Leonard Press, Founding Director of Kentucky Educational
Television and nationally acclaimed pioneer in bringing
classroom and civic education to Kentuckians through the
nascent medium of public TV, has been named recipient of the
2012 Vic Hellard Jr. Award for excellence in public service.
The Hellard Award,
the highest honor the Legislature can bestow, has been given
annually since 1997. Press was chosen for this year's honor
by the 16-member legislative leadership that comprises the
Legislative Research Commission.
namesake, Vic Hellard Jr., was executive director of the LRC
staff for 19 years. The honor goes each year to someone who
embodies the professional vision and unique personal
qualities that Hellard brought to his own long and
Press’ selection, legislative leaders noted that Len – as
everyone knows him -- has throughout his working and
personal life met those lofty criteria perfectly.
‘Len is an ideal
candidate for the Hellard Award,’ said House Speaker Greg
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. ‘He is, as Vic was, someone who
truly respects history and how its lessons can help us make
a better future. He has never been satisfied with the status
quo, and has always looked for ways we could make the world
better. Kentucky is in a much better place because of him.’
Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, agreed. ‘Like Vic, Len
Press has always championed the dignity and potential of
all. Like Vic too, he has devoted his considerable energies
to direct engagement and two-way dialogue between the people
and their government – especially the Legislature, the
Peoples’ Branch -- all in a spirit of commitment, caring,
generosity and humor.’
Press’ long life
and career (he just turned 91) are historically remarkable.
A Lowell, Massachusetts native, what he often calls his
life’s ‘geography of opportunity’ led him from a
Depression-era upbringing through service in World War II to
various jobs in radio broadcasting in the Northeast, and the
emerging and revolutionary medium of television. Eventually,
the ‘branching paths’ of his career’s ‘geography’ led him to
Kentucky. ‘I was intrigued by seeing another part of the
country,” he recalls. He originally came to teach at UK for
just one year. But a visit to a poor underserved mountain
school gave birth to a vision.
I saw the heroic struggle to provide equal education
thwarted by the barrier of unequal resources,’ he said once.
‘It was essential that we harness the power of television to
assure the education and enrichment of our people so they
would have every possible opportunity. We could not afford
to accept less"
vision kept him here. After 10 years of hard, personal
lobbying for what some in Frankfort called a pipe dream,
Kentucky Educational Television went on the air in 1968,
statewide in reach, boundless (it proved) in potential.
Under Press, KET
quickly outgrew being simply ‘educational TV’ bringing
classes to poor rural schools. It evolved dramatically to
become a unifying force in Kentucky life, drawing the
far-flung Commonwealth together through one statewide
public-affairs network. KET defined, from the mountains of
the East to the lake country of the West, what it meant to
be ‘a Kentuckian.’ In fact, for several years ‘Bringing
Kentucky Together’ was the network’s tagline.
1978 decision to bring coverage of General Assembly sessions
to every hill, holler, flatland farm and town and city of
the state played a key role in fostering the era’s fledgling
Legislative Independence Movement. KET’s nightly coverage
brought the Legislature into folks’ living rooms, enhanced
its institutional stature and professionalism, and helped
cement its status as a co-equal branch of government.
Legislative independence was Hellard’s passion, and Press
was a key ally in that fight.
Director Robert S. Sherman said his old mentor Hellard would
surely be pleased with this year’s selection, citing the
‘historic connection’ the two men shared.
through his groundbreaking KET coverage, lent a welcome hand
to Vic and the Legislature in the early days of legislative
independence, a time when the outcome of that struggle was
far from certain,’ Sherman said. ‘He is a welcome and
absolutely appropriate addition to the honor roll of Hellard
Press, no stranger
to awards and accolades, said he was ‘especially moved’ by
this latest recognition.
'I'm honored, I'm
touched, and I can only accept this award humbly,' Press
said. 'Vic Hellard was a special man, and this is a special
honor, even more so since it at least in part recognizes my
heartfelt commitment, which Vic shared, to connect
Kentuckians more closely with their government through the
simple, obvious, but hard-won act of just showing it to
O. Leonard Press
is the 16th recipient of the Vic Hellard Jr. award. Hellard
himself died in 1996, a year after his retirement from the
LRC. The award in his name has been given annually since.