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Kentucky by Heart: Celebrating inspiring stories of Kentucky women during Women’s History Month

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

March is Women’s History Month, and I’ll share a few Kentuckians’ inspiring stories that you may not have read about in history books. They only came to my attention recently, and my wife and I had a chance to visit the home and gravesite of this first one.

This building in Lawrenceburg once served as The Kavanaugh Academy (Photo by Steve Flairty)

Lawrenceburg’s Rhoda Caldwell Kavanaugh (1870-1959) was a real groundbreaker in the central part of Kentucky in the early 1900s. As well as being noted as a women’s suffragist advocate, she established a school called the Kavanaugh Academy in her town.

The school had a somewhat novel “extra” purpose, that being to prepare students who were interested in enrolling in the United States Naval Academy or the West Point Military Academy.

Most of Kavanaugh’s tutoring for the service academies was done in the evenings after regular classes because the school was also part of the county public school system. Some of the students were from out of the area and boarded in the building.

Kavanaugh had an amazingly successful record of instruction, reportedly sending 150 of her students to the naval academy and fifteen to West Point. Ironically, she originally opened the school in 1903 as a place to tutor her own children.

Kay Clark, who formerly operated the building as a bed and breakfast and now lives in Pennsylvania, wrote a cookbook and included information about Kavanaugh’s work. Clark included some interesting tidbits, particularly for those interested in area sports.

Kavanaugh’s grave site in Lawrenceburg (Photo by Steve Flairty)

Clark said Kavanaugh believed “in the character-building power of athletics, which led several of her graduates — Aggie Sale, Ralph Carlisle, Paul McBrayer, Bill Kietley (known as ‘Mr. Wildcat’), to name a few — to seek careers in sports.”

Clark also noted that the Kavanaugh Academy gained a favorable nickname, “the Annapolis of Kentucky.”

According to The Historical Marker Database website, the success of the school “was due to her superior teaching methods. Students also received rigorous physical training coupled with stern discipline but impartial discipline.”

Bill Kietley was interviewed for the Kentucky Oral History Project and shared a lot about Mrs. Kavanaugh.

The former school building still stands today in Lawrenceburg at 241 East Woodford Street and currently is used as an Airbnb. Not far from there, Kavanaugh is buried at the Lawrenceburg Cemetery.

As my wife, Suzanne, and I looked at the small and non-descript gravestone, I thought about the far-reaching influence of Mrs. Kavanaugh.

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You might say that Virginia Cary Hudson (1894-1954) was ahead of her time, sort of… Her story partly takes place a short distance from Kavanaugh’s, in Versailles.

It all started in the early 1900s when she was ten years old growing up in Versailles and attending the Episcopal school for girls, Margaret Hall. Virginia was observant and had a creative ability to craftily write about her observations of everyday life in a small town. She kept those writings and when she married Kirtley Cleveland and moved to Louisville as an adult, she had her childhood collection squirreled away in a trunk in her attic.

Late in Virginia’s life, her adult daughter, Virginia Cleveland Mayne, “discovered” the collection while the two were going through her lifetime possessions. According to William S. Ward’s book, A Literary History of Kentucky, Mayne said she “begged my mother to have them published.” Her mother intended to do so, but never followed up before her death.

But her daughter Virginia came through for her after her mother’s death. Though her initiative in 1962, the Macmillan Company published a fifty-page collection of those insightful and humorous stories from her mother’s youth called O Ye Jigs & Juleps! A Humorous Slice of Small-town, Turn-of-the-Century America. Amazingly, the book became a New York Times bestseller, staying on the list for sixty-six weeks. People all over America were informed about the daily life of a small town in Kentucky in the early 1900s from the point of view of a pre-teen girl—and apparently many considered it fascinating.

The daughter followed up O Ye Jigs by publishing more of her mother’s works in the succeeding years: Credos & Quips (1964), Flapdoodle, Trust & Obey (1966), and Close Your Eyes When Praying (1968). A quite comprehensive biography of Hudson’s life was written by Hudson’s grandchild, Beverly Cary Mayne Kienzle, and released in 2016. It’s called Virginia Cary Hudson: The Jigs & Juleps! Girl: Her Life and Writings, and including in it are many stories of Hudson’s illustrious adult life, in which she was active in community activities in Louisville. One of the funny ones reports how she dealt with people parking out of place in her St. James Court neighborhood. She simple let the air out of the culprits’ tires!

Sources for Kavanaugh story: hmdb.org; networks.h-net.org; interview with Kay Clark; findagrave.com; kentuckyoralhistory.org

Sources for Hudson story: Oh Ye Jigs & Juleps… (1962 book by Virginia Cary Hudson); Virginia Cary Hudson: The Jigs & Juleps! Girl: Her Life and Writings (2016), by author Beverly Cary Mayne Kienzle; Wikiwand.com; history.ky.gov; A Literary History of Kentucky, by William S. Ward.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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