Why I am a Proud Kentuckian

The reasons I am a proud Kentuckian are many and varied. They have nothing to do with the ridiculous stereotypes outsiders often assign the Bluegrass State.

I have been fortunate enough to travel far and wide in these United States. I’ve visited all of the “lower 48” states, some of them many times. All of those states had many things to commend them beyond their stereotypes.

Why I Am a Proud Kentuckian

For instance, New Yorkers have a reputation for being rude and pushy. I experienced that myself, particularly at Macy’s of all places. I wanted a white Krups coffee-maker, but all I saw were black ones. When I asked the saleswoman if she had them in white, she very rudely–and emphatically–said, “Do you see white? If you don’t see white, then we don’t have it.” I remember being astonished at this outburst. I had never in my life been treated so by a salesperson. I voted with my feet and left Macy’s without buying anything.

Another instance of rude behavior came at a restaurant. Here in Kentucky we tip our waiters according to the level of service we receive. The better the service, the better we tip. While in Manhattan, I had dinner with my sister and a friend at a restaurant near Times Square. The food was decent, but the service (if you can call it that) was all but non-existent. We saw the waiter once–when he stopped long enough to take the order. Someone else brought out the food, and we couldn’t even flag anyone down to get a glass of water. We sat through the entire meal with nothing to drink. Someone dropped off a check and was gone before we could even open our mouths. I certainly would never reward this type of service with a tip, and I didn’t. The waiter, who had been incognito throughout our meal, miraculously appeared when it was time to scoop up the tip, only to find there was no tip. He not only followed us to the checkout, but screamed loudly for everyone in the restaurant to hear “Don’t ever come back in this restaurant again! How dare you not leave a tip!”

At this point I stopped and engaged the waiter. I told him I was in the restaurant business myself, and if any of my waiters gave such poor service they would likely lose their job–and that he was in dire need of training. I thought the guy’s head was literally going to explode. He looked like one of those cartoon characters you see with steam spouting out both ears.  (At some point later I was talking with a native New Yorker who seemed to be a rational and sane individual. I told him what had happened at the restaurant and he said, “You are supposed to tip here regardless. It’s the custom. You tip 20% no matter the level of service. If it’s good service, you tip even more.” I was floored by this explanation, but chalked it up to a New York thing. Live and learn.)

So, my point? When I discuss my visits to New York I don’t lead with these stories of rude behavior. They were but isolated instances. I met many native New Yorkers who were kind and helpful. New York City thinks of itself as one of the world’s largest and greatest cities, truly cosmopolitan in its makeup and outlook. That is true, and the city skyscrapers are a wonder. New York City fairly explodes with an energy and activity seldom seen elsewhere, and the food was (almost without exception) superb. The shopping is unparalleled. A simple stroll down Fifth Avenue reveals a veritable wonderland of exquisite jewelry, top fashions, and up-to-the-minute tech toys. The entertainment is second to none, and museums are chock-full of stupendous collections. The city hums 24/7 and is a feast for the eyes and ears.

But I also found NYC to be filthy and garbage-strewn; litter cluttered the roadside for miles on end. The waterways were hopelessly polluted. The homeless were everywhere, lying in their own filth, or talking to themselves as they walked about in a daze. Drug dealers prowled the streets at night hawking their wares. The traffic was impossible, the noise level at times deafening. Walking down the streets in swarms of people was a challenge, and of course everything was tremendously expensive. But, that’s the life in most major cities. Wherever you have millions of people, there are bound to be problems.

So, there’s two sides to every coin. To this day I heartily recommend people visit New York. The marvels far outweigh the downside. But if one were to believe only the bad things, and feed into those stereotypes so commonly assigned to “the city that never sleeps,” no one would ever visit.

Which brings me to my own state–Kentucky. During my many travels, whenever I was asked where I was from, I proudly said, “Kentucky.” It didn’t take me long to figure out that most people outside the Bluegrass State do not share my fond impression of it. What non-Kentuckians sometimes think of Kentucky is simply astonishing.

