportunity” brought him to Kentucky when he was offered a teaching position in broadcasting at the University of Kentucky after he and his wife, Lillian, earned graduate degrees at Boston University.
Not long after arriving in Kentucky, Press was working on a documentary, “Christmas in the Mountains,” when he visited a poor settlement school and was struck by the poverty and inferior educational opportunities. He came away determined to do something.
He embarked on a 10-year crusade, traveling the state to talk to groups sometimes as small as two or three, lobbying Frankfort leaders and others to establish the Kentucky Educational Television network.
“Across Kentucky, I saw the heroic struggle to provide equal education thwarted by the barrier of unequal resources,” Press would later say. “It was essential that we harness the power of television to assure the education and enrichment of our people so they would have every possible opportunity. We could not afford to accept less.”
So, in 1968, KET went on the air but quickly evolved beyond “educational TV” broadcasting classes to poor rural schools, offering cultural, historical and public affairs programming as well and becoming a unifying force in Kentucky.
It was Press who began KET’s coverage of the General Assembly, broadcasting the legislature’s actions to every corner of Kentucky through nightly updates. He also talked a small town rural newspaper editor from Russellville, Al Smith, into hosting a weekly update of the state’s government, social and political affairs.
“Comment on Kentucky” became required viewing for the state’s politicians and political class and is one of the nation’s longest-running public affairs broadcast shows.
Smith, a previous Hellard Award recipient, said Press has done more for his adopted state than any university president.
“One of the most creative and enduring educators in Kentucky history, Len Press came here for a year to teach a new discipline, telecommunications, on a way-stop before the grand career he hoped to launch in New York,” said Smith.
“Using boxes on broomsticks as make believe cameras in classrooms and shooting UK games with a real camera for Coach Adolph Rupp, he exchanged his dreams about Manhattan for a new vision of what might be possible in the commonwealth. This vision was KET, which became the foremost state network in the nation under his leadership. No university president did more for Kentuckians than this Yankee with the Boston accent.”
Current LRC Director Bobby Sherman said Press’ KET coverage of the legislature played a role in developing legislative independence after an era in which governors controlled all legislation and state budgets.
“Len Press, through his ground-breaking KET coverage, lent a welcome hand to Vic and the legislature in the early days of legislative independence,” Sherman said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Press is an ideal Hellard Award winner.
“He has never been satisfied with the status quo and has always looked for ways we could make the world better,” Stumbo said.
Senate Majority Leader and soon to be Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said Press, like Hellard, “has always championed the dignity and potential of all.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.