Los Angeles Daily News

Sunday, March 15, 1992


Bruce Cook

In this election year, during a recession that seems to have depressed not only consumer confidence, but voter confidence as well, it might be good for us to recognize that the onward-and-upward spirit that shaped this nation is not dead. Perhaps it is not even seriously ill.

Here to convince us of that is James McConkey. His new book, "Rowan's Progress" (Pantheon; $22), takes us to a county in Kentucky, and looking back as far as the latter years of the 19th century, demonstrates that things certainly have improved there. He gives a large measure of credit for this to two remarkable women from Morehead, the only town of any size in Rowan County.

The 66-year-old McConkey is a noteworthy writer. Although not exactly prolific and certainly not a best-selling star, he has the sort of reputation among writers that any would envy.

Of all qualities, the "voice" of a writer is the most difficult to define but at the same time can be the most distinctive and identifiable of his characteristics. (For example, readers are unlikely to mistake a paragraph of Joan Didion's writing for anyone else's.) It is James McConkey's voice - relaxed, personal, and
honest, the voice of a truth-teller - that has brought him attention and respect.

That voice is unmistakably present in "Rowan's Progress." McConkey has a way of writing personally about almost any subject. The idea for this book, for example, began with a dream, as he tells it - an exact recollection of a scene that had taken place more than 30 years before, in the office of Dr. Louise Caudill in Morehead. She was sewing up the lip of his young son and mentioned that it was necessary to take special care, lest he be scarred for life. (He

The dream got McConkey to thinking about his time in Morehead at the state college and ultimately led him back to the town on a voyage of discovery.

During the six years he lived and taught there, he never heard a word about the Rowan County War. It was the county's dark secret - and well it should have been, for in the 1880s, the feud between the Toliver and Martin clans and their partisans led to so many deaths in shootouts and ambushes that it became national news.

Troops were sent in, but they did no good. Finally, matters were settled in 1887, during a two-hour gunfight that involved more than 100 men. It made the New York newspapers.

How does a community come back from that sort of experience? Well, that same year, Frank Button came to Morehead and founded Morehead Normal School, a one-room college dedicated to producing the teachers who were so badly needed in that part of backwoods Kentucky.

One of Morehead Normal's early graduates was Cora Wilson Stewart. She became a nationally known educator and a fierce campaigner against illiteracy. She fought her first battles in Rowan County. Founding what she called "moonlight schools," she made it her mission to teach adults to read, and achieved such success with her method and enthusiasm that she found herself invited to lecture and give demonstrations at colleges and universities all over the
country. Ultimately, Cora's campaign, by then a national enterprise, ran out of funding, a victim of the Depression.

James McConkey and his wife journeyed back to Morehead to visit Caudill and see how the town had changed. She warned them they wouldn't recognize it, and they found it to be true. Just off the Interstate, the much-larger Morehead now is anchored at both ends by two grand institutions: the university and the 170-bed hospital that Caudill founded.

McConkey's account of the life of Caudill and her fight for the hospital is the centerpiece of "Rowan's Progress," as well it should be. A country doctor who has, in her lifetime, delivered more than 8,000 babies, she also is one whom physicians at the University of Kentucky say has never given a wrong diagnosis.

She diagnosed Rowan County and its surrounding area of Northeastern Kentucky as sorely in need of a modern medical facility. She raised a good chunk of money for it there in the county, then went to the Baptists and Methodists for the rest - and was turned down.

However, the Catholic Diocese of Covington agreed to help. Morehead's Baptist population had some problems with that, but they decided they wanted a hospital so badly that they could put up with the Sisters of Notre Dame who would staff it. Thus the St. Claire Medical Center was born; it serves 11 counties in that part of Kentucky.

At the end of this book, McConkey reflects upon a column by Stephen Jay Gould in Natural History magazine in which Gould says, "Human nature is predisposed toward kindness, a fact that can be statistically demonstrated. The tragedy of our species lies in a 'cruel cultural asymmetry' that permits the rare event - the eruption of meanness - to constitute our admittedly dark history."

McConkey added: "But history has yet to extinguish us, and common goodness may prevail over meanness to form a new chronicle of
events, as I believe has already happened - at least for this moment in time - in Rowan County, Kentucky."

Progress is possible.

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