Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame Inductees 2019

Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983)

In the Editor’s Note to Alone Atop the Hill: The Autobiography of Alice Dunnigan, Carol M. Booker says, “It wasn’t the poverty of a washerwoman’s life in rural Kentucky that drove young Alice Allison relentlessly to succeed as a professional.  Poverty would be with her most of her life, even as a national reporter for more than one hundred black weekly newspapers.  What spurred her on was a keen intellect, immense determination, and a yearning for dignity and respect despite intractable racial barriers.”

Alice Dunnigan lived the quintessential American story of a socially, economically, and educationally disadvantaged person who works their way from extreme humble beginnings to resounding professional success, becoming the first African-American female correspondent at the White House and a credentialed member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries.

Her story begins in Russellville, Kentucky where she was born to sharecroppers Willie and Lena Pitman Allison shortly after the turn of the 19th Century. Her fate seemed sealed when she married a tobacco farmer at age 19, but she wanted more and ended the marriage in 1930 to teach public school in Todd County, while enrolled in Journalism courses at Tennessee A & I University.

In 1936, she became a freelance reporter for the Chicago branch of the American Negro Press (ANP), then served as a reporter for the Chicago Defender in 1946 while enrolled at Howard University in statistics and economics courses, and subsequently as fulltime reporter for the ANP.  In 1948, she covered the campaign of President Harry S. Truman.

Even at its peak, her career was not without having to battle racial bias and segregation.  For example, in 1953 she was banned from covering a speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered in a whites-only auditorium; when Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft died in 1953, she was relegated to sitting with the servants at his funeral.

Alice left ANP in 1960 to serve in the John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson’s Presidential campaign. She was on LBJ’s staff and continued to serve with him when he became president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.  She held several other government posts until she retired in 1977.

Alice authored hundreds of news articles, columns, and ANP wire publications.  Her reporting appeared in prominent newspapers such as The Chicago Defender, The Florida Star, The Houston Forward Times, the St. Louis Sentinel, Pittsburg Courier, the Washington Sun, the Cincinnati Herald, the Sacramento Observer, and dozens of others.  She published three books: The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition, a collection of fact sheets about Black Kentuckians compiled for her students in Russellville published in 1982 and a 1974 autobiography A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to Whitehouse, reprinted in a condensed version as Alone atop the Hill in 2015.

Alice died May 6, 1983 in Washington D. C.  She was honored in September, 2018 by the installation of a statue of her at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.  A favorite story was told at the occasion of the dedication ceremony by USA Today reporter Patty Rhule in an interview with PBS’s “All Things Considered.” Rhule said that when Dunnigan asked her supervisor at ANP for permission to cover Harry S. Truman’s 1948 presidential campaign, her boss said yes, but that ANP wouldn’t fund it.  She raised her own money to take the trip, supplemented by fruit and snacks left behind at various campaign rallies.

The bronze statue, sculpted by Amanda Matthews of PROMETHEUS Foundry, was displayed from September-December 2018 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.  and then moved for permanent display in the town square of her hometown in Russellville, Kentucky.

Jane Gentry (1941-2014)

When professor, poet, and scholar Jane Gentry passed away in 2014, Jeff Clymer, Chairperson of the Department of English at the University of Kentucky, said, “Jane wrote with insight and grace of family, of the intricacies of our emotions, and of the ironies of everyday life. Her moving and elliptical poetry gave us new ways to think about life’s complexities, often with a dash of ironic humor.”

Jane Gentry was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on February 9, 1941, and grew up on a farm in Athens in Central Kentucky, where her ancestors in the Gentry and Bush families had lived since the time of the settlement at Boonesborough in 1775. She recalled her childhood to colleague, friend and fellow writer Gurney Norman as follows:

When I was a child it was usual to see a team of mules in a field plowing or pulling a mower or a rake. Everybody had a milk cow. Everybody had chickens that they gathered eggs from. By the time I was twenty you didn’t see that anymore, but I feel really lucky to have a gotten a feel for what that was like in that time before that turning.

