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December 17, 2012

Education advocate dies: JoAnne James leaves legacy

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — The founder of Forward in the Fifth, a non-profit group aimed at improving schools in Kentucky, and long-time resident of London, died Monday.

Funeral services for JoAnne James were held on Thursday. The 73-year-old wife, mother, and education advocate left a legacy established in 1986 which focused on teacher training, student rewards for academic achievement and attendance, educational programs and advocated public school education.

United States Senator Harold “Hal” Rogers praised James for her devotion to improving schools in the Congressional Fifth District that the Republican Senator represents. The Fifth District has long been touted as one of the nation’s poorest, unhealthiest and uneducated areas.

“JoAnne’s passion for education and contributions for enhanced learning sparked new ideas and vigor for change,” Rogers said in a statement released Tuesday. “My wife, Cynthia, and I extend our deepest heartfelt sympathies to JoAnne’s friends and loved ones.”

Newspaper icon and former publisher of The Sentinel-Echo, Al Smith, also had many good words for his friend.

“She was the founding chairman and leader of Forward in the Fifth,  a school support movement in the Fifth Congressional District from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.  JoAnne took a vision of  better education in Appalachia from several friends and mentors and shaped it into her own unique concept of improving schools through special outside assistance for principals and classroom teachers.”

For the Fifth District, rated in the 1980 Census as having the workforce with the lowest educational level in the nation, the program under her leadership raised  an estimated $12 million from foundations and government grants over 10 to 15 years,  Ginny Blackson of Berea, an early executive director of Forward in the Fifth, said Tuesday. Blackson, now director of Promise Neighborhoods, a $30 million program for early childhood intervention in three low-income counties, said Mrs. James inspired her own career with her “positive approach to educational reform.”

A “full partner” in his wife’s efforts was her husband, Ken James, the entrepreneur who developed a struggling data processing company into ACS, Appalachian Computer Services, which was sold  for millions of dollars to  outside investors in the late 1980s.

“When the grants were lagging in the early days, Ken donated automobiles, equipment and other services,” said Al Smith. “The Jameses were a power couple in the civic life of London. They came there, from Louisville in the 1970s, a poor young couple with a lot of faith in each other and in Ken’s belief that he could take what he had learned about computers in the Navy and do something for ACS which was all but bankrupt. He did.”

Meanwhile, JoAnne James finished her college education at  Eastern Kentucky, began raising three children and attracted admiring supporters beyond the London city limits. In the years that followed, she served on the boards of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, the Council on Post-Secondary Education, and  Georgetown College.

James remained dedicated to improving education in the Appalachian region through Forward in the Fifth, which is now based at the Southeastern Kentucky Center of Rural Development in Somerset. Those acquainted with Rogers’ efforts to establish the Center remember fondly when the project was underway.

“When Rogers was building the Center, JoAnne smiled sweetly one day and said, ‘Hal, why don’t you forget this and give the money to scholarships?’” Smith recalled.

Saint Joseph London interim President Bruce Klockars stated, “JoAnne served on our Board of Directors and Hospital Council since 2002.  She contributed significantly to hospital sponsored efforts as we planned our new facility, and as we transitioned from Marymount Medical Center to Saint Joseph Health System and now to KentuckyOne Health.  Joanne’s death is a great loss for our hospital and the community.”

Former hospital president Ginna Dempsey added, “I highly valued JoAnne’s insight and counsel on hospital matters.  She was a special lady who served our hospital and community for many years.  We will miss her loving heart and smiling face.  I extend my deepest sympathies to Ken and the entire James’ family.”

James is survived by her husband, Ken, two sons, one daughter, and six grandchildren.

njohnson@sentinel-echo.com

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