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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Bill Ellis Wins Thomas Clark Award

This is his acceptance speech.


Don: Below is a speech I gave the other night.  Bill


October 25 Talk

After learning that I was to receive The Thomas D. Clark Award,  I retitled by Talk to "The Best Is Hardly Good Enough"

I want to thank Joe, The Center for History and Politics, and Eastern Kentucky University for granting me this award.

I could not be prouder of being given an award with Thomas D. Clark's name on it.  This is a great honor. Although I never had the privilege of attending his classes, he was my mentor in so many ways.  Tom gave me this advice, as I am sure he did many others, "do your research and then sit down and write." He wrote forwards to my books about the Kentucky River and Eastern.  When I asked if he would write a forward to the latter he graciously said yes.  When I asked if he wanted to see a sample chapter, he said he wanted to read it all and that just after he had reached the age of 100.  Within two weeks he returned a forward to me.

Only Tom could begin the forward, thusly: "Writing the history of a century-old academic institution is akin to wandering footloose in a literary canebrake." And, end: "This book has substantial credibility, with a text enshrouded in a comfortable blanket of benevolent understanding."  I could not hope for any higher praise.

Many people helped get this book published.

I want to thank Presidents Kustra and Glassser, and Provosts Marsden, Cook, and Chapman for their support, and the many alumni, students, staff, and teachers, who contributed their interviews to our archives, many of which are included in the book. 

I want to thank Charles Hay, Chuck Hill, Debbie Whalen, and Jackie Couture of

EKU archives for all their help in researching this book.  

To Lowell Harrison of Western and John Ernst of Morehead a special thanks for their readings and suggestions.  I want to thank Steve Wrinn, Allison, and the staff at the University Press of Kentucky for their wonderful production of the book. 

I greatly appreciate George Robinson and Eastern for taking a chance on a disillusioned 26-year-old high school history teacher and football coach, with a losing record, granting me a graduate assistantship to complete a masters in history in 1967, and for mentoring me in the Department of History.  I once told Roy Kidd that I too was well on to road for 300 wins but It would have taken me about 100 years.

Most of all, I want to thank my wife of 45 years, Charlotte, who is my biggest fan, first, best proof reader and my best friend.  She is also my "conscience" on a lot of matters, and saves me from many an overstatement, faux pas, and silly mistake.


In the following remarks, I hope that you will understand that some are meant to be serious, some humorous if not downright funny, and some constructive criticism with perhaps a smidgen of cynicism thrown in, born of years of observing the Kentucky body politic.

Let's see if this gets you in the right mood.  I have always heard how cold and unfriendly folks are in Frankfort, our state capital, but during a recent trip there, nearly everyone I met said: "Pardon me, Pardon me."

As you know we are not celebrating quite as lavishly as we did the centennial of higher education on this campus in 1974.  Bob Martin was quite interested in statuary and some of you will recall the dedication of the Centennial Statue, often dubbed "The Streak."  I can now reveal for the first time that the model for the statue was none other than Skip Daugherty.

Or, back to Frankfort.  When I passed the Governor's mansion, a man handed me a monopoly card reading, "get out of jail free."


If you thought I was going to give you a long dissertation about the historical connection between Richmond, Madison County, and Eastern through the years, I might disappoint you tonight.  You can read my book for much more detail or read the frequent Fred Engle and Bob Grise articles in the Richmond Register.


If you read the opening chapter, which is about Central University, you will begin to see several themes throughout the book.  Some readers have told me that they started at the last chapter and then read earlier chapters.  Would you do that with a David McCullough book just to see how it turns out or a Hal Charles novel?  Or, there is a fifteen page "Cliff Notes" version called School of Opportunity:  Eastern Through the Years that you can also read, but I would compare that to kissing your momma rather than your sweetheart, only whetting your appetite for the real thing.

I hope that I got it right.  If not, let me know.  I can take criticism.  A critical readership is important, as are critical reviews.  However, I don't know what to make of a review of my book in the Courier-Journal, the first paragraph ending thusly:  "The only thing missing in A History of Eastern Kentucky University by William Ellis is sex."  Go figure.  I want to thank Bill Robinson for his perceptive review in the Richmond Register and wait with excited anticipation, if and when, the Lexington Herald-Leader publishes a review.