Gentry earned degrees in English Literature from Hollins College (B.A., Phi Beta Kappa), Brandeis University (M.A.), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Ph.D.). At Hollins, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., founder of the Hollins Creative Writing Program, became Gentry’s mentor. Gentry noted: “The single most important teacher who helped me think of myself as a poet is critic and novelist Louis D. Rubin Jr. . . . He had the gift of being able to see clearly what a writer is trying to do and to tell her what she needs to do to make the work better.” Gentry also studied under novelist William Golding and poet Howard Nemerov while at Hollins; Nemerov was later the subject of Gentry’s doctoral thesis. Fellow graduates of Hollins’ creative writing program in that era included distinguished writers such as Sylvia Wilkinson, Lee Smith, and Annie Dillard.

Gentry joined the University of Kentucky in 1972 and became a well-respected professor, serving for over 40 years as a faculty member in the English Department, where she conducted poetry-writing workshops and taught courses on the history of ideas in the University’s Honors Program. But Gentry’s work as a poet was the heart of her career, beginning with the publication of her poem “Bird and Bear” in The Sewanee Review in 1964 when Gentry was twenty-two, and culminating with the posthumously-published The New and Collected Poems of Jane Gentry, edited by fellow UK professor and fellow Hollins poet Julia Johnson (University Press of Kentucky), in 2017.

Gentry’s work brings together a keen sense of place, an exacting imagism, an unflinching focus on grief and loss, and a mystical habit of mind. Of her collection Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig, for example, Gentry said:

These poems are about everyday events and feelings in an ordinary life. I think I tend to focus on moments of insight, even—sometimes, I hope, revelation—when human experience sheds its protective mask of ordinariness and exposes the bright bones of time itself, of the sureness of death, and the quick beauty that such conditions make possible.

During her lifetime, Gentry published two full-length collections of poetry, A Garden in Kentucky (1995) and Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig (2006), both from Louisiana State University Press. In 2005, Press 817 in Lexington published her chapbook, A Year in Kentucky. Her poems appeared widely in journals, including, in addition to Sewanee Review, Hollins Critic, Harvard Magazine, New Virginia Review, Southern Poetry Review and The American Voice. As a literary critic, she published numerous reviews, interviews and essays.

Gentry was awarded two Al Smith Fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council and held fellowships at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York and at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Lynchburg. Gentry won the UK Alumni Association’s 1986 Great Teacher Award.  Her awards also include the Hollins University’s Distinguished Alumnae Award (2013) and induction into the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame (2013).

From 2007 to 2008, she served as Kentucky’s Poet Laureate, traveling the state advocating for the importance of literature in the culture and history of Kentucky. In 2008, she organized and participated in a reading of Kentucky poetry at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and in 2009 performed an original poem honoring the bicentennial of President Lincoln’s birth at the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital.

Throughout her life, Gentry’s writing was nourished by friendships with fellow writers whom she admired. One such friend, novelist Mary Ann Taylor Hall, wrote of Gentry: “She lived deeply, felt at home in her own world, and went out into the larger one not as a visitor to it but as a citizen of it. She was, to quote Henry James, one on whom nothing is lost.

Jane Gentry Vance (her married name, used by colleagues and friends) was a longtime resident of Versailles, Kentucky, where she served as a member of the vestry at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Versailles. She had two daughters, from her marriage to P.T. Vance, which ended in divorce, and her companion of ten years was photojournalist William H. Strode III, of Louisville, who died in 2006. Gentry died of cancer on October 2, 2014.

Sue Grafton (1940-2017) 

Upon the death of famed mystery writer Sue Grafton in 2017, the online site Literary Hub commented on the legacy of her 40-year writing career: “. . . the familiar sight of one of Grafton’s alphabet novels has served as a reliable sign—whether a hardcover on the shelf or a well-traveled paperback poking out of an overnight bag—that somewhere nearby was a reader. And not just any reader, nor the kind who puts out books for show or piles them on the nightstand with good intentions, but an honest to God, dyed in the wool reader, someone who wears pages ragged then reaches for more, a middle-of-the-night joneser with a vast appetite for the art of character, words come to life, and, most of all, suspense.”

Grafton was born in Louisville, daughter of C.W. Grafton, a mystery writing attorney who stayed late at work to turn out his three novels, and Vivian Harnsberger, a high school chemistry teacher. She grew up in the same neighborhood as “gonzo journalist” Hunter Thompson and was a few years behind him at Atherton High School. She attended the University of Louisville (B.A. 1961) and completed some graduate work in literary analysis at the University of Cincinnati.

