CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | On Byron Crawford, 2017 Distinguished Rural Kentuckian
Eric Crawford, with a personal reflection on the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives awarding his father, Byron Crawford, with its award for Distinguished Rural Kentuckian for 2017.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s the season for giving thanks, but I don’t know that anything we’ll be able to muster this week will mean more to my family than what happened here Monday night, when the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives gave my dad, Byron Crawford, its award for Distinguished Rural Kentuckian.
So I hope you'll indulge a personal reflection.
The honor, given to such people as Jesse Stuart, Wendell Berry, Happy Chandler, Cawood Ledford and many others who have helped give this state its unique fabric over the years, means a great deal to him, I know, perhaps as much as any he could receive.
“I’m humbled almost beyond words – almost, but not quite,” he told a crowd in a Downtown Marriott ballroom in accepting the award. “. . . What an honor it is for you to have presented me with this award, and to know some of the people whom you have selected for that award since giving it to Jesse Stuart (in its first year of existence). . . . I’m reminded of something Jesse Stuart said that I’ve always loved. He said, ‘If the United States is a body, surely Kentucky is its heart.’ What a pleasure, we’re so fortunate to live in the heart of the U.S.”
He has worked in just about every medium in this state, was a newsman for WAKY radio in the 1960s, and for WHAS Radio in the 1970s, when he also began reporting for WHAS Television. It was as a human-interest reporter for that station that his career began to blossom, and it grew out of his ability to tell the stories of people off the main roads in Kentucky, because he was one of them, knew their language, and shared their interests.
His “Sideroads” segments became popular, and were syndicated throughout the state and into Ohio and Tennessee. And, before too long, he was asked by the Bingham family to begin sharing those stories in print with readers of The Courier-Journal. He did, for 29 years.
In an interview for a tribute video put together by Joe Arnold and the folks at WHAS Television, he said, “I always wondered what was the little story within the big story. That was kind of what I wanted to build my career around. . . . It’s surprising how many people in the big cities in Kentucky still have connections and roots out in the state, so they’re interested in stories from out there.”
Over the years, I watched and listened as he talked about making large swings through the state, East and West, not always knowing what he would find, but always knowing someone who could point him in the direction of a good story.
“He’s the best storyteller in Kentucky, if you count only those who tell the truth,” CBS newsman Charles Kuralt wrote of him in the foreword to his first book. Kuralt talked about encountering him for the first time, and noting that his shirttail had come untucked while doing a story, and further noting that it was rare to find a reporter in television who cared more about how his subject looked than how he looked.
In these seemingly small stories he has told, in the pages of The Courier-Journal, or later for KET’s Emmy-Award-winning Kentucky Life television show, or now, in retirement, on the back page of Kentucky Living magazine, in the spot once held by former CBS newsman David Dick, his breaking news has always followed a different cycle, one that was less about chasing the latest thing and more about chasing things people might’ve forgotten about, or needed to remember, "men and women who could tell a good story," he said, "and tell the old stories, and maybe make them new."
He drove a succession of four-wheel drive sport utility vehicles for The Courier-Journal, because, literally, some of the stories he told were hard to get to. He didn’t just pull off the exit; there were times his “Sideroads” pieces left the roads altogether.
“I’ve taken it seriously, when people shared their personal, family, heartfelt stories with me,” he said in the video interview. “I’ve taken it personally that I need to really tell that story authentically, that it’s not up to me to color it up, it’s not up to me to make it better or worse than it is. It’s just up to me to tell it the way they intended it to be told.”
He’s done the same in his most recent venture, sharing with the more than 1.3 million readers of Kentucky Living the stories as he finds them.
READ MORE: Byron Crawford's columns in Kentucky Living magazine
“I want this back page to be the people’s chance to tell their stories,” he said. “I’m just the guy who takes down the notes.”
And if the stories are important to him, they’re even more important to the people he has written about, some of whom were in the room Monday, and several of whom came up to me afterward to tell me about a family member he’d written about, and about how it had been something they’d remembered and talked about for the rest of their lives.
Of course, I’m biased. I’m thrilled to see him get this recognition. I’m proud of the work he’s done, and still does. It meant something to me to appear in columns on the same days he did in the newspaper for a few years, more than I imagined it would.
I thought about his parents, my grandparents, and how much they would’ve loved to see this night. They were great storytellers themselves, especially my grandmother. And I thought about my daughter Katie, recently departed to film school to begin a storytelling journey of her own. She texted me a short while back saying that while she still wants to study filmmaking, she wants to do it with a concentration in writing.
I can’t say I’m surprised.
Lalie Dick, the wife of David Dick, noted that in the foreword to their last book, my dad had said that the two, “looked into Kentucky’s eyes and saw clean through to her soul. But in Byron’s case,” she added, “I think Byron took Kentucky by the hand, and said, ‘Come over here. I want you to tell me a story.’”
This award is a special chapter in his own story, and it is, if you don’t mind a biased opinion, much deserved.
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