On Tuesday evening London Downtown presented the London's Living Treasures Banquet where four of London's most influential residents were honored by family, friends and community members.
Those honored were Tom Handy, Ken Smith, Nancy Vaughn and Francis Wilhoit.
It was the influence of his parents' friends that convinced Tom Handy to pursue a career in law.
That influence has led to the many convictions during his years as Commonwealth's Attorney for the 27th Judicial Circuit, in which time only one guilty verdict was reversed.
"I never had a guilty verdict reversed in a capital (murder) case," Handy said of his 26-year career in that role.
That career began in 1969 after he graduated college with a degree in law and became administrative and legislative assistant for Congressman Tim Lee Carter in 1969. He returned to London in 1971 and opened his own law practice, which he operated until 1977. He continued his private practice even after becoming Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney in 1975.
But when he was elected as Commonwealth's Attorney in 1997, he launched a career that is still heralded across the state, as well as involving him in numerous activities promoting leadership and law.
He credits his family for allowing him to experience all the success he has known - his wife Bonnie, daughter Dennie Beth (Mills) and son Starr Handy.
"I'm thankful to have the wife I have," he said. "As a prosecutor, my children and wife have had to endure a lot. They've always given me wonderful support and I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I have without them."
Handy's list of accolades could easily fill a book and have various directions. He is a businessman, teaming with his brother Jim, to build Best Western - Harvest Inn, Harvest Inn restaurant, Holly Bay Marina and apartments and rental properties. He was in the first class of Leadership Kentucky and was co-founder of Leadership Tri-County, scaling that program to the state program to bring leaders of various communities together to learn and face problems in the area.
He served on the Governor's Commission for Drug Free KY, Commission on the creation of KASPER - the reporting system for physicians and pharmacies to record opioid prescriptions and sales as the opioid epidemic increased in the area, the Attorney General's Task Force dealing with election fraud, asset forfeiture, child sexual and physical abuse, prescription drug abuse and Crime Victims' Bill of Rights.
He was selected as "Outstanding Commonwealth's Attorney" by his peers in 1981 and 1983 and the "Outstanding Commonwealth's Attorney" by Attorney General Cowan in 1988. He was involved in the creation of the Children's Advocacy Center (TLC House) in London. He was also a charter member of the executive board of the Appalachia HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), serving as Commissioner of the Financial Commission from 1998 until 2003 and a charter member since 1998.
His community involvement is just as extensive as his professional affiliations, being a member of the London Jaycees, London Kiwanis Club and the London-Laurel Chamber of Commerce. He is a charter member and past president of the Laurel County Fair Board, a charter member and current president of the London-Laurel County Tourism Commission, charter member and past chair of Southern Kentucky Tourism Development Association, charter member of the World Chicken Festival and Tri -County Substance Abuse Prevention Alliance.
His strong stance against the drug epidemic also earned him involvement with the UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigation Treatment and Education), where he is a charter member and current chair of the board of directors.
Handy also made his mark in the political field, being the Republican nominee for Attorney General in 1991 and the Republican nominee for Lieutenant Governor with Gubernatorial candidate Larry Forgy in 1995.
Handy is well aware of the impact of tourism to communities. His parents, Conrad F. and Lou McCowan Handy, and his aunt, Opal Lucas, were influential in having the original route of Interstate 75 changed to run through London, Corbin and Williamsburg when that project began in the 1960s.
"If you've ever noticed the curve in the interstate in Rockcastle County, it's because the original plan was to run between London and Somerset and into Elk Valley in Tennessee," he said. "Most people don't realize that. But my parents and Aunt Opal rallied to have the route changed because it ran through the Daniel Boone National Forest and they convinced Democrat legislator Henry Ward to have it changed to run through these towns.
"The point is to show that when citizens get involved, they can prevail and benefit," he continued. "That change made a world of difference for those three towns and into Tennessee."
While he is proudest of establishing laws for criminal abuse against children, he still remembers a case in which he prosecuted the parent of an abused child. He was saddened several years later when he also had to prosecute that same individual for abusing their own child.
"The cases involving children are always the hardest," he said sadly.
He does find fulfillment through mission work with his church, First Christian Church of London, and has taken many mission trips.
"We primarily work in schools and in the summer, we help with Floyd County homes," he said. "I enjoy the mission work and have been to Mexico, India, Belize and South America to Bolivia. In the Andes Mountains we built an addition to a school where I helped lay blocks."'