I have actually been asked the following questions:

  • “Don’t you all go barefoot in Kentucky?”
  • “Isn’t Kentucky where everyone marries their cousin?
  • “What year did you drop out of school?”
  • “Aren’t you glad you left Kentucky?”
  • “Can you speak ‘Hillbilly’ for me?”
  • “How do you make moonshine?”
  • “Why don’t people in Kentucky go to dentists?”

and my personal favorite:

  • “You don’t look like you are from Kentucky.” (never understood exactly what that meant)

Perhaps, as a proud Kentuckian, I’m a bit too sensitive. But I actually notice and remember when people ill-use our state, or perpetuate one of those nasty stereotypes. Especially when they are acting all superior.

One example: There’s a line of dialog near the end of the movie “Clueless” where we are led to believe the sixteen year-old character “Cher” is getting married, when she says, “As if! This is California, not Kentucky.” Another dig at Kentucky. This time extending the belief that Kentuckians marry at 14, or 16, or whatever. Cheap shot that reinforces a stereotype.

I’ve been to Los Angeles. What if I spent a paragraph or two explaining how a lot of L.A.’s negative stereotypes are based on facts? How the lovely palm trees are infested with rats the size of cats. How the only green grass to be found in the Hollywood Hills exists under a sprinkler. How the air is so foul in places you can barely breathe, and the roads so choked with traffic they look more like parking lots. How about the homeless “cities” under the viaducts? Cardboard walls for as far as you can see. (You don’t see that on “Modern Family.”) Or the fact that I didn’t hear English spoken once for one four-hour period? Or that I got charged for a glass of water in a diner? And for the refill. Doesn’t exactly make people want to visit there, huh? Surely you would cry “foul” if that was all anyone ever associated with southern California.

But no. I usually tell people about the good things I experienced in California. It’s a matter of being positive instead of negative. California, particularly the northern part of the state, is very beautiful. The weather can be fantastic. The people, for the most part, are just like Kentuckians–friendly, decent, and kind. And even if for no other reason, the fact that California contains San Francisco–a cosmopolitan city of indescribable beauty–would be enough to recommend a visit to the state.

But enough about New York and California. I only use them here to illustrate a point: that no state is superior to any other. All states have much to commend them, even if only that they contain many proud Americans who are equally proud of their state. After all, a state is its people. And Kentucky, in addition to all its natural wonders, has good people in abundance.

How do I love Kentucky? Let me count the ways:

Water, water, everywhere: Kentucky has more than 90,000 miles of streams. It also has more miles of navigable water than any state except Alaska. (Which, if you think about it, is pretty amazing). And nearly all of that water is fit to drink. I have, on occasion, swallowed water from creeks, ponds, rivers, and two lakes. Never got sick once. Kentucky is blessed to have an abundance of springs as well, most of it filtered through layers of limestone. Our “blue” grass and thoroughbred racehorses thrive on it. On top of that, irrigation is almost unheard of around here. The skies are usually a friend to Kentucky. When Elvis sang about “Kentucky Rain” he knew what he was talking about.

Soil: Some of the most fertile soil found anywhere is right here in Kentucky. My grandma use to tell me that you could just sink a stick in it anywhere and it would take root. And she was mostly right about that. Our fertile soil nourishes our fantastic bluegrass and broad swaths of woodland areas. It is so rich with flora and fauna that Native American tribes fought over it for centuries.

Landscapes: Kentucky has three distinct regions. The beautiful mountains of the eastern part of the state, with a people and culture all its own. Some of America’s finest singers, musicians, and writers have come out of eastern Kentucky. The middle part of the state, with its gorgeous green rolling hills and majestic horse farms. And my own neck of the woods, western Kentucky. Western Kentucky is riddled with lakes and rivers, and enough hunting and fishing to satisfy anyone. And fertile farmland–much of it a gift from the rivers–lies adjacent to all those rivers and lakes. If you like the color green, you would love Kentucky. We have about 200 shades of it here.

Climate: If you prefer a change of seasons, this is the perfect place. We have an honest-to-God winter, spring, summer, and fall. And none of them are so extreme as to be unbearable. And as the old saying goes, if you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes.

Industry:From Papa Johns, G.E. and U.P.S. to distilleries, fast horses, and even faster cars (think Corvette), Kentucky has industry from one end of the state to the other. Only Michigan and Ohio rank higher in automobile production.

