Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Pauline "Penny" Ritter Combs, May 22, 2008

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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KLEE: The following is an unrehearsed interview by John Klee for the University of Kentucky Libraries, the, uh, University of Kentucky Community College System Project. The interview is with, um, Pauline Ritter Combs. It's being conducted on May 22, 2008 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, uh, at her home at 100, uh, Cornelia Avenue, uh, here in Whitesburg. Uh, Ms. Combs, uh, tell me a little bit about, uh, your personal background.

COMBS: Well, I was born and raised in Letcher County and graduated from Fleming-Neon High School in 1945, and I went to Eastern and graduated, uh--

KLEE: What did you study there at Eastern?

COMBS: I stayed in the dorm.

KLEE: Um-hm. I, what did you study? I'm sorry.

COMBS: Oh, what did I study?

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: (clears throat) The, uh, social sciences. And I majored in 00:01:00history, and--(clears throat)--upon graduation--I was married to Goebel Ritter at that time. We met at Eastern, and he got his masters at the same time.

KLEE: Well, I'm going to back you up a little bit if that's all right? Tell me about, uh, your parents. Who were your parents?

COMBS: James M. and Atha B. Caudill. Neon.

KLEE: And your, uh, your mother's maiden name was--

COMBS: Bentley. Atha Bentley Caudill. And, uh, uh, my father was a lover of education. He, he, uh, saw a murder in Floyd County, and Judge Williams was impressed with him--he was a young boy--with his testimony.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And he invited him to come live at his house and go to Prestonsburg, which he did, and he lived in a little house out back by himself and went to school there. And, uh, Judge Williams got him into 00:02:00Alice Lloyd.

KLEE: Now, did Judge Williams think that, uh, the schooling was better there or--

COMBS: Yes. Yes.

KLEE: --he just wanted to keep an eye on him or--

COMBS: No. He, he thought he had a better opportunity than the rural school where he was going; a one-room school.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: (clears throat) So he went to Alice Lloyd--at that time it was Caney Creek--and Ms. Lloyd was impressed with him. And he roomed with, um, oh I can't remember. It was a famous lawyer from Hindman--but, uh, he, she sent him on down to Berea, and he got, uh, normal school.

KLEE: Now at that time I guess, uh, uh, Alice Lloyd was a, was it just a two-year college at that point?

COMBS: Yes it was.

KLEE: Um-hm. And it was called Caney Creek?

COMBS: It was Caney Creek College. She came from Boston--

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: --she and June Buchanan and opened the school. Today, we have the June Buchanan School.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: The K through 12 and, uh--he went to Berea and got a normal 00:03:00degree.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh he worked in the broom factory while he was there. So he came back to Knott County and tried to get a teaching job and couldn't secure one. So he came over to Letcher County and was interviewed, and they gave him a school at Millstone, Kentucky. And that's where my mother lived. She was going to school in grade school there.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: He was very young. He was, uh, uh, nineteen, barely, uh, was turning twenty when he got this job. So, he--

KLEE: Or he had finished Berea Normal School?

COMBS: Yes, he had finished that.

KLEE: That's the term they use for teaching--

COMBS: Certificates.

KLEE: --certificates. Um-hm.

COMBS: And so he went there to teach school. And, uh, mother was from a large family; so was dad. There was nine in my father's family, and my mother's, her mother and father had six, and then my grandfather 00:04:00remarried and he had, uh, fourteen; set of twins included.

KLEE: Oh, my--(laughs)--gee.

COMBS: So he really had a large family.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: And she didn't go to school. They didn't go regular when there was work to be done in the garden or whatever. They kept 'em out. But, anyway, she was in eighth grade and, uh, he and mother decided to get married. He went back to Berea, was gonna take some additional training, and they decided to get married. And so they did, and I was born in--

KLEE: Now they set up a, house-, uh, a housekeeping in, uh Fleming-,--?

COMBS: Millstone.

KLEE: In Millstone. Okay.

COMBS: Um-hm. In Millstone.

KLEE: And that's in, uh--

COMBS: Letcher County.

KLEE: Letcher County. Okay.

COMBS: And, uh, he got a job--he was teaching school, and he went over to Neon, which is a little town, uh, not far from here--and, uh, he got 00:05:00a job working in a, uh, drugstore for Dr. D.V. Bentley, and he ran him for judge. And dad was too young to serve at the time that he was elected, but by the time he took the oath of office he had turned old enough that he could. And mother was too young to vote for him.

KLEE: (laughs) Is that right? Now this was, uh, the, in the old court system I guess that was the--

COMBS: It was police judge city of, city of Neon.

KLEE: Okay. City of Neon.

COMBS: And so he worked in the drugstore for a while and was, and then he took a job as manager of Yellow Front Grocery that the Lewis' owned. And he decided he would open a grocery store of his own, which he did, and, uh, he sold feed for cattle and I don't know what all. Dad worked us all in there and, uh, he was a hustler.

KLEE: Yeah.

COMBS: And mother would work--and he got appointed, uh, postmaster--



COMBS: So, uh, mother would help with the mail and put up the mail and all, and he ran the store. And they were, they were very busy and--

KLEE: What, what was that--what were people doing in that community, and, of course, uh, you were a young girl, uh, living there--

COMBS: Coal mining.

KLEE: Coal mining.

COMBS: And it was the, the financial center of Letcher County at that time--

KLEE: Okay. Yeah.

COMBS: --was Neon. They had the mines, uh, Consolidation Coal Company and Elkhorn Coal Corporation, and they all came to Neon to shop--

KLEE: I see.

COMBS: --and buy their groceries and their clothes--the Dawahare's stores were there. And, uh, uh, they were quite active in, in the community, and uh, the Elk--Consolidated Coal Company came and opened up. They cut down dad's walnut trees. We had a road going up the holler, and 00:07:00there were walnut trees planted there that he was so proud of.

KLEE: Sure.

COMBS: Well, they moved in with their equipment and they cut those walnut trees, and oh, my father was furious. Mother was, too. She said, "You better come quick." She said, "They're just doing everything to our land."

KLEE: Now they did that because they had a deed for the minerals or they, that was just access for them or--

COMBS: No, they, they owned the minerals. Mother and dad did not own the minerals, and dad was so angry. He, he came to the courthouse and looked it up. He went back, he said, "They have the right to do that." He said, "I can't stop them." Mother said, "Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. You go out there and tell them you want to get along with 'em and that, uh, to make you a partner." And they did.

KLEE: Is that right?

COMBS: They made him a partner, and he went into coal business. And so he, he was very active in politics even to the very end.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh, he went into coal business and--


KLEE: Well, tell me about, uh, you said he had been elected police judge and you told me he was active in politics, postmaster, yeah, uh.

COMBS: Well, then he ran for county judge.

KLEE: Did he? Okay.

COMBS: And he was elected three terms--

KLEE: I see.

COMBS: --in, uh, Letcher County. And, uh, uh, he acquired enough shares of the Bank of Neon that he became president, and, uh, he wanted to move. He saw the business beginning to work out in Neon, the coal mine, and everything shifting to Whitesburg, the county seat, so he wanted to open a branch of the Bank of Neon and he wanted to change it to First Security. And he had applied just prior to the November election between Kennedy and Nixon. Well, he had gone to St. Louis to apply and he'd taken his application, and they asked him if he was 00:09:00an attorney and he said no. That was his secret desire. He would have loved to have been a lawyer.

KLEE: Is that right? Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh, he worked up the papers and did it all on his own, and so there was doubt as to who was going to be president; whether Nixon or Kennedy. Well, the phone calls began to come back-and-forth from St. Louis. You've been denied. Then Kennedy--it was just back- and-forth--and you're back on, and no. And then finally Kennedy was declared the winner and the president, and they called him and said, "You've been granted a charter to start First Security in Neon and make the Bank of Neon."