She wrote two mainstream novels in the 1960s: Keziah Dane (1967) and The Lolly-Madonna War (1969) and adapted the latter for M.G.M. in 1973. She did three other screen and tele-plays in the 1970s (including Rhoda, 1975), before writing her first mystery A Is for Alibi in 1982.

Grafton said that while reading Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which is an alphabetical picture book of children who die by various means, she had the idea to write an alphabetically titled series of novels. She immediately sat down and made a list of all of the crime-related words she knew.  The central character, private investigator Kinsey Millhone, appears from the very beginning of her murder mystery alphabet series.

By 1998, Millhone had been featured in fourteen novels, through N Is for Noose. The books featuring Millhone have collected a wide readership and are translated into Dutch, Russian, Polish, Spanish, and French. When Grafton’s novels were late to press in the early 1990s, readers called bookstores to complain.

Grafton’s detective is a traditional heroine: a loner, with a code, who works for just causes.  Ed Weiner in the Times Book Review says. “. . . she plays it fairly safe and conventional.”  She is sometimes contrasted with Robert B. Parker for her lack of violence.

Grafton sometimes insightfully questions gender roles and explores social issues. For example, in T is for Trespass (2007), she alternates points of view between Millhone and the culprit, Solana Rojas, a “chameleon” who assumes the identities of others in order to steal from them.

Grafton alphabet mystery novels include:  A is for Alibi, (1982), B is for Burglar (1985), C is for Corpse (1986), D is for Deadbeat (1987), E is for Evidence (1988), F is for Fugitive (1989), G is for Gumshoe (1990), H is for Homicide (1991), I is for Innocent (1992), J is for Judgment (1993), K is for Killer (1994), L is for Lawless (1995), M is for Malice (1996), N is for Noose (1998), O is for Outlaw (1999), P is for Peril (2001), Q is for Quarry (2002), R Is for Ricochet (2004), S Is for Silence (2005), T Is for Trespass (2007), “U” Is for Undertow (2009),“V” Is for Vengeance (2011),“W” Is for Wasted (2013), Kinsey and Me: Stories (2013), “X” (2015), “Y” Is for Yesterday (2017).   Several of her novels have won awards, most going to F is for Fugitive (1989) and G Is for Gumshoe (1990). A number of them, such as L Is for Lawless (1995) and M Is for Malice (1996), have been praised for their pace and humor. B Is for Burglar (1985) won her an Edgar and is regarded by some readers as her best.

Grafton died December 28, 2017. She is survived by her husband Steven Humphrey, her daughters Jamie Clark and Leslie Twine, and her son Jay Schmidt.

Ed McClanahan (1932-   )

When Ed McClanahan’s novel The Natural Man was released in 1983 Wendell Berry said, “Others have observed the natural man in the American condition before, but nobody has done it with such good humor.  Ed McClanahan’s good humor both sharpens his eye and gentles his vision.  I don’t know where else you would find workmanship that is at once so meticulous and so exuberant.”  Most critics of McClanahan’s work collectively agree on the masterful quality of his work.  He is known for his rollicking, good-naturedly crude humor and a creatively extensive vocabulary and has been compared to American humorists such as Mark Twain, John Kennedy Toole, and S. J. Perelman.

Kentucky native Ed McClanahan was born in Brooksville, the county seat of Bracken County. He is a graduate of Miami (Ohio) University (AB, 1955) and the University of Kentucky (MA, 1958). He received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University in 1962 and remained at the University as the E. H. Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing until 1972.  While at Stanford he was nicknamed “Captain Kentucky,” a persona he assumed when he became a member of Ken Kesey’s band of infamous “Merry Pranksters.” He had various costumes, including wearing a cape (often an American flag), Air Force sunglasses, and gold cowboy boots.

McClanahan and his contemporaries Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason and Gurney Norman are considered members of the “Fab Five” group of Kentucky writers who are products of the creative writing program at the University of Kentucky.  Professors Robert Hazel and Hollis Summers were influential in fostering this group of exceptional writers.

