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Bridge named in honor of Lawson

Eight years after her death, the life of former Southeast Community College professor and community advocate Gayle Lawson was honored on Monday in a way that many of her friends and family agreed was perfectly fitting.

Dozens of Harlan County residents and Kentucky Department of Transportation employees were on hand for a ceremony on a new section of U.S. 119 in Letcher County, two miles from the Harlan County line, where a bridge that will be a key part of the seven-mile section of the road scheduled to open Dec. 1 was dedicated in Lawson’s name.

Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley, who worked with Lawson on numerous transportation projects, called her “an unpaid lobbyist” and a “selfless volunteer” who gave much of her time after retirement in 1980 to causes that would help her fellow Harlan Countians, not the least of which was transportation. Lawson fought for several road projects in the county and pushed especially hard for the U.S. 119 improvements from Cumberland to Whitesburg, including the spot improvements on Pine Mountain several years earlier.

Former District 12 project managers Keith Damron and Kevin Damron praised Lawson’s dedication to helping the region and her tireless work for improved roads, discussing her network of friends in both Frankfort and Washington, D.C.

Mosley said he gained much of his knowledge about transportation from Lawson.

“I graduated from Southeast and Lincoln Memorial University, but I often tell people that I also graduated from the Gayle Lawson Academy for Transportation Advancement,” said Mosley, drawing laughter from those gathered for the 90-minute ceremony next to the bridge that now bears her name.

Former Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College president Dr. Bruce Ayers said he had worked with Lawson for over 50 years, noting that he and wife, Barbara, were tutor counselors in the Upward Bound program under Lawson’s leadership in the 1960s.

“Gayle gave everything she had to issues important to her,” Ayers said. “No one is more deserving of this honor than is she.”

Several speakers shared their talks with Lawson before her death, noting that she encouraged them to continue the fight for improved roads in Harlan County.

Ralph Souleyret, a former Harlan County Chamber of Commerce president, said Lawson told him “to keep fighting,” and he also shared the history of U.S. 119, noting that it began in Pineville in 1950 and slowly progressed to Harlan and beyond, all the way through West Virginia and into Pennsylvania. He say he had been on the road many times visiting family and was discouraged by the lack of dedication from Kentucky officials to eastern Kentucky’s needs. He said he also noticed what former West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd accomplished by turning U.S. 119 into an almost interstate quality road across his state, noting that the Kentucky part of the road paled in comparison.

Mosley also noted that much work was left to be done, including the completion of U.S. 421 from Cranks to Virginia and a U.S. 119 expansion from Harlan to Pineville.

“We have an abundance of transportation needs we’ll continue to advocate for,” he said. “Gayle Lawson would expect nothing less.”