Choices Made By Us and For Us

Living on campus affords me the opportunity to see our community at all hours and in many different contexts.

One of my favorite places is Memorial Coliseum. It is alive with a constant buzz of activity — academic convocations, conferences and meetings; and, of course, our student athletes engaged in many sports.

It is also a place of history. It’s where our teams have experienced triumph and suffered defeat. Banners have been hung. Graduates have marched forward in a long blue line, carrying with them that exciting mixture of anxiety and confidence about the world and their places in it.

But there are times when Memorial is empty. And in those moments, too, history speaks.

Near the front of the Coliseum behind glass on parchment are lists of Kentuckians, by county, who have died in battle. Dotting the stone walls throughout the Coliseum are stars, each etched with the name of one of the fallen. Some of the names are faded, worn by history and time. 

Robert … Donald … John … Howard … each name representing the honor of service beyond self.  Each a life extinguished too soon.

I’ve talked often in recent months about one of those names — Howard Henry, a young man from Harlan County, who was among the first to die in the battle preparations that led to D-Day, Europe’s turning point in World War II. On a recent trip to Normandy with my family, chance brought me to his headstone among the rows and columns of crosses and stars arrayed on a wind-swept graveyard.

Howard Henry was an all-state football player and student at Centre College, who planned to be an engineer. He carried his family’s hopes and their dreams with him when fate’s cruel cut took him on a different path.

This summer, as I watched hundreds of aspiring engineering students join our UK family, I thought often about Howard Henry. I still do. What would have happened to him, and to a family to come, had he lived? What might he have accomplished? What would that life have meant for generations to follow?

On a frigid January afternoon, I visited Howard’s younger brother, Donald, a retired soil science researcher. In the comfortable living room of his lovely Winchester home, surrounded now by proud sons and his wife, we talked for two hours about family and loved ones, here and with us no more. We talked about our histories and life’s choices.

Donald thinks often of his older brother. For Donald Henry, life, fortunately, has been a different set of choices. Fifteen years younger than his brother, Donald grew up on a small family farm in Pulaski County, a place of wonder for a young boy. Farming, fishing and adventures filled his days. 

His father and family had moved there after leaving the Harlan County coalfields. Another brother fought and was injured at Iwo Jima. A sister worked on a secretive project at Oak Ridge Laboratories in Tennessee. “They didn’t know what they were working on,” he said. Nor could they have known what those choices would mean in history.

“We were poor,” he said, “but I didn’t know we were poor.”

His father, born in Virginia, came to Kentucky in the 1920s, like so many others, to mine coal. “Tough as pine-knot,” he had a third-grade education, enjoyed fishing and farming, and was a die-hard UK basketball fan. In coal-company towns like Benham and Lynch, the work was hard and the miners came from many countries and backgrounds.

They fueled the growth of a country. 

Unlike Henry or his father, Donald was able to finish college. He worked for a time in the extension office of UK’s Robinson Forest, where he studied Bermuda Grass. He retired from the federal government after a long career as a soil scientist. 

Donald Henry’s sons have done well. They went to college and have had careers and families. Donald wrote a book, chronicling the experiences of Howard and his family.

No one should forget. I can’t. 

More than anything, I am struck by how the choices made — or those made for us — profoundly impact so many people. For Donald, his father’s stewardship made his son's life a different set of choices, choices that have made all the difference for families and generations to come.

We’ve spent this week marking our founding, our 150th anniversary. We’ve heard from national experts, who care deeply about higher education and this place, talk about how history should inform our future. 

The decisions we make today about tomorrow must be guided by our collective experiences as a people and as an institution with an inextricable tie to the Commonwealth we serve.

We were founded for Kentucky.

Like no other place in this Commonwealth, our university impacts lives and helps chart the course for what is to come for our state and for thousands and thousands of lives.

What choices will we make … for those we educate … for those we help and heal … and for those who will be touched tomorrow by research and discovery that is only the glint of an idea today?

History’s voices, carried on stars along stone walls in a coliseum or forged in classrooms and laboratories connected across our campus, still speak to us.