What It Means To Be From Rural Kentucky

By Tommy Druen

When I was in sixth grade, Martha Wilkinson, who was Kentucky’s First Lady at the time, sponsored an essay contest for middle school students.  I forget what the exact theme was, and I don’t think it really mattered as the real reason was to launch Martha’s own gubernatorial campaign. However, it was something along the lines of how Kentuckians could succeed. Perhaps with a bit more snark than I should have possessed at 12 years old, I wrote mine on that the best way would be to move out of the state.  Needless to say, neither Martha nor I won our respective contests.

To this day, I remember my dad giving me constructive criticism of both how you should always know your audience and, more importantly, how I was wrong. While I’m sure I had a passing interest in it before, my love affair with Kentucky’s history and its people became more earnest after that talk.

As I grew older, I may have respected the Commonwealth of Kentucky more, but I still felt as those in urban areas were more likely to succeed given their plethora of opportunities, both within their school settings and in their communities.  While my school could hold its own in both athletic and academic competitions with others from similar areas, we always seemed to be vastly outmatched when it came to competing with the schools from the “big” towns.

You see, I grew up in the smallest of small places. I lived in Wisdom, which Wikipedia describes as a hamlet and I would call a wide spot in the road. Even though the county had less than 10,000 population, Wisdom was barely a blip on any map with an estimated 53 people.  Estimated, only because that was my own personal count.  But when I lived there, I felt pretty confident about it, as I knew who all lived in what houses. The only question was where the boundary lines were drawn.  To this day, I still believe the sign on the western side should be moved closer to the church.

In that setting, it’s understandable how someone could feel eclipsed by those with more opportunities. There may have been some jealousy when we looked at the athletic facilities of other schools. Or their ability to take Advanced Placement classes. Or even knowing they didn’t have to drive 15 minutes to rent a movie . . . which was a thing at the time.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my hometown and the people in it. But there were times I really felt I had missed out on a lot of opportunities.

At some point when I was in college though, it clicked with me. I realized that opportunities have less to do with where you live and more to do with how you live.  I realized that if hearing “no” is the worst that could happen, where’s the fear in trying?  While no one would probably ever classify me as adventurous, I began attempting things I might fail at, but wanted to experience.

More than anything, though, I learned that being from a rural area was not a hindrance to success. That has been proven time and again. And, there are plenty of Kentuckians who have done just that. Robert Penn Warren was the first Poet Laureate of our nation and won Pulitzer Prizes (plural!) for his poetry and novels.  He was from Guthrie, Kentucky, pop. 900.  Pee Wee Reese played 15 seasons for the Dodgers where he was a ten time all-star and is now a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He was from Ekron, Kentucky, pop. 150.  Chris Stapleton has record several number one hit singles and has earned five Grammy Awards. He hails from Staffordsville, Kentucky, which is an unincorporated area.

What the success of these Kentuckians, and numerous others like them, has taught me is that location does not determine achievement. That is earned from courage, gumption, practice and God-given talent. Those can be found in the most metropolitan, the most rural and places that fall everywhere in between.  I’m not denying people may get lucky breaks along the way, but no person is doomed to failure based purely on where their home is.

The lauded philosopher George Santayana put it bluntly, “To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.”

Rural defeatism is real. I’ve seen it.  I’ve experienced it.  But in an age where the entirety of human knowledge is within reach by a click and mere nanoseconds, I hope it soon becomes a notion of the past.


Tommy Druen is a native of Metcalfe County, a graduate of Centre College, and a long time employee of the Legislative Research Commission in Frankfort.    He and his wife Erin reside in Scott County with their two children.