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Tom Chaney: R730: John Ed Pearce

Tom Chaney. Of Writers and Their Books. Essay on one of Kentucky's greatest writers, John Ed Pearce, Somerset, KY. by Tom Chaney R730: John Ed Pearce a First printed 15 October 2006 in the Hart County Herald.
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Tom Chaney: R729: The new canary

By Tom Chaney

John Ed Pearce

As my world began to come into focus in the late 1940's and early 50's, the Louisville Courier-Journal came to be a major point in that focus. We could not begin our day at the corner of Main and Yancey without it.

At first, it was delivered to the door, but soon delivery stopped for some reason. The paper was put in boxes at the Midway Caf. We had to pick it up. My early morning job was to get on my bike and pedal down the street to pick up our paper and those of a few neighbors.

I don't ever remember not reading the Courier-Journal.

I followed the folks of whom Alan Trout wrote in "Greetings." I remember the early columns of Joe Creason about places from Monkey's Eyebrow to Troublesome Creek.

As time went on the name John Ed Pearce began to become significant. He helped me shape my teen-age view of the world - a view that has deepened around that early nucleus over the years.

At Georgetown College in the late 1950's chapel was a requirement. Mostly we got preached at. But, once in a great while, some liberal faculty member would persuade President Leo Eddleman to permit a person of a more secular bent to address the hapless, captive audience.

Dr. Ralph Curry of the English Department invited John Ed Pearce to speak one day. He provided a breath of really fresh air - advising us to question our elders always, to launch out boldly into the world, to not take ourselves too seriously.

When Pearce sat down, Eddleman took the podium to address the Lord in a final, twenty minute prayer. As I recall he instructed God to see to it that we would have sense enough to ignore everything John Ed Pearce had said.

Eddleman ignored the age-old rule -- never argue with a man who has access to ink by the barrel.

More than a year later John Ed Pearce reviewed a biography of the Canadian humorist, Stephen Leacock written by Ralph Curry. Pearce took the occasion to recall that chapel speech and prayer and to belittle Eddleman for his attitude. He got the last word in that argument, much to the delight of Curry, his students, and friends.

John Ed Pearce died last month on his 87th birthday, September 25, 2006. His absence leaves a void in our world.

Pearce came to the Courier-Journal in the late 1940's after a stint in the navy in World War II. Like many other veterans of that cataclysm, he was able to see the world including the state of Kentucky clearly for what it was and what it could be.

And could he ever write!

When I heard of his death, I decided to read one of his books which I had not previously opened before. Divide and Dissent: Kentucky Politics 1930-1963 is the best account I've seen of the Democrat party with all its divisions over the thirty-three years from Ruby Lafoon through Bert Combs.

The quality of the book relies on Pearce's ability to perceive the tangled web of Democratic politics, to unravel that web, and to write about it with clarity and style.

Look at this summary of the assassination of William Goebel on January 30, 1900:
"Once more Kentucky's image was blackened in the nation's eyes. The incident lent credence to the caricature of the one-gallused, bearded, homicidal Kentucky hillbilly; it discredited the Republican party and crippled the Republican mountain counties, contributing directly to their lack of influence in Frankfort and thus their inability to gain needed state money for roads and schools. Kentucky's shackles were still largely self-imposed. And once more the seeds of lingering bitterness between Kentuckians had been planted. Republicans insisted for years that 'they stole the election.' Democrats retorted that 'they killed our governor.' Both were probably right."
And it is this clarity of thought and lucidity of style that makes the book so readable - and so typical of Pearce.

Its substance is enhanced by his intimate knowledge of the skein of Kentucky's modern history from the Beauchamp/Chandler era of the 1930's, through the Clements/Weatherby time of the 1940's to the Chandler/Combs conflicts of the 1950's and early 1960's.

Pearce clearly chronicles the various shifting alliances with reliance on his contemporary and later interviews with the players on the front -- Clemens, Weatherby, Chandler, and Combs -- as well as such behind the scenes politicians as Edward Prichard.

In this 1987 book, Pearce concludes that factional divisions have "hampered Kentuckys drive toward excellence. . . . [T]here has been little enlightenment or progress in the government and welfare of Kentucky. At this writing, it is still far down the list among the states in the quality of its services and the education it offers its young. It did not maintain the forward movement begun under Combs."

"Kentuckians have long been drawn to the showman rather than the statesman."

Now his voice is stilled. We shall miss his insight into Kentucky affairs.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-10-02 03:56:11
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