McClanahan’s books include:  The Natural Man (novel), Famous People I Have Known (semi-comic autobiography), A Congress of Wonders (three novellas), My Vita, If You Will (a miscellany of previously uncollected fiction, non-fiction, reviews, and commentary),  Fondelle, or, The Whore with a Heart of Gold: A Report from the Field (memoir), A Foreign Correspondence (autobiographical story), Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Ken Kesey (biography/memoir), O The Clear Moment (an “implied” autobiography), I Just Hitched in From the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader (collection).

The title story of A Congress of Wonders was made into a prize- winning short film in 1993, and in 1994 McClanahan was the subject of an hour-long documentary on Kentucky Educational Television. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Playboy, He twice won Playboy’s Best Non-Fiction award.

Following Kesey’s death in 2001, McClanahan edited Spit in the Ocean # 7: All About Kesey, a collection of stories, poems and essays featuring Kesey. Spit in the Ocean # 7 was the last volume of a literary magazine Kesey had established in 1973 and thereafter sporadically self-published. Each Spit in the Ocean volume featured a different theme and editor; the last Kesey-published edition, Spit in the Ocean # 6, had been released over 20 years before in 1981.

McClanahan is a master short story writer.  In a Starred Review of Publisher’s Weekly, the reviewer praises O The Clear Moment: “Playful, self-deprecating and wickedly sharp, McClanahan’s nine autobiographical short stories delve into youthful shenanigans and poignant first love in the late 1940s in Bracken County, Kentucky.  McClanahan has an enormously personable style . . .” Alison Hallett of the Portland Mercury said of the book: “McClanahan’s skills as a humorist are predicated on a deep respect for language, and the book’s best moments come when McClanahan indulges in the rhetorical flourishes that make his lowbrow subject matter all the funnier.”

No one author has been more passionate about his roots than Ed McClanahan.  His work has been largely set in Kentucky, profiling and creating some of the most memorable characters to be found in Kentucky literature.  He has spent much of his life promoting the literary arts throughout the United States, as a professor, workshop leader, presenter/reader of his work, and guest speaker at dozens of venues.

McClanahan taught English and creative writing at Oregon State University, Stanford University, the University of Montana, the University of Kentucky, and Northern Kentucky University.

Gurney Norman (1937-  )

Fictionist, essayist, literary critic, editor, and filmmaker Gurney Norman is widely recognized as an authority on the literary and cultural history of the Appalachian region.  The bulk of his career was spent as director of the University of Kentucky’s Creative Writing Program, fostering student luminaries such as poet Frank X Walker.

Born in Grundy, Virginia in 1937, he was reared in southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky by two sets of grandparents.  After his education at the Stuart Robinson Settlement School, Norman graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1959 with degrees in literature and creative writing. At the University, he befriended fellow writers Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan and Bobbie Ann Mason. In 1960, after a year of graduate school, Norman received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University where he studied with literary critic Malcolm Cowley and Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor.

After two years in the U.S. Army, he returned to eastern Kentucky in 1963 to work as a reporter for his hometown newspaper, The Hazard Herald. After a three-year stint in journalism, he resigned to concentrate on writing fiction, taking a job with the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon in the summers of 1966 and 1967.

In 1971, his novel Divine Right’s Trip was famously published in the lower page margins of The Last Whole Earth Catalog and subsequently in book form by the Dial Press (1972) and Bantam Books (1972).

In 1977, his book of short stories Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories was published by Gnomon Press and received Berea College’s Weatherford Award. The Louisville Courier Journal praised this collection upon its release: “Like that of his mentors, Norman’s work is novelistic in scope while preserving in the individual episodes the essential qualities of the short story. This new work can only enhance his reputation by suggesting that Norman may be the outstanding storyteller of his generation.” Norman’s other published works include: Book One From Crazy Quilt: A Novel in Progress (1990) and Ancient Creek: A Folktale (2012).

In 1979, Norman joined the faculty of the University of Kentucky in the Department of English. He served as Director of the Creative Writing Program until 2014 when Julia Johnson was appointed to replace him and establish an MFA Creative Writing degree program at the University. Norman continues as a Professor in the English Department and serves as a core faculty member in the MFA program.

