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Community leader had 'a servant's heart'

By LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

Few Paducahans have embodied the definition of a Renaissance man as Bill Black Jr. did.

The subjects that captured his attention ran the gamut from buildings to butterflies, from historic preservation to public education.

But even greater than the scope of Black's interests was the influence he exercised on the community he loved. The contractor, school board member and historian, who died Saturday at the age of 71 of multiple myeloma, left his mark on the landscape and culture of Paducah through decades of service and advocacy.

"He had a servant's heart," son David Black said. "He loved his community. He loved people of all different backgrounds for who they were. He had a long-term vision for excellence, and he was always willing to fight for it."

Like his father, William Black Sr., and four children, Black graduated from Paducah Tilghman High School. He attended Princeton on an ROTC scholarship. After graduating with a degree in history in 1967, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a second lieutenant.

Despite sustaining a severe stomach injury during his first tour in Vietnam, Black returned for a second, 13-month tour.

"He had a sense of duty, a sense of honor and obligation," younger brother Chris Black said. "He never approached anything with less than a deep zeal and wonder at the miracles and marvels he lived among."

When he returned from Vietnam, Black began his career as a contractor at his father's business, Ray Black & Son. He became an advocate for historic preservation and, along with Richard Holland and J. Patrick Kerr, worked to restore the Whitehaven Welcome Center -- at the time a dilapidated, neglected structure -- off Interstate 24's Exit 7.

"That shining house will always be a tribute to Billy Black's love of Paducah and attention to detail," Holland said.

Along with several other historic structures in downtown and Lower Town, Black also participated in the restoration of the Market House Theatre annex and the River Discovery Center.

He was a founder of the Lower Town Neighborhood Association and was instrumental in convincing the city to designate its 26 blocks as a historic zone -- 20 years before the Artist Relocation Program helped revitalize the area.

"One out of a thousand people thought like (he) did. You just need people like that in your town," said Holland, who was a neighbor of Black's and a longtime friend. "He's irreplaceable."

Black and his family have long shared a devotion to children and public education. Black served for more than 20 years on the Paducah Independent School Board.

"He was a great member because he was a product of the Paducah city schools and totally loved the school system and its people," said Mark Whitlow, who served as the school system's attorney while Black was a member.

"You can't measure the positive impact he had on so many people's lives, and he particularly tried to focus on disadvantaged young men," Whitlow said.

Black began serving as a troop leader for Boy Scout Troop 1 in 1985. Grace Episcopal Church, where he and wife Nancy were congregants, chartered the troop in 1911. But by the time Black took leadership of it, Chris Black recalled, the troop had dwindled to only two or three boys.

"He grew it to a troop of well over 60 young men," Chris Black said. "His love of the strength and power of tradition made (the troop) an obvious place for him to make a commitment."

Family and friends said Black possessed an attention to detail that expressed itself not only in his preservation efforts, but also in his other passions -- lepidopterology (the study of butterflies), archaeology and historic bricks among them.

His interest in butterflies was more than casual. He belonged to the Society of Kentucky Lepidopterists from 1975 on, and collected the only known Kentucky specimen of a rare migrant from the tropics and discovered two breeding colonies.

"He had a passion for history and a passion for our culture," Mary Hammond, executive director of the Paducah Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. "When you look up what a Renaissance man is -- who cares for culture and the earth, and his faith and family and education, that was Billy: so earthly, but yet so scholarly."

Grace Episcopal Church will hold Black's visitation and services this week. Milner and Orr is handling funeral arrangements, and times are expected to be announced today.

(Reporter Laurel Black is not related to Bill Black Jr.)

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