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Lawson’s dedication should inspire us

Retirement did not mean rest for Gayle Lawson.

The former Southeast Community College professor found plenty of causes for which to fight for years after she left her job as a teacher. She fought for senior citizens, education and economic development. She also fought for improved roads, a shared interest with me that her brought her to my office at the Harlan Daily Enterprise for the first time about 20 years ago.

Gayle was in her 80s the first time I met her, but I soon learned that age was truly only a number with her. She was tireless in her efforts to improve transportation, and I had caught her attention with some of my columns and I was honored she found me as a worthy assistant in her endeavours.

As a sports writer for my entire journalism career, even during the 15 years I was managing editor, I was accustomed to working with intense people. Not many were as intense as Gayle, who had a plan and the desire to see it through to success. Gayle was also very intelligent and extremely prepared.

When I saw her walk through the front door, I knew it was a good idea to cancel any appointments I might have because she always brought paperwork with her that she wanted me to see and perhaps share with the public or digest for future columns or stories.

I soon learned I was not the only person Gayle had selected to help fight her battles to improve Harlan County.

“After I became president at Southeast, Gayle would call me frequently to discuss some aspect of the college and its programs,’ said former Southeast president Dr. Bruce Ayers. “When I got those calls I always took copious notes, because I knew that whatever the subject may have been, she probably knew more about than I did. She was one of a kind, and we are all better off for having known her.”

One of a kind is a great description for Gayle, and I’m glad to know I will be reminded of her every time I drive to Whitesburg for the rest of my life.

In recognition of her lifetime of volunteer community service, the Kentucky General Assembly named the bridge on new U.S. 119 at Partridge near the Harlan County line in Letcher County in her memory. A public ceremony to mark the occasion is set for Monday at 10 a.m. at the bridge.

It’s a fitting tribute for a woman who, less than a year before her death at the age of 94 in April 2009, traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby Kentucky’s congressional delegation of the need to reform the way in which Kentucky highway construction funds are levied and distributed.

But as I’m sure Gayle would say, it’s only one of several steps needed to help Harlan County’s transportation system, forgotten by state officials for decades as other counties passed us by. The last couple of miles of U.S. 421 from Cranks into Virginia still have not been completed, years after the previous section of the road was finished. I wish Gayle could be there Monday to grill some of the state and highway officials about that ridiculous delay.

We also need a four-lane U.S. 119 from Harlan to Pineville, just like it is from Jenkins all the way to Charleston, W.Va. It’s also well past time for a new U.S. 421 from Harlan to Hazard, which was studied over a decade ago when options were presented that could have cut the distance between the two in half if the shortest route was selected.

Perhaps the opening of this expanded seven-mile section of U.S. 119 into Letcher County will spark a renewed interest in the roads this county so desperately needs. I think Gayle Lawson would approve.