Handy maintains being active and giving back to his hometown, always convinced that involvement is the key to change and that citizens always have the option. He quotes a phrase he once heard from Congressman Hal Rogers, whom he credits for developing numerous programs to enhance the quality of life for residents of the 5th Congressional District.
"An individual may be responsible for the failure of an enterprise, but one person can never be solely responsible for the success of one," Handy said. "The source is volunteers and the people who make it a success."
He started as a humble grocery manager. By 1975, he found himself as mayor of London, eventually serving multiple terms.
How did Ken Smith do it?
He said it was through his own faith.
"The greatest thing was being able to help people you know needed help in the city. Maybe they needed a loan or couldn't do things themselves. That was the best feeling of everything I did," said Smith.
Born in 1935, Smith grew up in London during a time where he says there wasn't much of anything to do. He said he kept himself occupied by playing ball and causing mischief. As a young adult, Smith took up gambling and drinking but quit after his father passed away. Smith says he hasn't returned to either since.
"My father passed away around that time. It led me to think a lot about things," said Smith.
Soon after, he became a manager at a grocery store run by him and his cousin. In 1973, he joined the London City Council, spending two years on the council. After recommendations by his peers, was voted in as mayor.
"At the time, the job wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Mayor was a part-time back then and mostly just retrieved the mail," said Smith.
After losing a race for reelection, he spent the next 12 years as owner/operator of a wholesale egg company. Smith bought and distributed eggs to supermarkets and traveled to about 15 counties.
"I wasn't doing that well and decided to get out of it. I thought 'I might as well run for mayor again,' because I wasn't doing anything else," Smith remembered.
He was elected once more as mayor in 1994, serving for 13 more years.
"The judge-executive was elected — Denis Karr — the same time I was. We decided that we would work together to try and get jobs in Laurel County. We were able to get a lot of things done and we became real close friends. Sometimes we'll still meet at lunch," said Smith.
Together, Smith and Karr brought around 4,000 jobs to Laurel County within four years. The pair also purchased College Park for over $3 million. Meanwhile, about 60 acres on West 80 were purchased for the Optimist Club. Moreover, Smith sought to promote and expand the police force and helped grow the west and north ends of London, bringing in restaurants such as Shiloh's.
"Some people called me the 'Sidewalk Mayor' because I built a lot of sidewalks," said Smith. "That was one of the things I was wanting to do. I thought it made the city look better and encouraged people to walk."
Smith also began the Mayor's Prayer Breakfast, where local businessmen, pastors and layperson met the fourth Friday of each month to pray for the city and county. In addition, he served on a committee to bring the Rick Gage Crusade to London/Laurel County. The crusade was 20 years ago and over 500 individuals were indoctrinated into Christianity.
With all that being said, serving as mayor was far from easy. With the ordinances legalizing alcohol in 2000, Smith saw himself fighting a difficult battle.
"Families moved here because this was a good place to raise a family. We were against alcohol," said Smith. "Of course it got voted in, but I was against it. I'm still against it. I had seen what it's done to people."
In spite of disagreements, Smith avoids holding any grudges.
"Never did hold a grudge against nobody," said Smith. "I thought it was always better to get along with people since we're not here forever. Now I'm good friends with a lot of those people I had disagreements with."
After losing the title of mayor to Troy Rudder in 2006, Smith decided it was time to retire, mainly because he was pushing 70. Currently, he remains actively involved in voluntary service to his church — the Corinth Baptist Church, as well as the community.
Smith is enjoying his retirement with Helen, his wife of 61 years. They have one son, three daughters, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. One of their daughters, Kelly Greene, became a politician herself.
"I gave Kelly a few tips, but she didn't need much to be told to her," Smith boasted.
"I love Mamie Eisenhower's saying: 'if I can't come out smiling, I stay in my room until I can,'" said Nancy Vaughn, member of the London-Laurel County Chamber of Commerce and former member of the London City Council. Also, Vaughn has served among the London Junior Women's Club and the London Rotary Club, among other organizations as she has strived to make a difference in her community throughout her entire life.
Vaughn was born as Nancy Whittenback in her grandparents' house on Main Street in London.
Growing up poor, she and her family had to grow tobacco to make ends meet. Vaughn said she never minded having to work.
"I’d rather be working than doing something for myself," said Vaughn. "I grew up on Sue Bennett campus, my dad worked there. Sometimes I babysat the kids for some of the teachers."
Vaughn graduated from London High School in 1960 and immediately became a member of the London Junior Women's Club.
"It was a civic club," Vaughn explained. "We had the first kindergarten in London. It wasn’t a money-maker, and actually, it was across from London Elementary School. We had a teacher and an assistant teacher. It was paid and that was before we had kindergarten in schools."