KLEE: And at that point, I guess, you needed a federal charter?

COMBS: Uh, yeah. You had to go--uh, federal application.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: And you, it was going through FDIC, and, uh, uh, they changed the name and made Neon, the Bank of Neon, uh, a branch bank of First 00:10:00Security. And he built a little modern bank, and he was police judge at the time. And, uh, so the bank began to grow, and, and I, in the meantime, had grown up and married and gone to Eastern and gotten married and taught at Hazard. And, uh, uh, we decided to come home. Dad wanted us to come back up here, so we did. We came home, and dad wanted me to go into the bank, which I did. And, uh you know, it was--the salary was extremely smaller. I wasn't making that much as a teacher, but, uh, I really gave up a lot to go in. And I went from a teller--there was just three of us that worked in there--and, uh, we all did a little bit of everything. And finally, we began to grow, and, uh, the bank grew and I grew. And, uh, I was put in with the 00:11:00investments. I got interested in the investments.

KLEE: Yes.

COMBS: And so, uh, the Lord guided me, I guess. Uh, I didn't know what I was doing.

KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: I had no idea what I was doing, and he just--and everything I did was the right thing. It was like he guided me to do it. In fact, I've done so many things in my life that I never dreamed that I could do that it amazes me that I've done it.

KLEE: Sure.

COMBS: And it was that way in the bank, and it was during, uh, as interest rates were going up and I was buying. I was buying bonds, municipal bonds. We'll drive along, and I'll say, "Now I invested three hundred and fifty thousand in that power plant, in Georgia Power and, uh, New Orleans Stadium, I invested about that amount." And, uh, 00:12:00we're talking about the North Slope in Alaska and showing the pipeline. I bought bonds in that.

KLEE: Is that right? And you were, that was, you were, the bank's investment person using the assets of the bank to try to make it grow.

COMBS: I was, and people were coming in with a hundred thousand, and I was quoting them. And what I would do, we were building up a huge sum in federal funds, and I began--and I got a hold of this broker or he got a hold of me--and I began to work with him. And I had just a little old notebook, and I'd write down. I said, "Now run that by me again. I don't understand that." So I bought into all these public housing bonds in Jacksonville in going around the bypass, the public housing is there. I financed some in Duvall County, those public housing there. Just anywhere I go, I'd see things that I invested in, and, uh, the bank made a lot of money. We added on, and we bought a 00:13:00filling station next door and tried to incorporate that into the bank. And, and, uh, we had people sitting in closets working and--

KLEE: (laughs) COMBS: We were just growing by leaps and bounds, and I would take this money from the CD and invest it. Of course, I was going along, and it was in my favor at the time. Now today, you couldn't do that today. It's hot money, and at the end of the one year period, if you can't give 'em as much as before, they take it out.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: But the examiners, I was buying bankers' acceptances, and he said, the examiner said, "What's that?" I said, "A B.A." Well, I didn't know what a B.A. But, anyway, I did do a lot of investing, and as I said, I had some guidance and the Lord guided me.

KLEE: And it became very, very successful. What did you father think of, uh, all that?

COMBS: Well, he--you know, he'd ask me about it, and I'd say, "What do 00:14:00you think about doing on this, investing in that?" "Well, sounds pretty good." And I'd say, "Well, good. That's what I thought. I've already done that."

KLEE: (laughs) COMBS: But I knew that if, the bank would run without dad, and dad was having heart trouble at the time.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And I thought the investments, we don't know anything about, and that we didn't have a good system. Computers were just beginning and I invested in one, and he said, "That's your white elephant sitting over in the corner."

KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: And, but I knew these things were going to take, take off, and, uh, uh--

KLEE: (pause) Let me take you back, uh, when you decided to go to college. Um, was that, you know, was there any question about that? I mean, uh, your, your father had, uh, uh, I don't guess came from a family of college goers?

COMBS: No, and neither did mother and, uh, but they always stressed 00:15:00education.

KLEE: Yeah.

COMBS: So there were three of us children, my father and, uh--I mean, me and my brother and my sister, and all three of us are college graduates, and Anna has a master's degree and is superintendent of the schools. And, uh--

KLEE: Yes. Um-hm. Now is that the, is that a city school system or the county?

COMBS: The county. She's over the county. And, uh, I had to ride the train if they didn't drive me. We went through Hyden and oh, dirt roads and down through, uh, uh, Clay County and--what is--Manchester.

KLEE: Manchester. Um-hm.

COMBS: And, and then if I--the train came in here then--and I would sometimes, when the weather was bad, ride the train back to Winchester, and we'd change and get off in Richmond because I went to Eastern.

KLEE: Right. Now this was in the 1940s, I guess?

COMBS: Um-hm. Right after the war--dur-, just as the war was ending.


KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh, oh, yeah. They stressed education, my parents did.

KLEE: Why was Eastern your choice? Had somebody else gone there before?

COMBS: No. Uh, I had written Centre.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: I was impressed with Centre and thought I wanted to go to school there. Well, dad was going to Louisville on business, and he asked me to ride with him. And I said, "Well, just for fun, let's go through Danville and let me see." I'd been accepted to go to Centre. When we went to the girls' dorm, it was across town from the boys', and it was at the end of the war and the grass was knee-high and hadn't been cut and bats flew out as we walked up. The furniture was covered with, uh, cloths, and it looked rundown and an old school, broken down school bus sat over there that they rode back-and-forth to class. And I started crying and I said, "I am not going to go to school here."

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: So going back a step further, I went to, uh, Berea one year in 00:17:00high school.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: And, uh--

KLEE: Well, how did that opportunity come up?

COMBS: Well, as teenagers grow up, they want to leave home, go away to school. The war had taken all the boys, was taking them, and I said, "I want to go away to school." And dad said, "Fine, but you'll go to Berea if you go." So I went, and I spent a year and a summer term and I was delighted to get back home.

KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: But, uh, I loved Berea, and, and really a lot of things stuck with me from Berea. And, uh, uh, when we were in Danville, I said, "Well, let's go back through Berea and see if I can get in there. I'll just go to school at Berea." And, uh, we stopped and they talked with dad about his income and mine, and they said, "Well, Mr. Caudill, you know, you're income is too much."

KLEE: Making too much. Right.

COMBS: And so, uh, on the way--we were going over to UK then. We went 00:18:00through Richmond, and there was going through--the road went through downtown Richmond at that time--and there was a sign, an electric sign that said Eastern Kentucky State Teachers' College and an arrow pointing. And I said, "Well, just for fun, let's drive out there." So we did, and summer school was just ending and students were on campus. And we went to the registrar's office, the first place, and I was impressed. And they took me to the student union building. They knew exactly where to take me, and, uh--oh, I was really impressed, and then over to Case Hall, and, uh, so I just signed up and went to Eastern. And dad said, "Well, we'll get you in the dorm at UK. You can go this year at Eastern and go to UK next year." Well, the war ended, Goebel came home and I met him, and that ended UK.

KLEE: I see. Well, tell me about that. You met your, uh, uh, uh, your first husband at, uh--

COMBS: At Eastern.

KLEE: At Eastern. Um-hm.


COMBS: And uh, uh--

KLEE: Was he a, a returning veteran?

COMBS: Yes, he was. He was in the Marine Corps, and he had come back. He had gone to Eastern before the war and volunteered for the Marine Corps and went to the South Pacific. And, uh, we dated for a year and decided to get married, and, uh, we dropped out and then decided we wanted to go back to school, and so he finished before I did and went on to play pro ball with the New York Knicks.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: And, uh, that's his picture hanging in there--

KLEE: I see. Um-hm.

COMBS: --with the New York.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh, uh, he--I would go to school in the fall, and they'd go to training camp in upstate New York and I couldn't go with him so I could get in a semester of school.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh, I did that, and I commuted back-and-forth on Eastern Airlines; those little DC-3s they took out and pioneered for those 00:20:00planes. And, uh, on graduation then, we came back and got a job at Fleming-Neon and then in the meantime, he was offered a job at Hazard. And we were in Hazard for ten years.