I have been humbled several times in my writing career.  In 1997, after writing Robert Worth Bingham and the Southern Mystique, it did not make the New York Times best seller list.  However, a few months later, when I went to a signing at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Louisville, I noticed a long line.  Wow, I thought, fame at last.  Alas, it was a line of people getting tickets to attend a signing by Charlton Heston the next evening.  However, on the plus side, the Bingham book did win the 1999 Governor's Award. 

Well, darned if it didn't happen again recently.   The line at my signing in

Walnut Hall was considerably shorter than Frank McCourt's a few days earlier, so I hear.  While his stretched around the block, mine in Walnut Hall never exceeded three deep.

Research can be exciting.  Once, while on an oral history collection trip to Nashville, I stayed at a motel.  While taking in my luggage on a cold wintry evening, a lady in a Cadillac pulled up beside me, rolled down her window, and

said:  "Would you like a companion for the evening?"  This intrepid historian immediately cupped his right hand to his ear and said:  "Ma'm?"  After she repeated her question somewhat louder, I replied: "No thank you, Ma'm."  And she thanked me and went on her way.

Writing a book about something you have been involved in since 1966 is daunting.  The main problem is objectivity when you are so entrenched in the life of an institution.  You can't write such a book without making judgments, what to include and not include, whom to include and not include.  Not everyone in Eastern's history can be mentioned in such a short, and, I hope readable, book.

 I tried to write a book about Eastern and this community, warts and all, that would be a credible but understanding book, as Tom said. 

I can't help but feel nostalgic about Eastern.  What do I miss about Eastern?

 A Larry Martin buffet with the chicken in a basket and spoonbread; the Eastern neon sign at the corner of Main and Lancaster; A Bob Martin scowl and a humorous aside about a misstep by the "flagship" in Lexington; Mrs. Berge challenging students and faculty members trying to sneak an unchecked book out of the library.  I miss the cow barn across from Hanger Stadium and the not always faint whiff of manure on a fall afternoon, and I miss the recently removed shrubs spelling out EKU beside the baseball field. 

I miss most of my colleagues at Eastern, who were hard working and some are chronicled in the book.  There are a couple of exceptions however, not mentioned in the book. 

Tell story about a prospective history major losing a scholarship when two colleagues on a college committee voted for a prospect from another department who had much lower test scores.

I sure won't miss the committee work at Eastern.  Hell for me would be sitting on a Promotion and Tenure committee for eternity.

I miss the students at Eastern, most were like me wanting a chance to prove themselves.  I have always thought that about 25% of Eastern students could make it anywhere, about 50% need help and can prosper at our university, and about 25%, for one reason or another might be better off doing something else. 

Some of those latter come back and make it through after serving in the armed forces, working for a while, or finally realizing that college is not a place to party all the time. 

However, sometimes a student like the following comes along. 

Tell story of smoker at first class in Corbin.


I will now say some things I felt constrained not to stress in the book that I hope will be taken in the spirit of constructive criticism.

As several historians have pointed out, Kentucky became more "southern" after the Civil War.  Unfortunately, Richmond, Madison County, and Eastern have been too closely aligned with the southern "Lost Cause" mentality that stifled social, political, and economic development in the commonwealth after the Civil War.  The "southern myth" which held that segregation was "American, Christian, and natural" found a home here for too many years.  That is one reason why I told the story of Central University in the first chapter rather than starting with the founding of Eastern in 1906. 

The setting, the context, is crucial in understanding our role in higher education. 

For better or worse, this is a southern community and school.  I consider myself a southerner with all the impedimenta of the past.  We were much too slow in accepting desegregation and in giving first class citizenship to African

Americans.  Eastern has changed and so have I.  And so have you.   But we still

have a lot of work to do.

I would not be unhappy if we changed the name of our athletic teams back to "Maroons."  Ironically, the nickname "Colonels" was adopted about the time Eastern began heavily recruiting black athletes and seriously trying to increase the African American presence in the faculty, staff, and student body on our campus. 

For the most part, the people of Richmond and Madison County have been supportive of Eastern through the years.  Madison County has the largest number of alumni and the greatest number of students at the present time attending Eastern.  Eastern is the largest engine that drives the economy of Richmond and Madison County

However, there has always been unfortunate meddling by people who have selfish personal agendas.  The rumor mill is always generating stories about this and that at Eastern.  Even now there are rumors circulating about folks seeking control of the school.  I hope these are only rumors.  That is non-productive, but I reckon fully understandable in the always highly-charged Kentucky political atmosphere.  As Jim Mulligan said in his immortal poem, "And politics the damnedest in Kentucky."  We can and should do better.

