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Chandler promotes Kentucky history in new role

BY KATHLEEN FOXkfox@paducahsun.com

A state nonprofit and its leader Ben Chandler, a Kentucky native who has worked in law, politics and the nonprofit sector, are bringing the history and culture of the Bluegrass State to life.

Chandler, who was named the executive director last summer, said the aim of the Kentucky Humanities Council is to highlight what makes the state special. The Humanities Council is the state arm of the national group that provides endowments for the arts and the humanities. The state branch is a 501(c)3 that is supported by the national endowment as well as private funding, he said.

"Kentuckians love learning about how we got where we are now because we are so proud of our heritage," said Chandler, who visited Paducah on Wednesday to speak to the Rotary Club of Paducah.

One of the group's primary programs, Chautauqua, began in 1992 and features historical dramatizations of noted Kentuckians. The cast currently includes 28 presenters, who portray many well-known and other lesser-known figures of folklore, wartimes, and those critical to the state's social, economic and civil development.

"It gives students an insight into Kentucky history in an interactive way, where the characters come in front of the class rather than learning from a book," he said.

The figures are selected by the actors themselves, who then undergo a year of work with the help of a costume consultant, historian and drama coach. The selections then have to be approved by a panel of historians and drama professors from across the state before they are put into rotation.

The organization will hold casting sessions for five additional characters in June, according to Chandler.

He said the most important facet is selecting the right model for the right actor and weaving an interesting tale that will engage the audience. The presentations are available in two variations - one for community historian groups and libraries, and one for students.

"Our actors connect, live, breathe and become the characters," he said. "The first-person perspective brings history alive and is something kids won't forget."

The nonprofit's director understands Kentucky from his own familial roots in the state. He still lives on the Woodford County farm that his family has inhabited since 1784.

"Being on the same ground for generations, it's a labor of love,"  he said. "My roots are about as deep as you can have."

Chandler's grandfather Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler Sr. served as governor, U.S. senator and commissioner of baseball. He followed in his grandfather's political footsteps after a career in private practice law. Chandler was elected state auditor in 1991 and attorney general in 1995 and served the Sixth District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2004 until he lost in 2012 to Andy Barr.

He said one of his favorite achievements from his political career was his work on the Kentucky and the national "No Call Registry" and recovering $45 million as attorney general that went to fund the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky because of the widespread positive effects both works had on all state residents.

He wouldn't rule out a return to politics but said he is enjoying renewing friendships across the state and pursuing the "labor of love" of introducing his deep affinity for his home state to its residents.

"It's nice to work in something that everyone generally approves of," he said. "Never say never (about a return to politics) but I'm loving what I'm doing now."

The organization also has a bureau of speakers available for reservation. To book a Chautauqua figure at a cost of $200 for nonprofits and $450 for-profit organizations, contact Catherine Ferguson at 859-257-5932 or catherine.ferguson@uky.edu.

Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.

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