KLEE: So his pro career, how long did it last?

COMBS: Three years.

KLEE: Three years.

COMBS: He didn't like to travel and didn't like flying.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: And he wanted to quit and come back home.

KLEE: And, of course, uh, pro athletics back then is a far--

COMBS: Far cry from today. But don't you know that after he died--well, since I've been married to Dan--I got a letter from the NBA, and he thought it so--they cut off the year before of him to give a pension to, and he was so hurt over that.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: And they called me and said they were going include all of 'em.

KLEE: Wonderful.

COMBS: And I said, "Well, you know, he died." And they said, "Yes, we know that, but you're entitled to his pension." So I signed up and just 00:21:00signed it and sent it in the mail, and the first of the next month I started receiving a check.

KLEE: Yeah. Well, for the kind of money they make, they, I mean, they deserve to pay those pioneered players.

COMBS: Well, they paid them so little, you know.

KLEE: Oh, sure. (laughs)

COMBS: And, uh, uh, I just wish he could have received it.

KLEE: Right. It would have meant a lot to him. Um-hm.

COMBS: But, uh, we were--

KLEE: So he took a job in Hazard. Now what was he doing there?

COMBS: The basketball coach.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: And he won the state championship there. And, uh--

KLEE: And you were teaching?

COMBS: Um-hm. Teaching history, world history. Oh, I had a good time with those students. I got a workbook that I had used that I thought was very good, and, uh, I made 'em all get one, and I said, "I will not check them. I will not grade them, but your test will come out of these." And they did, and I gave essay type tests. And, uh, uh, 00:22:00I really enjoyed it, and one year I decided to go--my brother was in Europe in the Army, Air Force in Verona, and I decided to go see him. And Goebel did not want to go. He had been overseas, and he didn't want any part of crossing the ocean again. So--and Laura went with me. She was young, and I took her. And, uh, uh, I could have gone to those places blindfolded, all in Rome and all over where I'd taught it so much.

KLEE: Right. Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh, uh, I thoroughly enjoyed it, every bit of it.

KLEE: What year was that approximately?

COMBS: Uh, around '60 or '61. The war was over, and they were having trouble with, uh, uh, the Austrian Army; Italy and, and Austria. We crossed the border and that was really something, and then we drove 00:23:00close to the cold front border warning us we were getting close to it. And we toured by car.

KLEE: Yeah. Right in the middle of the cold war, then?

COMBS: Oh, yeah. It was in--and we were only allowed to bring back a hundred dollars worth of merchandise.

KLEE: Huh.

COMBS: That's when Kennedy slapped that on, and, uh, we sailed over and then we flew back. And, uh, I really enjoyed seeing all of Rome and, and, uh, then we went to a concentration camp.


COMBS: There in Germany and, uh, and France--de Gaulle was not happy with us at that time. We didn't like France--but we, we really toured and went through the Alps. And we drove and came back, and, and Jim was stationed in Verona, a northern Italian city.

KLEE: Italy. Um-hm.

COMBS: And we toured all of Italy, and, uh, uh, I didn't teach anymore 00:24:00after that. We, that's when we came to Letcher County.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: And, uh, took a job in the bank.

KLEE: It might have been nice to share those, but that's just the way it worked out; share those experiences. Yeah.

COMBS: Right.

KLEE: And I'm sure that's, uh, a lot different in the early sixties than it is today with commercialization.

COMBS: Oh, yeah. Right.

KLEE: Yeah. So when you moved back here, what was this community like?

COMBS: Well, it's grown a lot, and actually I think where the community colleges opened up in the community, it helps the community to grow.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: As you read there, probably, how it all started with the Whitesburg campus, uh, and we pioneered--uh, prior to that time, UK had bought and put buildings and decided where they would be, and this was a break from it. And, uh, the city had purchased the Coca Cola Bottling Plant and Jimmy Asher was mayor at the time, and he was asking 00:25:00for, uh, ideas of what to use the coke plant for.

KLEE: Now the coke plant, I guess, had been abandoned? Uh, they weren't using it--

COMBS: It was closed, and you know how they left--they bring it in on trucks now, you know. They bottle it in a district someplace.

KLEE: Pretty good sized building?

COMBS: Yeah. It's a stone building.

KLEE: Right. Downtown here.

COMBS: And, uh, uh, I called Jimmy Asher, and I said, "Jimmy, I think we ought to have a community college."

KLEE: Now where had your knowledge of community college come from? I guess--

COMBS: Uh, well, I just knew about them--

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: --because there was one at Hazard, and, uh, and I knew that, uh, they were offering classes here in Whitesburg--

KLEE: They had already started offering--

COMBS: --teaching out of the trunk of their car.

KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: They kept their material in the back, and they'd go to a high school building in Jenkins and one here and offer classes. And so when I called Jimmy, he said, "No, I don't think so." And they were offering 00:26:00the idea of a coal museum, uh, art museum, fire department. I don't know what all that was being suggested. He said, "No, I don't think that would work for a college at all." And I said, "Oh, I do." And I said, "I can see it. I can see the students." Because the river, it's in the bend of the river, and I--they fed the ducks all the time on campus--and I said, "I can see the students feeding the ducks. I can see tables out there, and I can see it."

KLEE: You visualized the whole--

COMBS: I did. I saw it. And, uh--

KLEE: Now the, the coke people had given the, the building?

COMBS: No. The city bought it; a hundred and--I think it's in there how much. I'm not good at facts and figures. Uh, paid a hundred and sixty-one thousand.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And so Jimmy, after two weeks of me hounding him and, and then finally I pulled across there and parked, and I looked over there and cried and thought, What a shame. I can just see a college there. And 00:27:00he called me, and he said, "Penny, I've been thinking about what you said." And he said, "You know, I think we do need a college there." And so, uh, he said, "I will call Dr. Ayers." At that time, Hazard had, in Blackey, they were offering classes, and we didn't want Blackey to think we were stealing--

KLEE: Taking their students. Um-hm.

COMBS: --from Hazard. So he called Dr. Ayers at Cumberland.

KLEE: So you're about equal distance from both places, Cumberland and Hazard, or--?

COMBS: Yeah. But this is a real barrier, this mountain, to cross when the weather is bad.

KLEE: Yeah. Right. You're talking about between here and Cumberland?

COMBS: Yeah, to the campus, Cumberland campus. So Jimmy set up the appointment, and my father went with me and Sellars and Dr. Ayers--

KLEE: Red Sellars. Um-hm.

COMBS: And Dr. Ayers came, and, uh Jimmy Asher.

KLEE: Now what, what meeting was this?

COMBS: This was the first meeting we had on trying to start.

KLEE: Where did you all meet at? Do you remember?


COMBS: At the Courthouse Cafe.

KLEE: Okay. So you all--

COMBS: We should have eaten there today. It's a nice place.

KLEE: Well, where you fed me was wonderful, too. So it was you and Red Sellars was with student services at--

COMBS: Right.

KLEE: --as Southeast.

COMBS: He was offering classes in the high schools here.

KLEE: Okay. And, and President Ayers and Mayor Asher.

COMBS: Um-hm. And my father who was president of Community Trust. At that time, it was First Security, I believe.

KLEE: How did that discussion go?

COMBS: Well, we, we had a very interesting discussion, and, and Dr. Ayers said, "Now, if you are thinking of a college, I have to, uh, requisition ahead of time to get professors and to get furniture and to get it going." And he, and, uh, he said, "I will be going and requisitioning, and I will ask for these things." And we said, "We can do it." And, uh, uh, I--we said, "When are you meeting?" And this was on a Monday. He said, "Thursday." I said, "That's all the time we 00:29:00have?" And he said, "That's it." So we said, "We'll do it. We'll be in touch with you."

