LIFELONG LEARNING: 83-year-old student receives academic team award

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Cliff Taylor (right) receives the KCTCS All-Academic Team award from HCTC President Dr. Jennifer Lindon (center) and Dean Osborne, director of the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music (left).

Vietnam veteran, former teacher, songwriter and current college student; at the age of 83, Cliff Taylor says he's the kind of person who can't just sit down.

"I'm going for an associate of arts degree as a professional studio artist," said Taylor. "I only need two ensembles and a seminar, and then I'll graduate in December."

At the start of this month, Taylor was selected as one of two recipients at Hazard Community and Technical College (HCTC) -- the institution he currently attends -- of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) All-Academic Team Award. Each year, KCTCS selects two students from each of its colleges to receive the award. He received the award partly for his 4.0 GPA and was given a stipend of $300.

"He brings a strong and honest energy that impresses everyone he meets," said Dean Osborne, director of the Kentucky School of Bluegrass. "Mr. Cliff is not afraid to risk sharing his songs with the world. All of us who write and perform understand the fear that goes along with letting others hear our creations. He not only overcomes that fear but also teaches some great life lessons about never giving up on doing what you want to do.”

Taylor's career began after graduating as a salutatorian from Leslie County High School in 1954. He immediately joined the Army, serving 17 years and retiring twice. Between 1970 and 1971, he was stationed in Vietnam and faced exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used in herbicidal warfare that resulted in mass illness in U.S. soldiers. Taylor noted the exposure still affects him today.

"I have a bad heart. They won't permit me to drive, so I have to rely on my daughter to drive me everywhere," he said.

His first military retirement was in 1957. Unable to find a job in Kentucky, he traveled to Ohio and applied to work at a Ford plant.

"I waited and I waited and I waited. Never did hear anything. So I went over to Harlan and reenlisted. And a week later I got word to come and work for Ford," chuckled Taylor.

His second term in the Army would last from 1959 to 1976. Taylor spent most of his time as a Hungarian intercept operator, which eventually lead to him being hard of hearing.

"You sit there with headphones on, listen to audio interceptions and you'd try to find what you're looking for," Taylor explained. "I had to go to the Defense Language Institute West Coast in Monterey, California. That's where I learned Hungarian. It was a 47-week course."

In addition to Vietnam, Taylor was stationed in Japan, Germany, Maryland and Texas. Given the sensitivity of the information in his position, he was never at liberty to tell others about the specifics of work each day.

"Usually with a job you, you can go home and talk about it with your wife," said Taylor. "Working with high-level security clearance like that, the job has to stay behind you. If you had a bad day and you're still up, you just go home and sit down. You think about it, but you can't talk about it. I enjoyed what I did though."

The Army wasn't all work, however. During his career, Taylor played sports on a military team.

"I played fast-pitched softball in intramural sports. It was pretty high-level -- regimental level," he recalled. "We played against all the different units on the base, whether it was Air Force or naval security. In Okinawa, we played against all sorts of different units."

During the late 1960s Taylor took up hobbies involving amateur radio. In 1967, he received his amateur radio license, and in February of 1979, Taylor acted as a Net Control Station during an emergency snowstorm situation in Illinois. He broadcasted the names of individuals who were safe during the incident to reassure family members.

After retiring from the military for the second and final time, Taylor began work at an exterminating company as an employee trainer. He wasn't happy with the occupation.

"When you work in a service like that, it's six days a week. Since both homeowners usually work, they want you in the evening to treat the house. So I left home from Hazard at 7 o'clock in the morning and I'd be lucky if I got back at 4 o'clock at night," he remembered.

In 1976, he quit his job and decided to pursue college. From 1977 through 1981, Taylor attended Eastern Kentucky University, earning a bachelor's degree in elementary education and later a master's degree in elementary reading.

From the late 1970s until 1991, Taylor taught at various schools, including Dennis Wooten Elementary School in Hazard; Pfeiffer Elementary and Gaters Elementary in Texas; and Hayes Lewis Elementary, Beech Fork Elementary, Leslie County High School and Stinnett Elementary in Leslie County.

Between 1973 and 1974, Taylor served as the treasurer of West Meade Elementary PTA. In 1974, he was a Cubmaster for the Fort Meade Boy Scout troop and then a Little League baseball coach in 1976 in Hyden, Kentucky.

Today, Taylor lives with his daughter in London. In 2011, his wife, Alice Faye Baker -- whom he married in 1963 and had four children with -- passed away.

"We were living in Texas, San Antonio. After she passed away there, I sold our house down there and moved back up here," said Taylor. "My son was working for Toyota in Somerset. He was the manager of the IT section, but he became disinclined with that job. An IT position opened at EKU, so he moved to Richmond and I bought this house I live in now from him."

Since then, Taylor took up songwriting. He attends various bluegrass festivals in Kentucky and surrounding states, speaking with bluegrass musicians and working towards getting his lyrics recorded by musicians.

"I've given out my writings. We made a CD of 13 of my songs, and I've given it out to bluegrass band leaders, I haven't had any of it published," said Taylor. "Everyone says I'm a good songwriter, it's just a matter of time. Talking with Bill Castle, one of the best songwriters in bluegrass, it took him a long time to get recorded. He said to just stay with it."

In 2016, Taylor started attending HCTC to work on his associate of arts degree. He occasionally plays at smaller festivals with an ensemble of older students he's met at the college.

"The youngest member of our ensemble is 65. I'm the oldest at 83. We just play for the enjoyment of it," said Taylor.

After he graduates by the end of the year, Taylor plans to go for a master's degree for educational administration and policy at EKU.

"If I'm accepted into the program, some of the research I wanna do is in the relationship of recreational reading to academic achievement," said Taylor. "I've never really seen anything on it, but to me, it would be worthwhile to do something on it."

With this degree, Taylor would like to work as a principal for an elementary school.

"I have an A-type personality," remarked Taylor. "I have to always be doing something. That's what's kept me motivated all these years."

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