Monday, February 20, 2012

Memorial to a Southern Mentor - Mike Mullins

For any of you that might not know, I grew up in a small town in Kentucky. Nowhere near the big cities, but tucked away into the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. I lived in a tiny, close knit community. In a county with one stop light, where any stranger could easily be connected to you through one degree of separation. 

shed at the Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, KY

But I wasn't born into my Kentucky citizenship, it took a great deal of indoctrination. You see, my family moved to Pippa Passes, Kentucky from eastern Ohio when I was 8 years old. At first it was a real struggle for me. Everything was new, I didn't know anyone, and I could hardly understand what people were saying through their country twangs. In short time, however, my heart melted for the place and the good people that live there. 

the view from the top of my hill in Knott, County, KY

Even now, after 6 years away, that region and those nestling hills represent the strongest ties I have. There were a few people who taught me to love Kentucky the way that I do. One of those mentors was my first boss, Mike Mullins, at the Hindman Settlement School

Mike and his wife Frieda were staples in my life from church. Where I grew up, it was still a cultural understanding that it takes a village to raise a child. As a result, I had a great many wonderful adults who invested themselves, at different levels of involvement, into my up-bringing. My own parents were raised in Ohio, and though they enjoy and respect Appalachian heritage, it wasn't something I could inherit from them. It was through my kinship with people like the Mullins' and my dear friend Virginia Combs that I grew into the Kentucky girl I am today.

Mike passed away yesterday, at age 63, from a heart attack. Even from all the way up north in Tipp City, OH I can feel the great void his passing will leave in Knott County, KY. He will be sorely missed.

The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote while doing a summer internship at the Hindman Settlement School during the summer of 2005. 

* * *

Evening up the Score 

One morning, as I pull into work I meet Mike walking down the hill from the summer school girls’ dorm. Five or six little girls came in tow, donning tangled hair and glittered jeans, still sleepy-eyed. Mike holds a rifle in one hand. 

tackling some copperheads with a rifle
“Is that the only way you can get them up in the morning?” I ask. 

He shakes his head. Mike’s not really a laugher. He’s a happy guy, but with his job, it's as if he's too busy to smile. In all of the pictures he’s taken over the years for local and statewide newspapers, Mike mostly sports this same “get on with it” look, his mouth sometimes open in conversation with the photographer, telling him what he should remember to include in the shot. Mike’s still a bit of a newspaper man himself. He knows what makes good news. He’s now spent much more time as the cover story than in the paper business, but he’s still uncomfortable in front of the camera. 

the lucky hawk
This particular morning he’s got his sleeves rolled up around his elbows doing some of the more hands-on work of his executive position. 

“He shot a bird,” a little girl says matter-of-factly as she runs past me towards breakfast. 

Mike points to the front of the office building with his free hand. “Some crows were gangin’ up on this hawk over there.” He slaps the butt of the rifle on his palm like a baseball bat. “I just evened up the score a bit.” 

He chuckles so abruptly I believe he surprises even himself. Just reveling in another one of the perks of his job, it seems. 

* * * 

Seems like this happened just yesterday. It is easy for me to imagine Mike sitting in his office in the morning, the summer sun just peeking above the hilltops. I can still smell the mustiness of the old offices, hear the creak in the floorboards, feel my fingers fumbling with the old door latch. I might have sat down for a moment in a rocking chair in his office, looked around at the frames on his wall, his collection of hand-crafted election signs. One brittle board painted with the words: "Jesus is Soon Coming."

only one sign of many
In that moment or moments like it, he might have asked me what my plans were next, listened to me as I shared some unfocused dreams. Then he probably told me that I could do a lot more than I thought I could, and that whatever I did choose to do, to do it well. 

This, I know he said: No matter where I ended up, I could always come home. There would always be a place for me in Knott County. I am so grateful to know that. 

Mike's birthday/my going away lunch with some HSS "family". A smile here! 


  1. I'm sorry to hear about your friend Sarah. I had a similar man in my growing up years who was there for me when my dad couldn't - or wouldn't - be. He used to give me a "hall pass" to his office when he could tell I was having a rough day. He encouraged me to try running, and taught me as I fumbled my way into the sport. It's still one of my greatest loves today. I've often thought how devastated I'll be when he's gone, and I sympathize with you. How great a blessing to have these men in our lives though... LOVE you dear one.

  2. Thank you Sarah for the vivid memories...

  3. He sounded like such a great guy and I'm so sorry for your loss.

    Pippa Passes is such a beautiful name. I love Kentucky. Whenever we drive there and leave Tennessee, I say to the Mister, "It just got much prettier, didn't it?"


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