I have known Hunter Bates since his student days and when hearing of his elevation to the chairmanship of the EKU Board of Regents, I immediately emailed

him: "Whatever you do don't move to the Virgin Islands!"

Some of the carping can be downright silly.  President Glasser has even been criticized for the thing she is least able to change: being a woman.

None of us individually owns Eastern.  We all do collectively.  This school was not Bob Martin's private fiefdom.  We're all in this together.  As a his torian I understand that we cannot change the past, only live in the present, wisely, and prepare for the future. 

Eastern is no longer a "stare supported" but a "state-assisted" regional university.  It is time for Madison Countians to step up in this capital campaign and give generously to Eastern, and not just alumni.  Increasingly, if you want to see Eastern grow, the money will have to come from fund-raising.  Owing to the Kustra interlude, we got behind in the fund-raising curve.  Now is the time to get over that, forget the past and get on with taking EKU to the next level of excellence.  For those of you who attended the big school in Lexington, which I did, Eastern needs your help now.  UK will get by nicely because of its state-wide appeal and sports teams. 

Just as much as Eastern needs long-term commitments from the community, it needs continuity.  It needs long-tenured presidents, and stability in the provost's office.  It needs faculty who come here dedicated to teaching, research, and service, and not viewing Eastern as a short stop-over on the way to a bigger university.  Eastern faculty must be dedicated to a lifetime of service, not just "lifers" waiting for that first teacher's retirement paycheck.

While Eastern should never be a "publish or perish" institution, faculty should be encouraged to do hard research and rewarded for publications.

Schools like Eastern, that began as normal schools, have been the true democratizing feature in American higher education, not the land grant college. 

Don't worry about UK making it as a top 20 public university, it will some day, though apparently not before its president gets a top 20 salary.  Worry about and work for EKU, first, last, and always.

Maybe, its time for a break and a non sequitur story.  A Madison County farmer was having trouble getting his bulls to produce enough calves.  His neighbor suggested he go to a veterinarian and get some medicine for his bulls.  Which he did.  Several months later as the two farmers watched calves gamboling in the green pastures, the neighbor said:  "What was in that medicine?"  The proud owner of the new calves replied:  "I don't know, but it tasted like


Now, my critique of other problems.  We need more male students.  Over sixty percent of students today are female.  There is nothing wrong with that, proving that EKU can develop a diverse school population.  However, where are the young men?  Nationally, 80% of high school dropouts are boys.  In our service area we need to increase high school graduation rates, which are especially low for young males. 

As Bob Martin was fond of saying, "this ain't Harvard."  The majority of Eastern's students are still first-generation college students.  We should be proud of Eastern as a "school of opportunity," but constantly push for higher standards. 

We have hovered at 16,000 students for several years after the booming Martin years and the maturing Powell years.  It is time for higher education in the commonwealth to regain the emphasis that it had then.  Kentucky needs to double the number of its citizens holding baccalaureate degrees from 400,000 now to 800,000 by 2020 just to arrive at the national average. 

Get with it Richmond, Madison, and Eastern, as well as the rest of the commonwealth.  We must change our culture to an acceptance of a college degree as the norm for a graduating high senior rather than an exception.  This is the 21st century. 

As Dusty McCoy said in his remarks during the Eastern Gala a few weeks ago, we must also change the culture of giving for our fund raising efforts. 

Remember, EKU now a state-assisted, not state-supported.

My primary hope for A History of Eastern Kentucky University is that it will be benchmark for how far we have come and how far we still have to go in the future.  We aren't just competing with Western and Morehead, but with Chinese, Indian, and European institutions of higher learning.  We have to continually search for our niche.

My time of teaching at Eastern is over.  I may be getting into writing a history of education in Kentucky.  If it took six years of research, writing and production to publish A History of Eastern Kentucky University, it may take twice as long to produce this next book.  Besides, I like to travel with Charlotte, visit grandkids, trout fish the Cumberland, and play golf, badly, occasionally.  But I can still hear Tom in the back of my mind saying: "Do your research, then sit down and write." 

In this Centennial celebration over the coming year, we must rededicate ourselves to Eastern Kentucky State Normal School's first motto:  "The Best is Hardly Good Enough."

Thank you.  I hope I haven't bored you.  I will take questions or you can make comments if you please. 









Don McNay