KLEE: So, now what was he asking for at that point? Some money or--


KLEE: --or renovation of the building or--

COMBS: He was asking that we get enough pledges that we could buy that building and start construction. We said, "We'll gut it," because it was rotting down, and it's a stone building.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: But it was in bad shape and too bad we didn't take a picture. We failed to do that.

KLEE: To see the before and after.

COMBS: But, uh, so we hit the road running, and there it--I wasn't by myself. There was a lot of people that worked very hard.

KLEE: Yeah. I wanna, I want you to talk about some of those. I know the, the article mentions Josephine Richardson.

COMBS: Yes. And, uh--

KLEE: Tell me what her role was.

COMBS: Well, she's still on the foundation. Uh, she was a member of the foundation, and Harry Caudill, the author from here, was one of 00:30:00them that helped with it. And he was very interested in it, and, uh, in fact, uh, he worked very hard for it. And, uh, uh, we've just had so many that donated time and money, and we, we formed a foundation. Jimmy had the expertise to draw up the foundation for us to do that, to do it legally, and so--

KLEE: Now his background, he's a lawyer, I think, isn't he?

COMBS: Um-hm. Um-hm. And so, uh--now this is all a new concept of what, when we did it. It was trial and error, and, uh, uh, we had radio fund. People called in pledges, as much as a dollar to thousands of dollars, you know, five thousand or whatever, and, uh, uh, they signed pledges over a five-year period. They'd give so much each year, and, uh, we had some who were rude; said it can't be done.


KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: Uh, you're foolish to think you can get a college here, uh, and I just pulled down a metal shade and their words bounced off like bullets. And I didn't give up no matter what they said. That didn't discourage me, and so we've had a long--when was that, fifteen years ago?

KLEE: Well, it said that the, the college was born in 1990, and it was 1989 you were raising the money.

COMBS: Right.

KLEE: So tell me some of the, uh, if you can, people remember. Uh, it sounds like most of the community pitched in. So you had your, your, father, uh, with, with the bank there.

COMBS: Had both banks then.

KLEE: Both banks, Um-hm.

COMBS: Both banks. See, when our bank gave, uh, well, they gave a hundred thousand and then the other bank had to give a hundred thousand.

KLEE: Now what were those two banks again, uh?

COMBS: Uh, Bank of Whitesburg at that time. It's the Whitaker Bank today, and I might add that both banks still support that college.

KLEE: I see.


COMBS: And, and First Security which became Community Trust.

KLEE: Okay. So your, the bank you were associated with was First--

COMBS: First Security.

KLEE: --became Community Trust.

COMBS: And they acquired us. We sold to them.

KLEE: And Bank of Whitesburg was, the, was your competitor?

COMBS: Right.

KLEE: And they're now Whitaker Bank?

COMBS: Right.

KLEE: And they are still, you said--

COMBS: Both banks still contribute and support the college.

KLEE: Professional people in town, did they?

COMBS: Uh, not as much as I had hoped they would.

KLEE: Um-hm. Right.

COMBS: Some did. The local doctors who were born and raised here certainly supported it and still do.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: Uh, pharmacists, doctors. But the foreign doctors did not contribute like we thought they should have, and we, we pled with them and they didn't.

KLEE: Yeah. Uh, coal companies?

COMBS: Oh, yes. That's who gave us our money.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: The different coal companies--I can't remember all of them now- -but, uh, uh, Golden Oak, Southeast, um, and the locally owned, small 00:33:00companies, and they--Bill Sturgill was a big backer in it.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: And, uh, uh, it's difficult to remember.

KLEE: Sure. Well, you're talking about raising a whole lot of money, then, if each bank gave a hundred thousand and you had coal companies--

COMBS: We raised over a million dollars.

KLEE: A million dollars. Um-hm. Uh, now who was supervising, I mean, uh--

COMBS: We had a foundation. We formed a foundation, the Whitesburg Education Foundation. We're still in existence, and, uh, I'm getting ready--they've done work over there, and they destroyed the campus; cut down trees. And we're gonna have to--I, I've asked, and they'll be here tomorrow--professional landscapers to come give an estimate.

KLEE: Look it over. Um-hm.

COMBS: What to do to re-, restore the beauty of the campus.

KLEE: Right. And, and so you're saying that this foundation's going to try to help with that?

COMBS: Oh, yeah. That's our duty is to help do things.


KLEE: Well, uh, what was President Ayers telling you during this process? I mean, because he was caught between this community raising money to have a college and then he had to answer to UK. Was he having any problems from that end?

COMBS: And we were really pushing deadlines, but--(clears throat)--when we, we agreed to buy it, we bought it and we mortgaged the property and borrowed the money to start building. And everybody said, you can't remodel that. Uh, you won't get anybody to bid on that. We had two bids, and, uh, I'll never forget when we opened those bids and we had all this prior discussion before we finally opened them. And it got real quiet that we had a bid and we were ready to start construction. I said, "You know, I think I know how Thomas Jefferson felt when he founded the University of Virginia."

KLEE: (laugh) Yeah. And one of the bids, I guess, was under budget?


COMBS: Yeah. And, and, but people said, they can't build that building.

KLEE: Do you remember, uh, who, who did that work?

COMBS: I don't remember the name of the construction company, but it was local. Greg Amburgey was head of it.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: And so he built it, and, uh, dad would take people over there and workmen here and doing dry walling and laying tile, and he'd walk 'em through and say, "See our college." And--

KLEE: He took a lot of pride in it?

COMBS: Oh, yes. Yes. Yes, he did, and so did I.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: We showed it off to everybody. Mary Bingham gave us fifty thousand, and we invited her up--or Josephine invited the Bingham family to come visit with her, and she closed her restaurant and we had a private dinner--and, uh, Mary went through and looked at it. And she wanted to climb, and she was, I don't know how old she was. She went to Bad Branch Falls, and I've never been there--it's a terrific climb- 00:36:00-after she toured the, the campus. And, uh, then we had the dinner, and I told her my father was in the hospital and was so disappointed that he couldn't come meet her. And she said, "Which hospital?" And I said, "Here." And she said, "Let's go see him." So we went up to the hospital. But anyway, we were about to fold, about to go under. We couldn't make our payments, and, we, we just were at a standstill, we couldn't--

KLEE: Was that because, were, were you in construction at that point?

COMBS: No, we, we had already opened the college, and I think--does it say how many students we had that first year?

KLEE: I'm not sure.

COMBS: I believe it does, but anyway we had--

KLEE: Four hundred students.

COMBS: Yeah.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And so we had, uh, we invited her, and she went over and toured the building. And, uh, that night at the dinner, I didn't leave her 00:37:00side.

KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: I kept telling her we needed more money and wanting her--she'd given us fifty thousand, and, uh, we'd written several foundations asking for help. We wrote Coca Cola, and they didn't even bother to answer us and it has Coca Cola written in concrete on the front of it.

KLEE: On the building. Um-hm.

COMBS: And the kids made fun of it, the high school kids. Oh, I'm going to go over here to coke college. They made, you know, made jokes. But, uh, and I told her that we desperately needed some more money and I wished she could see a way clear.

KLEE: Just, just for operating funds; the electricity and, and, uh--

COMBS: No. Now the college took that up. That was in their budget.

KLEE: I see.

COMBS: See, he budgeted for a regular campus, for professors--

KLEE: President Ayers did?

COMBS: Right.

KLEE: And he got support from UK on this?

COMBS: Oh, yes. I went down and I met, that's where I met Wethington, and, oh, I fell in love with him. He liked this idea that we were raising the money, we were offering, we were going to deed that to 00:38:00the college.

KLEE: As opposed to UK trying to go out and start things?

COMBS: Right. He loved the concept of it.

