LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — One cold morning, just a few short years back, a bunch of us were sitting around a breakfast table at Uncle Tom’s restaurant, which, at the time, was a thriving business here in Paint Lick, and a popular gathering spot for a few businessmen and the regular crowd of local farmers to share camaraderie before beginning the day’s labor.
On the morning I am recalling the subject under discussion had to do with the exact wording of a Biblical verse from the New Testament and several fellows were adamant that their version was the precise quote. Finally one of the younger fellows said, “I’m pretty sure that Dan Ledford is correct.”
Somebody else asked why he thought that, and the fellow said, “As I understand it, or at least I’ve been told, Dan was sharpening pencils for Saint Mark when he wrote it.”
Just past noon last Monday as a host of his friends sat in the sanctuary of Old Presbyterian Church of Paint Lick, the officiating minister implored us to “thank God for the gift of his faithful servant, Dan Ledford.” In just a few minutes, Dan would be laid to his final resting place with military honors, there beside his late wife, Laverne, in Paint Lick’s Manse Cemetery.
If asked to point to a single time or person that made me fall in love with our little village, I would immediately recall the first time I met Dan Ledford. It was early in the spring of 1983. The closest place to Berea that Loretta and I could find that was large enough for us to combine families and cohabitate was an old farm house on top of the hill in Paint Lick. I can’t even remember why we thought it so all fired important that we be close to Berea, but it probably had to do with keeping oldest daughter, Carol, enrolled in the same school she was attending at the time. All of which is beside the point.
The point being that very early one fine, sunny, spring morning youngest daughter, Jennifer, came tearing into my study to announce, “Dad, there’s a man out there tearing up your field wearing a jungle hat and driving a big tractor.”
I followed her to the living room window and, sure enough, a fellow dressed in khaki and wearing what turned out to be a genuine British adventurer pith helmet was plowing up the spot I intended to garden. I had previously spread word to everybody we’d met in the neighborhood that I wanted to raise a garden and somehow Dan had gotten hold of that information. Turned out the helmet was a very efficient sun shade, and a way of reminiscing his tour of Army Air Corps duty in New Guinea during World War II.
Although he only lived about a quarter mile and two houses out the road, we’d never met. He had driven by our house, taken a look at the place and decided the only logical place to plant was where he was plowing. He proceeded to turn enough ground to make a dozen vegetable gardens, telling me later that I could use whatever I wanted but the whole field needed plowing anyway so he just went ahead and did it while he was there.
When I pulled out my wallet to pay him, he waved me off.
“Just being neighborly,” he said. “You’d do the same thing me,” he said, and winked.
Ask Loretta or any other woman in Paint Lick, what they best remember about Dan Ledford and they’ll tell you about his wink. Actually that’s what I best remember too, because he’d frequently grab my wife into a hug and wink at me while he teased her about running off with him.
Our children remember him as their school bus driver and they loved him dearly. Truth be known, he probably taught them as much as any of their teachers. The school system finally made him stop driving the bus when he was in his early 80s. I remember his 80th birthday during a hot summer more than 15 years ago. He didn’t look or act a day older than 50. I can say for sure that I never once feared for Jennifer’s safety when Dan was driving the bus on a long road ball game that got her back to the school grounds after midnight. He loved the kids in his charge as much as they loved him.
For 60 years, Dan was a Ruling Elder of Paint Lick Presbyterian Church, which was founded well before Kentucky became a state. As the minister said on Monday, he took that position seriously and literally. He was also Sunday School Superintendent for more than 55 years. No other person has served the church anywhere near that long.
Dan was a lot of things to a lot of people. He was a good neighbor and a father figure to me for decades, but more importantly, he was a close, caring and oh so very dear friend. I will miss him more than I can adequately put into words. Dan had walked our earth for well over 95 years.