The group also started the TLC House and fought to raise the library tax.
"I’ve never been afraid to take a stand. Raising the library tax wasn’t popular, but it was something personally I felt like was needed. I wanted the community to grow and to give opportunities to other people and to children," said Vaughn.
Vaughn was invited into the London Junior Women's Club by a coworker at a law firm she was working for at the time. Vaughn worked for attorney Little in London, a job she was able to secure through her uncle.
"I never went to college, unfortunately. But I had an uncle that was a special uncle that Mr. Little was his friend. There was a job opportunity there and my uncle told him I was looking for a job," Vaughn recalled.
On June 15, 1968, Vaughn married Melvin Vaughn, who served as manager of Ashland Finance Company before buying London Insurance Agency in the early 1970s.
"He was civic-minded too," said Vaughn. "He was a president of the Chamber of Commerce at one time, and he was an active member of the Rotary Club."
Melvin passed away in January of 2010 during a trip to the Dominican Republic.
"He loved to travel and he loved horse races. We were very lucky with the business that we got to travel for insurance meetings," said Vaughn.
With her husband, Vaughn became a member of the London-Laurel Chamber of Commerce. Eventually, she joined the London City Council, serving for around 16 years.
"My hardest time on council was when we passed the liquor laws," recalled Vaughn. "There was opposition, which, we expected that. It was a full council room, and we were asked questions from people directly in the audience."
Vaughn decided to tell the council precisely what she believed, which was that she'd instead alcohol be legal so teenagers would be carded than have kids buy drinks from a shady bootlegger. Two concerned mothers thanked her after the meeting.
"Laurel County has been wet all my life, and I was 73 at that time. It just wasn’t legal," said Vaughn.
While she never had kids, she once housed three foreign-exchange students through the International Rotary Club.
"We were a host family for three overseas students, from South Africa, Croatia and Argentina. It was wonderful. I loved it. I learned that teenagers are international," Vaughn laughed.
To this day, she still keeps up with the students. The one from South Africa is now married, living in Sidney Australia with her two sons. The student Croatia, meanwhile, teaches music.
"The little girl in Argentina is still trying to find herself. She worked in the Marriott in Lexington a year before going back," said Vaughn.
Today, Vaughn is retired. She no longer works on any boards, but she says she's willing to volunteer if there's ever a need.
"I’m really proud of what has gone on and what is going on in London, and I just look for better things happening," said Vaughn. "I love to get off the interstate at 5 p.m. and look at people going through the drive-throughs, picking up their children, going to ball practice. When I was young, there was one drug store in town that was open on Sunday afternoon if you wanted to go to town and have a Coke."
If three words could describe Frances Wilhoit, they would inevitably be "hard working" and "dedicated."
Those qualities have been the substance of her life that has included a variety of jobs over her lifetime.
Wilhoit (maiden name Proffitt) grew up in the Pittsburg/East Bernstadt area and attended East Bernstadt School until she was a freshman in high school. But the high school closed and she finished her primary education at Hazel Green High School, graduating in 1956.
She moved to Louisville and worked for Citizen's Fidelity Bank for two years, married Ronald Wilhoit and the couple moved back to London.
Their oldest son, Roger, was born in 1958 and was joined by a second son, Tim, born in 1964. During that time, Wilhoit was a stay-at-home mom until Tim turned 4, then she landed a job at Second National Bank (now Cumberland Valley National Bank). After two years she took a job at Begley Drug and ran the fountain for 16 years, doing the bookkeeping. She also ran the dining room at the London Country Club.
While she was working at the drug store, Wilhoit also began working to earn her real estate license with Gene Evans - and soon joined Ray Reams Realty in 1980. Evans left the business some time later but Wilhoit stayed.
She changed careers again in 1992, joining the local radio station WFTG-1400 AM, WWEL SAM 103.9, and WANV 96.7 Oldies station.
"Luke Keith called me about working at the radio," she said. "Terry Forcht had just bought the radio station."
It is there that she remains to this day, having been the station manager and still working part time in advertising sales. She is thankful that at nearly 81 years old, she is still able to work and be active in her community - one of which she is extremely proud.
"This county has made excellent progress. We've had some very good mayors - Ken Smith, Troy Rudder and Edd McFadden," she said. "And I'm very thankful every morning that I can get up and move."
She flashes that smile that is her own unique trademark, combined with the wit and humor that also defines her character.
"I'm afraid not to work," she said. "I've worked all my life. I don't know what to do if I'm not working."