KLEE: Now when you met him, where was that at in the process? Was that right here at the beginning or had, had you already started raising money?

COMBS: Oh, we'd raised a lot of money.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: I think the college was already up.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: I'm not sure.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: It was close--

KLEE: Yeah.

COMBS: --in there and he came, and we had a luncheon at Golden Oaks', uh, headquarters.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: And, uh, the Courthouse Cafe, uh, catered it. It was really a nice luncheon that we had, and he was impressed with it. He was impressed with the whole concept, and, uh, I went down to UK for some meetings. Met with Robinson, uh, Judge Mitchell Meade, head of the Robinson Foundation. They gave us a hundred thousand.

KLEE: I saw that, uh, yeah.

COMBS: And, uh, we had a luncheon where we, we were asking for that. I 00:39:00went with Jimmy Ayers, uh, Jimmy, uh--

KLEE: Asher?

COMBS: --Asher, and, uh, I don't remember who else went to the meeting. But we--and I had gone to high school with Mitchell Meade out there in Neon.

KLEE: Is that right? Um-hm.

COMBS: And I said, "You know we need education worse than anyone else," and, uh, I said, "We're products of that." And so he said, "I'll see what I can do." So we got a hundred thousand from them, so altogether we mortgaged, we paid the city one hundred and sixty-one thousand.

KLEE: So you paid them back, uh, for their, their original investment--

COMBS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

KLEE: They didn't. They couldn't donate the building to you, I guess?

COMBS: No, unh-uh. No. We bought the building. We bought it, and, uh, oh, I don't know. We, we had ever kind of device in the world of making money, at the festivals and different things, and, uh, we would 00:40:00meet. I know I, we had a, uh, progress, Partners in Progress, and I headed that. And I talked to Dr., uh, Pellegrini. Oh, I talked long and hard. We asked him to deliver a commencement address over at the campus, and he did a super job. And, you know, it was all UK, blue and white, and he, he gave a wonderful talk to those kids. And I begged him, and he said, "Now, I am going to leave in my will, I'm going to leave a house to the campus." Well, everybody immediately thought of the one next door where Dr. Case (??) is--who's his partner--lives, but he was talking about a house out in Westwood that was close to my mother and dad. And I said, "But you said"--he said, "I, I donate heavily to Harvard." He graduated from Harvard Medical School, and I 00:41:00said, "But you've made your living here, and you should give to this little college."

KLEE: (laughs) You pulled out all the stops.

COMBS: Oh, I did everything. I did all I could, and I still do.

KLEE: Tell me about the, uh--of course, four hundred students showed up. Was that a surprise to everybody?

COMBS: Oh, that's another story. While they were building and it what-- they'd say, won't be finished in time, and I'd pull that shade down. We're not going to have anybody come. Down goes the shade--just a mental shade I'd pull down--and the, we had a meeting the day before to see if everything was all right. And they said, well, they don't even have the tile laid in the floor and they're still over there painting, and, uh, we open tomorrow morning. So they, somebody said, ah I've heard the kids won't even come. They call it the coke college, and they're not interested in going there. They want to go to UK or they want to go to Eastern or Morehead, and, uh, I would, I would listen 00:42:00to it. And that night I prayed, and I said, "Dear Lord, let one show up tomorrow."

KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: Well, we had bedlam. Those people were blocked. They couldn't get out of their drive to go to work, the doctors couldn't. The police, they'd call the police. They were, they were about ready to kill each other over there. They said, you all better get over here right quick and do something, and everybody said, now what are we going to do about this? And I said, "Aren't you glad we have this problem?"

KLEE: Um-hm. Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Right.

COMBS: "Aren't you happy that we've got all this?" So, and I begged people to give us right of way and to sell us a piece of property and did a little bit of everything.

KLEE: Um-hm. Uh, um, what kind of a--I guess they had a, uh--wha-, how important was the UK connection to students and the community?

COMBS: Oh, very.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: That was the thing we were most proud of that we had a community college part of UK, and they'd say, I'm going to UK. And they'd get, 00:43:00you know, occasionally could get football or basketball tickets, and they sold, the UK shirts and, oh, they wore those with pride.

KLEE: So that gave you--you think that was an asset in your fundraising?

COMBS: Oh, definitely.

KLEE: And for bringing students in, too?

COMBS: Yeah. If it had been just on its own, they would have said, no way, but because it was a, a branch of UK, oh, it was, it was a definite asset.

KLEE: Yeah. I wanted to follow up on one thing I note--I noted when you showed me some of the literature. Uh, you said you stayed with Ms. Bingham for that second round, and she did come through?

COMBS: She did come through. She said, "All right, Penny. I must tell you this." She said, "You know, I've given to a lot of things in my life," and said, "I'd go to see what I had done, and I'd be very disappointed if it had been squandered." But she said, "I, this is one time it has been put to good use, and I'll be glad to give you another fifty thousand."


KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And she did, so she gave us a hundred all together.

KLEE: Was this--I guess this was probably her first visit to Whitesburg when she came down here?

COMBS: Uh, it may have been, but Josephine is a friend of her daughters. And they stayed, I don't know, Ms. Bingham stayed in a motel, I think. I'm not sure, but her daughter's family stayed with Josephine. And, uh--

KLEE: She must have really liked it. She went hiking and--

COMBS: Oh, she did. She stayed with Harry and Ann Caudill. That's where she stayed and, up at Mayking at, at their home there.

KLEE: Okay. Now they live, lived in a little community called Mayking?

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: Um-hm. Huh.

COMBS: And, uh, I know I took her a picture of Bad Branch Falls painted by a local artist, uh, because she had been there, and she was real pleased with that painting. And I went up there and took her--oh, I did everything to try to get money.

KLEE: Now, uh, how did you get Harry Caudill interested in this?

COMBS: Well, when we decided to form a foundation, we called different 00:45:00ones and asked if they'd be willing to serve. Some of 'em are still on the board, and many of them have dropped off.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: And it's not as active as it was, and now that they see the college in action and see the students, you know, they don't see the need to keep raising money but there is a need to keep raising money.

KLEE: Yeah. There's, there's things that the state won't pay for and the little extras.

COMBS: Right. Right.

KLEE: Yeah. Uh, you had these, uh--what was, and I know you're not too much on--

[Tape 1 ends; tape 2 begins.]

KLEE: This is side two of a tape, uh, with, uh, uh--I get the name-- Pauline "Penny" Ritter Combs, uh, in, in Whitesburg, Kentucky, as part of the University of Kentucky Community College System Project which is part of, for the University of Kentucky Libraries. I was going to ask you, you're not too much on this end of the, of the thing, but it 00:46:00sounds like right from the beginning they decided to have a full slate of programs here.

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: Uh, what, what went into that thinking and, and can--

COMBS: Well, they offered the nursing to begin with. That was the first thing they offered along with a, a bachelor's degree of art or science, in math, or we had chemistry and physics. We had some, had some good professors. We were real pleased with--

KLEE: The transfer of courses that go on so kids could transfer on?

COMBS: Right. And uh, we--

KLEE: Had they determined that there was a need for nursing right from the, right from the get-go?

COMBS: Oh, yes. Yes, there was, and, and there was so many single mothers who were interested in taking nursing. That's, they'd say, are you going to have nursing, because the other colleges had it. And so, uh, that was offered from the beginning, I believe.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And, um, uh, you'd go into the hospitals or the nursing home 00:47:00or the clinics and ask them where they went to school, why, I went to Southeast, and I had, I've been out of school for years, but I went back and got my RN or I got my LPN or whatever.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: Whatever they were interested in, and, yes, we were thrilled with that.

KLEE: Must have been a pent up demand if four hundred showed up right at the beginning, uh.

COMBS: Well, there, there was.

KLEE: And you've had a pretty good growth since then, I guess.

