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Back to Stinking Creek after 40 years

Forty years ago, John Fetterman was a top writer at The Courier-Journal in Louisville and spent much of his time chronicling the tribulations of Appalachia, in particular the communities along Stinking Creek in the southeastern corner of the state. He wrote a book, Stinking Creek, and won a Pulitzer Prize for a C-J Magazine story on the funeral of a mountain soldier killed in Vietnam. John Fetterman died in 1975, but he had taken his daughter Mindy to Stinking Creek with him and inspired her to be a journalist. In the last year or so she went back several times, to report on life there for USA Today, for which she has been a reporter and is now manager of enterprise and innovation.

The result was an insipring story that ran over the holidays, with an online photo gallery and video. It told the tale of a teacher-farmer, Irma Gall, and a nurse-midwife, Peggy Kemner, left, who have spent 50 years on the creek, educating and serving families with a wide range of health, social, youth and community services -- and are still doing it through tribulations of their own, such as the osteoporosis that has bent Kemner's back. (Photo by Garrett Hubbard)

"Quietly, they advocated birth control and education for women," Fetterman wrote. "Viewed at first with suspicion and distrust, the women known as "the nurses" have, over the decades, proved how much hands-on caring can make a difference in the lives of individuals. ... As family size shrank, the abject poverty that encased Stinking Creek began to ease. The mountains opened up, and the people could see out."

Fetterman says in the video, "I realized that these two women have had as much impact on Stinking Creek as the federal government's War on Poverty," which provides a national frame for her story. To read it, view the photo gallery and watch the video, all of which are worth your time, click here.

Following is Fetterman's account of how she pursued the story, written especially for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

By Mindy Fetterman

I didn’t so much report my story on the nurses of Stinking Creek, as absorb it.

  All my life, I had known about Irma and Peggy, the two missionary nurses mentioned in a chapter of a book my father wrote 40 years ago. I’d seen their picture, read their story, and heard about them and the other people he featured. Over the years, I’d often wondered: “What happened to the people of Stinking Creek?” And I thought, one day I’ll go find out.

  The story is only partially told.

  But by focusing on Irma Gall and Peggy Kemner for a story for USA TODAY, I could touch base with at least some of the people in my dad’s book, and find out what had happened to them. Importantly, I could use the narrative of the story about these two women to tell the story of a region.

  Reporting on people in Appalachia is famously difficult. Folks aren’t open to strangers. Few – if any – seek publicity of any kind.

  But, I had an “in.”

  The first time I said my name, people knew who I was. They remembered my father coming to Stinking Creek in the mid-1960s as if it was yesterday. “He was the most conspicuous inconspicuous person I ever met,” laughed Irma Gall, one of the nurses. She remembered him just showing up with a notebook and camera to watch her coach a team of girl basketball players. “Suddenly, we were all talking to him.” Institute for Rural Journalism Director Al Cross had known both my dad and me (as a college kid and summer intern), and was good friends with a good friend of mine. He connected me to Daphne Goodin, a former school teacher on Stinking Creek who grew up there, and current lobbyist for the Kentucky Education Association.

  When she heard my name on the phone, Daphne stopped me in mid-sentence. “I know who you are,” she said. (We’d never met.) Later in the conversation, she pulled Fetterman’s book off her kitchen bookshelf to read me “my favorite paragraph in your dad’s book.”

  The fact that Fetterman’s work was felt so deeply on Stinking Creek was incredibly important to me.

  I wanted to tell personal stories, but with historical and economic background. To do that, I reported the story a couple of ways:

  • In person interviews over several trips. This was fairly unusual for USA TODAY, which like many national publications, tends to “parachute” into an area to get some local color and quotes before blowing out of town just as quickly. By going 4 or 5 times back to Stinking Creek and Kentucky, I was able to meet Irma and Peggy several times, meet folks they knew, and make contacts with others who could introduce me further. For the video we produced with video-journalist Garrett Hubbard, we spend 4 days at Lend a Hand with Peggy and Irma. (Note to reporters: Those two ladies wore me out! They worked all day long, every day.)
  • In-person interviews with experts in Washington. I met with economists at the Appalachian Regional Commission, and a sociologist at the University of Maryland Population Center who had done an extensive study of the U.S. census by county for the entire region.
  • In-person interviews with experts in Kentucky. I met with Ron Eller, leading Appalachian historian and former director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky, and Loyal Jones, former director of Appalachian studies at Berea College, as well as others.
  • Telephone interviews with other experts in Appalachia. One important contact was Judy J. Owens, a former reporter who had gone “back to Stinking Creek” for a story for the LexingtonHerald-Leader 25 years ago. [Judy, a member of the Institute for Rural Journalism's national advisory board, is a native of nearby Middlesboro.]
  • Reading, reading, reading. I read Ron Eller’s book, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers, and some early proofs of his latest book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. I re-read Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Caudill, and scanned several other Kentucky books, including John Egerton’s Generations. I re-read Stinking Creek by John Fetterman.
  • Google, Google, Google. How did we live before it? I used Google to connect with experts on the Appalachian Volunteers and the War on Poverty, including David Walls.

    One of my most humbling moments was one of the first moments of reporting. I’d contacted Shannon Wilson, director of the archives at Berea College, because that’s where my dad’s papers were stored. When I came to look through them, Shannon had set aside the neat boxes with Fetterman’s papers lovingly archived with pieces of onion-skin paper between each sheet. (These had originally been just cardboard boxes of “junk” in our basement.)

  We opened the first box, took off the first piece of onion-skin paper, and looked at the first typewritten sheet.

  “I know this typewriter!” I exclaimed.

   Shannon went to get a box of tissues.

  I was 11 years old when my dad took me – a child of the big-city suburbs – to the mountains of eastern Kentucky. I’ll never forget sitting on one of those rickety wooden front porches playing with a baby pig while my dad interviewed a mother and her children.

  Forty years later when I interviewed Peggy Sizemore – whose photo is in the book as a child of 4 or 5 wearing a dusty dress made of a flowered flour sack – I admit I was choked up.

  “I feel,” I told her, “like I’ve known you all my life.”

  And, in a way, I had.

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Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 01/06/2009