While it is about my hometown and my alma mater, John Bryson captures the true spirit of small town America and the spirit that makes Eastern Kentucky such a special place to live. If only the national media could understand this truth.
John Wiley Bryson
Born in Harlan May 8, 1969
Harlan High School ‘87
This has been a year of milestones for me. A year of marked moments. I celebrated my 15th wedding anniversary in January and my 40th birthday in May. Later this year, my parents will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Woven into the fabric of these personal and family milestones are the celebrations of 100 years of the Harlan City Schools and my graduating class, the class of 1987, will celebrate, though two years late, the 25 years of life after high school graduation. Harlan High school, the city and county of Harlan, and Eastern Kentucky are woven into the very fabric of who I am.
I entered the world in the same delivery room as many of you, on the 6th floor of the Harlan Appalachian Hospital in May of 1969. My mind floods with memories that marked and shaped my life as I think back to life in Harlan as a young boy. I cannot imagine a boyhood anywhere in the world as privileged as mine. Privileged to have experienced life in a town so wonderful with people who loved and valued and noticed and invested in me. If it takes a village to raise a child, I feel like I was raised in and by the greatest village in the World.
I am old enough to have seen my first movies at the Margie Grand, bought my first shoes at Belk’s when it was downtown, been scared for the first time during a massive flood and remember when Harlan football games were played at Huff Park. I am also old enough to remember life in Harlan with a downtown swimming pool and life without a bypass, Mall, Wal-mart or McDonald’s.
I think about life in downtown Harlan as running in and out of Creech Drug, Lee Drug, Newberry’s, Pennington Grocery, Belk’s and the plethora of places to explore in the busy streets of downtown. I think about the tobacco chewers and whittlers that gathered at the courthouse to tell old war stories (figuratively and literally) and shoot the breeze. I think about looking to the sky, in a southwestern direction out towards Loyall, because that’s where Charlie Harris told me our weather came from and begging God to not let it rain so I could play little league baseball out beside the Catholic Church.
I think about vacation Bible schools at the Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, days spent swimming and hitting a golf ball with Paul Douglas at the Harlan Country Club and time spent cruising the new mall, Rax, the bowling alley when it was a bowling alley and the new movie theatre with CD Morton and Mark Ellis. Every day an adventure and every season a joy.
I have thought a lot about what makes Harlan County so special. Why, when I would tell stories of Harlan and Harlan folks, whether I was at Asbury College, in a coffee shop in Dallas, Texas or in a restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee the room always seemed to swell and people always wanted more. Harlan stories ALWAYS dominated the room and left people begging for more. Though I could mention multiple things, I have narrowed it down to a few things I love about my hometown:
Harlan has characters. Harlan has produced characters: plain and simple, for better or worse, we have had plenty of characters. “Characters” in the great sense of the word. People comfortable in their own skin and free to simply be who they are. From the downtown legends of Napoleon Carmichael, Roy Moore, Rubber Duck and Chick Fortney to the educational and theatrical genius of Charlotte Nolen, to the coaching legends like Joe Gilly, Doc Gray and Tolbert Walker…there are simply no shortages of unique folks in our beloved town.
Harlan has soul. Cities all over the nation spend millions of dollars trying to re-create the downtown vibe Harlan already has. There’s a “cool” factor to being from a place famous for shootouts, characters, and fierce pride, a place mentioned in old movies as a place of violence and encounters with “the law”. No matter where I have gone, when I have mentioned where I am from, nine times out of ten there’s a response something like, “Harlan, KY?…I know someone from Harlan, do you know…” If I have been asked that once, I have been asked that a thousand times.
Harlan prepared me for the world by teaching me to get along with diverse people. Old and young, black and white, rich and poor, Harlan taught me to love and value all people. That is a gift that has advantaged me in my adult years. From my earliest days I had best friends from Fairview, Sunny Acres, Downtown, and Catron’s Valley. I love the fact that Harlan connected me to folks from all walks of life and all seasons of life. Lifelong friends that are still a vital part of my life.
Harlan values what matters most…faith, family, simplicity, and loyalty. Our fast paced world could learn a ton from our little piece of the globe on caring for people, enjoying the simple things in life and standing for what you believe in. Every community needs those who are free to be different, free to exist in a unique way, irritating and entertaining those around them at the same time. These people generate great stories and great memories. They make a place unique and special.
Since my days in Harlan, which I have always and will always consider my “hometown” regardless of where I lay my head, I have lived in Lexington, Dallas, Little Rock and Memphis. I’ve traveled to over 40 states in America and 17 countries worldwide. No place have I been more asked about than Harlan. No place upon my mention of it has generated more “I have heard about that” or “Do you know…” than Harlan. No place that I have been is more beautiful to me or has generated more excitement in my heart than the sights and feelings that I experience with I cross the Pineville Bridge and head towards Harlan.
Harlan, thanks for giving me dozens of “life lessons” that have stood me in good stead wherever I have traveled or lived; thanks for being “good soil” in which to grow my faith and character. Thanks for being the steady and constant and the substance of this native son. Your investment has paid invest dividends in my life and I pray through my life. Harlan County…I love you! You are like no place else on Earth.
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