COMBS: No. It leveled off at about five hundred and something; anywhere from four to five hundred--

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: --is about what we get each semester, I think.

KLEE: Um, what about the relation of the community college--I mean this, this center here--to, uh, transfer institutions. You mentioned, uh, when we were having lunch Midway's in here.

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: Uh, tell me about that.

COMBS: Well, they've been here the last couple of years and, uh, offering a degree in education.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: In elementary, and, uh, they come on Fridays and Saturdays, and I 00:48:00know a miner.

KLEE: Pardon?

COMBS: I know a miner that took--and he works at home.

KLEE: Is that right?

COMBS: He took classes, and he went on Friday nights until about ten or something. He'd have to go into work, and, uh, then he'd, go, not go to sleep and go for Saturday morning classes.

KLEE: Um-hm. Do you know if he got through?

COMBS: And he finished. Yes. He finished and got his degree.

KLEE: That's great. Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh, uh, there are just so many, uh, people who have--I don't know how many they graduated from that. They went to Midway and graduated.

KLEE: Uh, you have full-time staff here, I guess?

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: There's a director of the center?

COMBS: Um-hm. Eugene Meade.

KLEE: Um-hm. How has, uh, how has having a college here in town, what kind of, uh, affect has that had on the community?


COMBS: Well, I think it helps all communities.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: Uh, they, uh, they take part in civic club meetings, and, uh, uh, they have a, a, during our festival they have an exhibit and they have--

KLEE: Now what's the festival on?

COMBS: Mountain Heritage Festival.

KLEE: Mountain Heritage. Um-hm.

COMBS: Uh, they take part in that and have exhibits, and they constantly are offering, uh, courses that you can sign up for beginning computers or--

KLEE: Right. Community type courses. Yeah. Continuing education.

COMBS: And, uh, uh, and it's been a very positive influence on the community, and people accept it. You know, now it's our college, and they don't make fun of it and call it the coke university.

KLEE: (laughs) Well, I guess it was, uh, it was a wonderful building and had good bones, and it's served pretty well.

COMBS: We gutted it. We had to gut the building, and we did it in earth 00:50:00tones. We had to go through the historical society to keep the looks of the outside, but then we got this new--I noticed, I had forgotten all about this--Belinda Mason and I took part in that. Uh, I don't see it now, but yeah, here it is, it's a big, modern building. They're going to dedicate that this spring.

KLEE: And where's that located?

COMBS: And they're building a bridge. It's on campus.

KLEE: Oh, it's on your all's campus? Oh. Um-hm. Yeah, I knew--I saw this, uh, uh, I'm looking at, um, an artist's rendering of it, and, and where are they at in this construction?

COMBS: Oh, they're in it. It's completed.

KLEE: Okay. They just haven't had the dedication, you saying?

COMBS: Well, they're going to dedicate the whole campus.

KLEE: I see.

COMBS: And they called, and they're going to change the Coke Building to the Caudill Hall.

KLEE: Okay. That's, that's nice. Yeah. Uh, I saw this artist's rendering when I was at Southeast last year, and, uh, oh, that's, 00:51:00that's wonderful.

COMBS: It's a beautiful building. Has a beautiful theater in it and--

KLEE: I was going to ask that. Has the, has the college, uh, been an asset as far as, uh, community events, cultural events?

COMBS: Oh, yes. Yes, it has, and they've offered, uh, uh, different things if they--I can't remember now some of the things that they offer--and, uh, uh, they have honors. They don't have graduation here anymore. They've got to go to Cumberland to graduate.

KLEE: Yeah.

COMBS: But, uh--

KLEE: But you said in the beginning they did have some graduations?

COMBS: Yeah. We did. We, we insisted that they go through. We'd worked too hard. We wanted graduations.

KLEE: Sure. Wanted to see them. Right.

COMBS: And, uh, now they have honors which is really nice, and they, they come in, march in and then receive their honors.

KLEE: Yeah. Have the different, uh--

COMBS: And a reception later.

KLEE: That's nice. Um-hm. You, you mentioned that, uh, you had a lot 00:52:00of non-traditional students, uh, older students come, come to college. Uh, even though the roads are better now, as you said, it's, it's still a, would still be a, a problem--they wouldn't have the same opportunity if this wasn't here.

COMBS: Well, you met the lady working for me that was out front this morning?

KLEE: Yes. Um-hm.

COMBS: Now her son went over there.

KLEE: Is that right? Um-hm.

COMBS: And she said it cost him about thirteen thousand dollars a year for him to go to college. He went on to, I guess he goes to Hazard for this criminal--I, I really thought that he could have done better than that. I said, "What's he going to do with that when he gets through?" At first he was gonna be a state trooper or something. Now he wants to be a lawyer. He needs to go further than that, and, uh, uh, she was so concerned with the increase in, uh--

KLEE: Tuition.

COMBS: --tuition. And she told me the other day that she thought he was gonna have to get enough grants. He's a straight A student.


KLEE: Wonderful.

COMBS: Straight As, and, uh, he's received a lot of, uh, uh, scholarships.

KLEE: Yeah. And this gave him the opportunity to get started.

COMBS: Right. And, and people don't look at it--now they say, well, they're going over here to get their grade point average up and get their basics out of the way and then move on to UK or Eastern or wherever they're going. No, parents want their kids--and the kids want to stay home the first two years.

KLEE: Right. Well, it's such an economic savings, too.

COMBS: Oh, it is.

KLEE: There's always some personalities involved in some of these things. Does, does anybody stand out in your mind; either, um, some staff over there or, or Bruce or Red or any of these people that, uh, uh, you know, kind of, uh, as I said, do you have stories to tell or anything in reference to the fundraising or the beginnings of the college?

COMBS: Oh, yeah. Dr. Ayers was so wrapped up in all of it in the beginning.

KLEE: Was he?


COMBS: Oh, yes. And, uh, he attended a lot of our fundraisers. And, he was very supportive.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: And, uh, I grew very close to him during that time, and I admire him a great deal. Uh, I think he's done a wonderful job, and, uh, he's tried to help pull the communities in. Letcher County's been a little difficult at times. Um, it's a little different than Harlan County. Each community is different from the other, and, uh, but he was amazed that we could raise the funds and buy that building. And we paid off that note. It went over a million dollars, and we paid for it.

KLEE: Um-hm.

COMBS: So that--and we gave it to the university out in clear, and, and, uh, let's see. I think it's in here a story of me giving a check of two hundred and thirty four thousand somewhere in here. Uh--


KLEE: As part of the Partners, uh?

COMBS: Fulfilling the Promise or something like that; one of those programs.

KLEE: One of those fundraising.

COMBS: Uh, Dr. Judy Leonard, do you know her?

KLEE: No, I don't. Unh-uh.

COMBS: Oh, she's a, she's a go-getter for the college, and she, she and her husband just kept on until, uh, I gave, uh, a charitable gift last year. And she helped me, was very supportive.

KLEE: Now is she a development person there or--

COMBS: For the Southeast.

KLEE: Okay.

COMBS: And, uh, uh, she's raised, to help raise a lot of money, and we had--Maynard Hogg is a member of our board, a coal operator. He owns a coal mine, and, uh, he gave--at one time, he said, "I've got a piece of land that I'm going to give to the college"--and he, uh, um, 00:56:00deeded it to us. And it was abandoned mine land in between houses and communities, and, uh--because I asked how close is it to the nearest homes there at the time that we were accepting that. And, uh, all at once we begin to receive royalty checks. They went back to reclaim some of that coal, and our treasurer had built up to, uh, two hundred and thirty four thousand, I believe.

KLEE: Wonderful. Um-hm.

COMBS: And the college needed it. They--we're in this construction, and they were putting that bridge--see, we have a building as you come into town, there on the right. I don't know if you noticed it.

KLEE: I didn't notice it. Unh-uh.