Energy: However you feel about coal, the fact is this: America runs on it. Over five times as much electricity is generated by coal than by hydroelectric power (which we also have in abundance). Kentucky has long supplied the nation with coal, and we have only scratched the surface. There’s an estimated 87 billion tons of Kentucky coal just waiting for us.

Recreation: We don’t have ocean beaches here, of course, but we have freshwater beaches in abundance. In addition to the aforementioned hunting and fishing, there’s camping and hiking, and cave exploring. Do I need mention that Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system in the world? And it isn’t even all explored yet. Kentucky has dozens of state parks–all of them clean, all of them beautiful. Oh, and we have buffalo, elk, turkey, wildcats, jillions of deer, coyotes, and now even armadillos.

Sports: We have a little thing called the Kentucky Derby here, the most famous horse racing event in the world. So famous, in fact, that when Queen Elizabeth visits America she usually bypasses New York and Washington and heads directly to the gentle hills of Bluegrass Country, where we know a little something about breeding and class. But it’s not all just horse racing in Kentucky. We have a native Kentuckian you may have heard of. He had a bit of success in the boxing world and goes by the name of “Mohammed Ali.” Was and always will be “the greatest.” And last–but certainly not least–we enjoy a little pastime here called basketball. You may have heard of a few of our teams, like the University of Louisville, or perhaps the University of Kentucky Wildcats? The Wildcats are the winningest program in the history of college basketball, being the first NCAA squad to pass 2,000 wins and also has the highest winning percentage, at .762. Not too shabby. Go Big Blue!

Food and Drink: We aren’t just about fried chicken, though Kentucky Fried Chicken is famous throughout the world. (There’s something to be said for Colonel Sanders, who didn’t even get going until his late 50’s.) There’s also Duncan Hines, born and raised in Kentucky. He certainly made a name for himself. And there’s only one place to get bourbon, and it’s Kentucky. All others are just pretenders. Bourbon started here, it was perfected here, and it can’t be duplicated anywhere else. We’ve got the essential ingredient–limestone filtered Kentucky water.

History: I can’t recount all the important parts Kentucky has played in our nation’s history. There isn’t enough room. But the shorthand is this: Cumberland Gap funneled early Americans toward the west. Our rivers moved even more in that direction. Kentucky gave birth not only to our nation’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, but to the other civil war president–Jefferson Davis–as well. (No other state had a civil war president, much less both of them). Other historical figures associated with the Bluegrass State include: Carrie Nation, Henry Clay, Stephen Foster, Daniel Boone, Jim Bowie, Zachary Taylor, and Casey Jones. And many, many more–political leaders, Supreme Court justices, poet laureates, inventors and discoverers galore.

The People: Which brings me to our people. It’s the reason I love Kentucky most. It’s the reason I moved back here, and the reason most Kentuckians never really leave it, even if they live somewhere else. Just ask Jennifer Lawrence or George Clooney (perhaps the hottest actors in Hollywood) how they feel about their native Kentucky. Or Florence Henderson, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Depp, etc. Nowhere else have I found people more genuine, more loving, or more “family.”

If on your travels you meet a fellow Kentuckian, you are immediately “in.” There’s a certain camaraderie Kentuckians share. Our state motto is “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” and we live by it. We support one another, and we are proud of our people. We don’t take kindly to those stereotypes, because we know in our hearts that we are good people. We aren’t perfect, and we have our issues. As a group we smoke too much, we eat too much, and we probably exercise too little. Certainly we have more than our share of poverty and drug abuse. (But isn’t making fun of those people a bit like kicking a wounded dog?)

We love our kids, we take care of our parents, and we don’t sit around dissing other states and feeling all superior.

The people of Kentucky live in the heart of our great nation, and we in the heartland love and defend our country. We’re proud of our soldiers and veterans. (And we guard the nation’s gold supply at Fort Knox, so there’s that).

All things considered, I’m proud of Kentucky. We’ll take whatever you sling at us–even if it is a stupid stereotype–because we know the real truth about ourselves.

And we stand united.


© Wade Kingston


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