Jesse Stuart (1906 - 1984) was one of America's best-known and best-loved writers. In 1976, late in his writing career, the editors of Country Gentleman magazine boldly proclaimed Stuart "America's Most Famous Chronicler of Rural Life."At that time, nearing the end of a five-decade writing career, Stuart had published nearly sixty books, including biography, autobiography, essays, and juvenile works as well as poetry and fiction. These books have immortalized the Kentucky hill country that inspired his writing.
Thousands of Stuart's stories, articles, and poems appeared in America's most widely read magazines, journals, and periodicals. His frequent literary appearances from the 1930s through the 1970s made him a nationally famous author. Stuart, who taught and lectured extensively, was also a famous educator. His teaching experience ranged from the one-room schoolhouse of his youth in Eastern Kentucky to the American University in Cairo, Egypt.
In 1979, five years before his death, Stuart joined forces with education and business leaders from across Kentucky and assigned his literary estate to the Jesse Stuart Foundation, a nonprofit educational and publishing organization.
Never a week passes without someone saying, "Exactly what is it you folks do down there at the Jesse Stuart Foundation?" My stock response is that "In brief, we make and sell books." But our work is much more complicated than that.
We are actively involved in cultural tourism, and our bookstore and galleries attract visitors from all parts of America. We also sponsor book signings and writing workshops, an annual Jesse Stuart Weekend, tours of Stuart's W-Hollow homeland, and workshops for teachers, students, and librarians. But our primary mission is "preserving the legacy of Jesse Stuart and the Appalachian way of life" by publishing books about our unique history and culture.
Books are vital to our future. Think about what you know and where you acquired your knowledge. Most of us learn from the four cornerstones: family, church, school, and books. Like clean water and fresh air, books are so elemental to life that it's easy to take them for granted until we don't have them anymore. Then we suffer from their absence.
I became the Executive Director of The Jesse Stuart Foundation when I moved to Ashland in the fall of 1985. At that time, most of Stuart's books were out of print and teachers had, according to Greenup County's Ethel McBrayer, "given up using Jesse's books because they aren't available anymore."
That changed when we began to edit and republish Stuart's out-of-print books. With strong support from Judy Thomas, Ashland Oil (now Ashland Inc.), Morehead State University, and thousands of other individuals and organizations, we began with A Penny's Worth of Character and have reprinted more than thirty of Stuarts out-of-print books.
Now, at age sixty-seven, I realize that I will be fortunate to see all of Stuart's books back in print during my lifetime. At least twenty still need to be reissued, and many more Stuart books from his huge body of never-before-published works also need to be made available to the reading public.
As JSF grew in stature as a publishing house, several great regional authors came to us and said what Billy C. Clark once said to me: "Do for my books what you've done for Jesse's." So we expanded our mission and became a regional press and bookseller. We recently, and proudly, added the name Allan W. Eckert to a distinguished list of JSF authors that includes Jesse Stuart, Billy C. Clark, Loyal Jones, Thomas D. Clark, Harry M. Caudill, and many others.
More recently, we realized that as an institutional extension of Jesse Stuart, the great "school teacher of America," we needed to help beginning writers find their literary voice just as Stuart had helped his students. In the last decade, we have published more than twenty new books by new authors and helped to launch the careers of another generation of Appalachian writers.
Eleven years ago, after a long search for a permanent home, JSF purchased the former Post Office Building on Ashland's main street. Since then, we have done a major "clean-up, fix-up" job on this historic, 30,000 square foot structure.
Thanks to the assistance of 5000 Associate Members nationwide and the work of a truly dedicated Board of Directors, we have our building paid for, but old buildings are a mixture of charm and challenge, and we will always have much to do to maintain it.
Many of us who are associated with the Jesse Stuart Foundation are career educators and "everyday folks" who don't have the resources to make large charitable contributions, but our friends and Associate Members regularly help in many ways. One lady sold a couch and sent us the proceeds. "I never liked it much, anyway," she wrote. " And you need the money for your Building Fund a lot more than I need a couch that's been in our garage for two years."
Another individual made a presentation to a professional group and sent us the honorarium. My staff and I parked cars on our lot during a summer festival and added $462 to the Building Fund by doing some extra work. There are ways to make a contribution without dipping into your savings account.
I have never been comfortable asking hard-working people for money, so, to all of you who read this article, I submit that we make a significant contribution to the community and to education. We promote local economic development, and we also play a role in the intellectual and cultural life of the broad community we serve. I respectfully invite your assistance and participation not based on a statement of need but on our record of accomplishment.
Winston Churchill once wrote: "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." At the Jesse Stuart Foundation, we value every dollar and we respect every donor. The Jesse Stuart Foundation now has a permanent home in Stuart's beloved Eastern Kentucky homeland. In the years ahead, the Jesse Stuart Foundation will become one of the major Appalachian resource centers in America. We'll be the place to find Appalachian books, and we'll also present a wide variety of visual arts and regional crafts.
At present, we are the second largest publishing house in Kentucky and the major publisher of Appalachian books in America. As a regional press, we have become a sensitive interpreter of the hopes, dreams, and accomplishments of a great regional people. We have become your voice, too, speaking your unspoken thoughts, dreaming with you about things that you had never hoped to realize, and stirring ambitions within you that had long lain dormant in your soul. That's what books do.
What do we do at the Jesse Stuart Foundation? Well, in brief, we make and sell books, but it's more complicated than that . . .
James M. Gifford, Ph.D.
CEO & Senior Editor