COMBS: There's a flagpole, and that's, and I wanted a big sign put up out there, uh, Southeast Community College and listing if there's a, 00:57:00a drama or something going on. Whatever was taking place at the time, but I didn't get that. I, I wanted that very much, and, uh, so we gave that check, uh, the foundation gave the check to, to the college--and Judy was instrumental in getting that--and that was to help them where they fell short on some of the projects.

KLEE: Yeah. I was going to ask you when you mentioned, uh, Dr. Ayers, this was the time period, I think, when this idea of these external centers were just starting, and I, I-- you all probably were before Harlan.

COMBS: We started it.

KLEE: Okay. Right.

COMBS: That's why Wethington wanted you to come talk to me. We were the first.

KLEE: Okay. Yeah.

COMBS: And we offered, and he was overwhelmed that we were offering to do it ourselves; to raise the money and to do it.

KLEE: Right. Yeah.

COMBS: And I think UK was astounded, so now if they want one, they've 00:58:00got to produce the building now. So we were the pioneers in that. We started that.

KLEE: What about the, uh, support today? I mean, do you, does the college still, uh--th-, this was twenty years ago, so some of the same people were still very instrumental, you're saying, uh--?

COMBS: Oh, yes. Still, yeah, we've grown old, with that committee. And we've picked up a few new ones, and we've lost some; some died. And, uh--

KLEE: Yeah. The city's still very cooperative?


KLEE: The school system, how does, how does it work with the school system?

COMBS: It works real well in the school system, and, uh, in fact some of the high school students take a college course or so in, you know. You know, they, they work back-and-forth, and uh--

KLEE: Phil Smith called it the, uh, the divorce in 1997 when, uh, when the, the state did this, uh, legislation that, uh, removed the community college system from UK.

COMBS: It was a divorce, painful.


KLEE: (laughs) How'd, what was the reaction here in, in--

COMBS: Oh, people didn't like it. They didn't think they should take-- they thought it would ruin our school.

KLEE: Um-hm. Yeah.

COMBS: They were proud that UK had a campus here, and they could say with pride that UK has a community college in our community. We, the day that--it goes back to one Sunday, uh, my parents and my late husband and myself and R.C. and Francis Day had lunch at the old country club, and, uh, the, uh, nursing home had just opened and we were so glad Letcher County had a nursing home. And we were discussing and--and the, the property came up, the coke property and that, th-, the city had just bought it--and, um, my husband, I think, said, um, "You know, this--we need a college." And I said, "That's exactly 01:00:00right." And I said, "You take Hindman, Hazard, Pikeville, Prestonsburg, Cumberland; they all have a college and we're the only one that doesn't." And things looked very grim at the time, and business was down and, and people were having a hard time; a lot of people out of work. And, um, we thought a college would be an economic boom and would help our people get an education, so then he--

KLEE: And you said that was your parents, uh, were there at that, uh--

COMBS: Yes. My mother and father and my late husband, Goebel Ritter, and myself and R.C. and Francis Day.

KLEE: R.C. and Francis Day.

COMBS: And so that's when I called Jimmy Asher and asked him if we couldn't put a community college there or I, I just took the ball and started running. I just went wild.

KLEE: (laughs) And overwhelmed them.


COMBS: Yeah. It overwhelmed me, too, and, uh, I never dreamed it would work out as well as it has.

KLEE: And it happened very quickly, had everything--

COMBS: The Lord intended for this to happen.

KLEE: Right. Yeah.

COMBS: He did.

KLEE: But, but when, when this discussion started, of course, we had an eastern Kentucky governor at that time; first one in forty years. Uh, you said you lobbied, uh, against this change?

COMBS: Oh, yes. See, I had campaigned for Paul Patton because he was a mountain man, and, um, Bert Combs had done so much for the mountains and, and Paul did for Pike County.

KLEE: Yeah.

COMBS: I don't know if you've been there recently--

KLEE: Oh, I have, I have.

COMBS: --but he's made a little city out of it, and, uh, and I had given a political, uh, contribution to Paul and I'd voted for him and, and was very much for him. And when he started this that he was going to sever ties with the university and have a technical college, oh, 01:02:00I nearly died, and I wrote him a letter and I said, "Please, you're making a terrible mistake. Don't do that. The, the people don't want you to do it." And so I got a petition, and they signed it. Well, that was the wrong thing for me to do. Paul Patton didn't like that, and, uh, uh--no, they were very much against it, but it's proven that it's a good thing. But I still think we had more prestige with the university. I wish it'd go back.

KLEE: Yeah. Whitesburg is like a lot of Kentucky counties. They, they like UK and the basketball and the whole thing.

COMBS: Oh, yeah. Oh, they all wear Kentucky blue.

KLEE: I see. Um-hm.

COMBS: Yeah. They're very much, University of Kentucky, and, uh, we listen to the ball games and go and have season tickets and go down and tail-gate and have a ball. We've done that for years.

KLEE: Now your parents, uh, endowed a scholarship for the, for the 01:03:00college?

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: And that just goes in, that's in their general scholarship fund for students?

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: Uh, and as we were, we're talking, uh, there was a special scholarship, um, uh, program that you initiated. Can you tell me about that? Uh, the scholars.

COMBS: That's this right here. It's the Scholars for Southeast.

KLEE: I think I put that under here. Um-hm. This is an interesting--

COMBS: And this. Uh, and Judy Leonard, Dr. Leonard, helped me with this. Uh, let's see. The scholarship targets the sixth grade students, and, uh, uh--

KLEE: What, what precipitated that? Did you have an idea? Did you see something like it similar around the country, did?

COMBS: Uh, well, I felt like there were a lot of children left behind that--well, I served on the Robinson Scholarship Board to help select 01:04:00students, and I saw them go on and prosper and do well and I thought it was a wonderful program.

KLEE: Now that, that's out of the Robinson Forest money?

COMBS: Um-hm. At, that UK has.

KLEE: At UK. And, and did they identify younger students, too?

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: Okay. I wasn't aware of that.

COMBS: Oh, yes. They pick the, uh, Robinson Scholars and they were very proud. They were eighth graders, and, uh, they, uh, watched them through high school and, and then took 'em to college. And I know some that have excelled doing that, and that could really help them. And this, uh, it's called the Southeast Scholars Endowment, and it's helped to finance these students and we target the sixth graders that show promise. And, uh, uh--

KLEE: So as you follow the--I guess, they follow these along, uh?


COMBS: These students.

KLEE: Um-hm. And someone at the college is doing this?

COMBS: I don't know who's in charge.

KLEE: They have a, a mentor or how do they do that?

COMBS: Well, they had a, uh--I don't remember what it was called. I got a letter on it. I, I'm not very organized. When I retired, I gave up a secretary and a maid. I got into the real world.

KLEE: Gosh. (laughs) That was quite a shift.

COMBS: Oh, it was, and, uh, uh--

KLEE: So when these students graduate, they'll have a tuition scholarship waiting for 'em at Southeast here?

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: That's wonderful.

COMBS: Yeah. And their way will be paid.

KLEE: You tell me by accident that you, uh, ran into a, a someone, uh, at a local restaurant; a student that was one of these scholars.

COMBS: Yes. I did.

KLEE: Tell me how that happened.

COMBS: Well, we sat down next to this mother with three children, and he was, uh, the sixth grader and, uh, the twins, twin girls, were fourth 01:06:00graders. And I admired the mother and those children. It had been awards day and they had gone for awards, and I kept looking at this little boy. I was drawn to him. He was a fine looking young man, and he just looked bright out of his eyes. You can tell, you can tell when they're bright. And I said, uh, "Did you receive an award today?" And he said, "Yes." He said, uh, uh, "I've been an honors student and on the honor roll every month and, uh, every term." And his mother said, "He makes straight As." And I said, "What are you going to do in school?" And he said, "Well, I haven't decided yet." He said, "I'm thinking about science or math." And I said, "Well, that's wonderful." And we began to talk. Dan talked to him about his son, uh, that went into chemical engineering and then finally into dentistry, and, and we talked about different things. And finally, uh, he said, "I'm a 01:07:00southeast scholar."

KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: And I could have fainted. I started crying, and I thought, "This is one of them, and how did I pick him out of all of these kids in here today." It was just phenomenal.

KLEE: And the program was, almost just starting, wasn't it?

COMBS: Just starting. He was one of the first, and he'd gotten, he took the letter home to his mother. Well, his mother was just overwhelmed and so was I. I cried. I said, "I'm that lady that started that program." And I said, "How on earth did I just pick you out and pull that out of you?" And she said, "I wouldn't have missed this conversation today for anything." She said he brought the letter home. He's been picked to be a southeast scholar. Sixth grader, he goes to Cowan Elementary School.

KLEE: I saw it as I passed, Um-hm. Yeah. Out the road here a little bit on Number 15.

COMBS: Right. And he, uh--I don't know how--


KLEE: So this, you've spread this around to several counties, then?

COMBS: It, it's in Bell, Harlan and Letcher County.

KLEE: I see. Um-hm.

COMBS: They already had a fund--a Mary somebody. I don't remember the name of the foundation--and for all the money they could raise, she would match it and so she matched what I gave. Actually, I gave more than fifty thousand, and, uh--

KLEE: Well, that's great. And, you know, you can see the fruit of that over the years then.

COMBS: Already. I did it last fall, and, uh, Dan and I went to Florida and came back--we came back Easter--and here it's already working.

KLEE: That's great. I want to catch you up on your personal life. You, when you came back and worked at the bank when did, uh, when did you all leave the banking business or when--

COMBS: Well, my father's health was failing and he knew it, and, uh, 01:09:00it was sort of a family owned bank. We didn't own all of the shares, but we owned the majority stock. And, uh, different people, they were acquiring banks at that time, and, uh, Pikeville National was interested in acquiring us. And it wasn't the building, that's for sure. We had lean-tos and all, ramps going over to the oil ramp. We'd say, oh, that's over in the filling station. And, uh, uh, they built it after they acquired us, and they had designs for just a straight through, plain look, almost like a church. Dad said, "Why, we're not going to leave this vault. This is a good vault. There's nothing wrong. We can work right around it." So he got Bill Richardson. He called him up and said, "Can you design it and can we live in it?" He said, "Sure. Sure. We can fix it." And so we did, and, uh, uh, when 01:10:00Pikeville came, I thought I'd just be there a couple weeks, and I told them I would resign. They said, oh, no. We want you all to run it on, and so we did for about fifteen years.

KLEE: Is that right? After you were bought out you went ahead and managed it.

COMBS: And dad became a member of their board, and, and then they changed their name to Community Trust. And, uh, they changed all the names. They had too many different banks, and they had to bring them under one umbrella. And, uh, uh--

KLEE: What time period was this, when?

COMBS: Uh, about the time we started the college. It was-- KLEE: Nineteen ninety.

COMBS: --sort of right in there together, and, uh, uh, Burland (??) couldn't get over that we'd started a college and had five hundred students already when Pikeville didn't have much more. He said, "You mean, you've got five hundred?" We said, "Yeah, we've got five hundred." I said, "They come as far away as Pike County." And, uh, 01:11:00I told him examples of different students that, that had excelled. Toyota financed one in math. That was--and there was all sorts of stories. I can't remember all of 'em now.

KLEE: Right.

COMBS: I thought I would remember. I should have written them down.

KLEE: Oh, that's fine. (laughs)

COMBS: And, uh, uh, it, it was, it was just unusual the students that came and the hardships they had and what they had to overcome, and, uh--

KLEE: And that's one of the reasons you decided to try to start helping early?

COMBS: Um-hm.

KLEE: Yeah. To try to keep it--help all the way along.

COMBS: Well, they, they get discouraged and maybe become troublemakers, you know, and drop out of school.

KLEE: Yeah. But by identifying them, they know there--they've, they've got a path ready for them if they can just do the right thing.

COMBS: And they help them if they're having problem maybe in science or math. They might even get tutors for them and help them, and they encourage them. They're picked out now. I don't know who picked that 01:12:00little boy. I don't have any idea, and they've picked them in Bell County and they've picked them in Harlan County. And he was one of the Letcher County.

KLEE: So you finally did retire, then?

COMBS: I retired, uh, fifteen, fifteen years ago.

KLEE: I see. Um-hm.

COMBS: I guess. And, uh, I retired--

KLEE: And recently became Mrs. Combs.

COMBS: Well, uh, I retired in February, Goebel retired in June, and we had a few years before he got sick and he had a stroke. He had a couple of strokes, and he had, uh, he developed Parkinson's. So he was sick about ten years. We had--

KLEE: Now I didn't, I didn't catch up with him. You said he, uh, coached at Hazard and took a, a team to state tournament; uh, won the state tournament, you said. Uh, that, that was his career, then, back here?

COMBS: Uh, he came back here and went into the central office.


KLEE: Oh, okay.

COMBS: He was assistant superintendent, and so he retired and we had three or four years that we traveled some. And then he was sick and finally, the last three years, I had to put him in a nursing home.

KLEE: Yeah. He was in bad shape. Um-hm.

COMBS: I couldn't lift him when he'd fall, and I couldn't keep help. I couldn't get anybody to help me. So I had to, and it was the most difficult thing I ever had to do. And, uh, his wife--Dan's wife--had Alzheimer's, and she was up at the nursing home about that time, too. They died fairly close together, and I never thought anything about him and he didn't think anything about me. And I, in the meantime before Goebel died, I started building a home in Florida, bought it off the internet.

KLEE: Is that right?

COMBS: Yeah. I built a house in Wellington which is a village of West Palm Beach. Beautiful area, beautiful. It's the horse country of Florida. They have the polo games there and, and all the horse--the 01:14:00dressage and all of that in the month of February. But anyway, I'd built this house, and I went down. My children lived there at the time, and, uh, Goebel died in October and I took possession of the house in December. So I went ahead and furnished it, set up and fell in love with it there, and I came home. And I stopped in South Carolina and bought some peaches.

KLEE: (laughs)

COMBS: You know how nice they are.

KLEE: Oh, yeah.

COMBS: So we brought them home, and I used all of them. In the meantime, my brother came one day with a bag of peaches, and he'd been out to Dan's. They, they go to church together, and he was in Dan's Sunday school class. And, uh, Dan said, "Why don't you take your sister some?" And he said, "Well, okay. I will." So when I used them, 01:15:00I called him. I said, "Dan, I want to thank you for these peaches. They were beautiful. They were as nice as the ones from South Carolina." And he said, "Well, I'm glad you enjoyed them." He said, "How about going to lunch with me?" And I said, "I'd love to." And we've been together ever since.

KLEE: I see. Well, that's great.

COMBS: That was in, uh, August, I guess, when the peaches ripened, and, uh, we announced our engagement in October and we got married, had a formal wedding the first of December. I do things in a hurry.

KLEE: That's right. It was a whirlwind.

COMBS: I do things like that. I did that way in the bank. I tend to do that.

KLEE: Well, it's worked out for you so far.

COMBS: Well, sometimes, it doesn't always work out, but I tend to move in a, move in a hurry when I do things.

KLEE: Right. Worked out for the community with, uh, with the college.

COMBS: Right. It really did. To me that's the greatest legacy I could have left behind is the community college.

KLEE: Yeah. Were there questions or anybody that I should have asked 01:16:00about that I forgot?

COMBS: Well, I don't know. I think we've pretty well covered it.

KLEE: Yeah. Well, I appreciate you talking to me.

COMBS: Well, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

KLEE: Thank you.

[End of interview.]