In the late 1980s, Norman’s began a collaboration with Kentucky Educational Television to produce three one-hour documentary programs. The documentaries were written and narrated by Norman in association with director John Morgan. “Time On The River” (1987) is a study of the history and landscape of the Kentucky River Valley. In “From This Valley” (1989), Norman explores the history of the Big Sandy River Valley with a focus on the valley’s rich literary tradition. “Wilderness Road” (1991) traces Daniel Boone’s route from the New River near Radford, Va. through Cumberland Gap to the banks of the Kentucky River in Madison County, Ky.

In addition to his television work, Norman collaborated with independent filmmaker Andy Garrison, who directed three films based on Norman’s short stories. Norman’s short story “Fat Monroe” was made into a film starring Ned Beatty in 1990.

Norman is the recipient of numerous awards including having his work as a fiction writer, filmmaker, and cultural advocate honored at the 1996 Fifteenth Annual Emory and Henry College Literary Festival, which celebrates significant writers in the Appalachian region. He was given the 2002 Eastern Kentucky Leadership Conference award for outstanding contributions to advancing regional arts and culture and the 2007 Appalachian Studies Association Helen M. Lewis Community Service Award, which recognizes exemplary contributions to Appalachia in service to its people and communities.  Norman has served for several years as senior writer-in-residence at Hindman Settlement School’s annual Appalachian Writer’s Workshop.

Norman was selected to serve as the 2009-2010 Poet Laureate for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.  On May 8, 2011, Norman was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Berea College.

Helen Thomas (1920-2013)

One of the most influential native Kentucky journalists was born Helen Amelia Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, in Winchester, Kentucky on August 4, 1920. Her father, a grocer, and her mother, a homemaker, had nine children. They migrated to Detroit, Michigan in 1924.  Several sources report that by the time she entered high school Thomas knew she wanted to become a journalist. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1942. After college, Thomas became a copy girl at the Washington Daily News and was quickly promoted to reporter. In 1943, she joined the United Press (UP) and began covering local news and stories about women.

In the early 1950s, Thomas began covering Washington celebrities and government agencies. She continued with the UP in 1958 when they merged with the International News Service and became UPI, working there until 1974.

In 1960, she became the first female member of the White House press corps when she began covering president-elect John F. Kennedy and White House daily press briefings and press conferences. In 1962, she was credited with influencing President Kennedy to allow women to attend annual dinners for White House correspondents and photographers.

Two years after the election of President Richard Nixon in 1968, Thomas was named UPI’s chief White House correspondent, the first female to achieve that position. Additionally, Thomas was the only female print journalist to accompany President Nixon during his historic 1972 trip to China.

As her career progressed, Thomas continued to remove barriers for female journalists. In 1974, she became the first woman to head UPI’s White House Bureau. In 1975, she became the first woman to be admitted to the Gridiron Club, the historic Washington press group, which later named her its president. Additionally, Thomas was also the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association, serving from 1975-1976.

Thomas became a fixture in the White House Press Corps with a seat in the White House briefing room. Often called the “First Lady of the Press,” she covered 10 presidents over five decades and became well-known to the American public for her hard-hitting questions. She resigned from UPI in 2000, after the news organization was acquired by New World Communications.  Two months after her resignation from UPI, Thomas was hired by the Hearst Corporation as a columnist.

Thomas received numerous awards and more than 30 honorary degrees. Among the most notable are: World Almanacs 25 Most Influential Women in America (1976), the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit from the University of Kansas (1986), the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media from the FreedomForum in 1991, and The White House Correspondents Association honored her in 1998 by establishing the “Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Thomas published six books between 1975 and 2009.  Her topics were autobiographical, political humor, political commentary, and one children’s book titled The Great White House Breakout (2008).

Thomas’ career ended in controversy in 2010 when a YouTube video surfaced in which she said that Israelis should “… get the hell out of Palestine” and return home to “… Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else.” Thomas issued an apology about her remarks: “They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”  Thomas retired a week later, but in July 2011 she returned to write a column for the Falls Church News-Press.

This venerable White House reporter once said of the office of president of the United States: “I respect the office of the presidency, but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants…The Washington press corps has the privilege of asking the president of the United States what he is doing and why.”  Statements like this defined her as a consummate journalist– one who pursued truth and accuracy in writing her reports.

Thomas died on July 20, 2013 at the age of 92.