Awarded 2024


Mike Mullins: Heart and Soul of the Appalachian Writers Workshop

Mike Mullins didn’t start the Appalachian Writers Workshop; Hall of Fame writer Albert Stewart did that. He didn’t teach at the workshop; Hall of Fame writers Harriette Simpson Arnow, James Still, Gurney Norman, Jim Wayne Miller and many others did that.

But from October 1977, when he became director of the Hindman Settlement School, until his death in 2012, Mullins was the heart and soul of the Appalachian Writers Workshop.

During 34 years of his guidance, planning and nurturing, the workshop became a magical week-long space each summer where generations of Kentucky writers flourished. That is why Mullins is the second recipient of the Kentucky Literary Impact Award.

“He is the reason (the workshop) rose to such prominence as a center for writing and fellowship,” said Silas House, who was a Laurel County letter carrier when he first came to the workshop as a shy student. Now an acclaimed novelist and Kentucky’s poet laureate, House has been a frequent workshop instructor.

“Mike was insistent that it be a workshop where students and faculty members not only mixed and ate together, but also washed dishes together, creating a unique experience in the literary world, which can often be pretentious and exclusive,” House said. “Mike read voraciously and each year he carefully handpicked the best faculty for what has now become a workshop that is considered one of the best in the country.”

Michael Lee Mullins, a coal miner’s son, was born June 22, 1948 and grew up in the Floyd County community of Hi Hat. He graduated from Berea College, where he developed a passion for Appalachian history and literature while studying under Loyal Jones, a 2022 Hall of Fame inductee. He earned a master’s degree in American history from the University of Cincinnati.

Mullins joined Alice Lloyd College in 1972 and became director of one of the nation’s first Appalachian studies programs. At age 29, he talked his way into becoming director of the Hindman Settlement School at a pivotal moment in its history.

The school dates to 1902, when Knott County residents had asked May Stone of Louisville and Katherine Pettit of Lexington, who had studied settlement house models in New York and Chicago, to create a school for mountain children. Nearly eight decades later, as improving public schools made Hindman’s boarding school model obsolete, Mullins helped create new programs to carry out the school’s mission: “To provide education and service opportunities for people of the mountains, while keeping them mindful of their heritage.”

Literary arts had always been important at Hindman. Two Hall of Fame writers were longtime staff members there: Lucy Furman (1869-1958) and James Still (1906-2001), while another, Albert Stewart (1914-2001) grew up there under Furman’s care. Mullins saw the workshop as a way to build on that legacy and create a national reputation for the school.

When Mike and Frieda Mullins and their three children lived on campus, their house was next door to James Still. They became close friends, and Mullins helped promote a revival of Still’s work.

“He often worked quietly behind the scenes in writers’ careers to help push them forward, to make connections for them, and best of all, to encourage more people to read their work,” House said. “He was a tireless advocate for writers of the region and the impact of his work cannot be overestimated.”

Mullins could read people even better than books, said Leatha Kendrick, who since 1987 has been both a student and teacher at the workshop. She co-edited the 2002 book Crossing Troublesome: 25 years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop with Hall of Fame writer George Ella Lyon.

“Mike knew how to create the conditions in which we could discover each other as equals and learn from each other,” Kendrick said. “It was Mike’s leadership that forged us into a family.”

Awarded 2024

Born: June 22, 1948,
Hi Hat, Kentucky

Died: February 19, 2012, Hindman, Kentucky

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