A small group of visionaries shaped Paducah's higher education many decades ago, as their efforts created schools that became West Kentucky Community and Technical College.
"Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Kentucky's attorney general, Daniel Cameron, speak in Paducah about the impact one person can have on a community," said Janett Blythe, WKCTC director of marketing and communication. "It kind of reminded me of the impact a small group of people had on higher education in Paducah and western Kentucky."
Blythe, a former Paducah Sun reporter, served as this week's Rotary Club of Paducah speaker at the Myre River Room in the Carson Center, where she presented a historical overview on the origins of WKCTC and how things evolved over the years.
When she returned to western Kentucky as a reporter, Blythe became intrigued by history of the former West Kentucky Technical Vocational School and Paducah Community College, setting out to "capture the history" and get as much of a confirmed history down before it was lost.
It's a topic of great interest to Blythe, who authored three books related to WKCTC titled, "My West Kentucky: A History of West Kentucky Technical College, 1909-1999," "Upward Stride: A Pictorial History of West Kentucky Community & Technical College" and "West Kentucky Community and Technical College: Formative Years (2000-2016)."
"It was the dream of D.H. Anderson to bring a school to western Kentucky to train African American teachers," she said. "He literally laid the foundation of that school near today's Noble Park."
The school, West Kentucky Industrial College, became one of the founding institutions for WKCTC.
According to Blythe, Anderson grew up on a farm in Jackson, Tennessee, attended college and graduated in 1893. He later married another teacher, Artelia Harris, and by the 1900s, they were teaching in Paducah.
"Anderson, like famed educator Booker T. Washington, believed that education and training is essential for African Americans to change their lot in life," she said. "Anderson saw the need for African Americans to learn a trade, but he especially saw the need for well-trained African American teachers in western Kentucky. The closest teacher training school in the early 1900s was in Frankfort. That's more than 250 miles away."
In 1909, Anderson started working on the building's foundation on donated land in an area near today's Noble Park, and its cornerstone was laid in 1911, ahead of Anderson's efforts to get state funding in Frankfort.
Anderson experienced rejections, but ultimately in 1918, received funding for the college. It later added other buildings, completing an administration building in 1931, around the time another group in Paducah formed an idea for a junior college.
Blythe said attorney Thomas Waller, the Rev. U.R. Bell, electrical engineer Will Ezell and businessman Robert Overstreet discussed at lunch one day their concerns for Paducah youth who were not continuing their education at college. They gathered community support to form a board. It named a new school as Paducah Junior College, which held its first classes in 1932.
Both colleges evolved over the years and changed names, education offerings and locations.
The junior college moved to WKCTC's existing location and formed a new campus, adding multiple buildings and started classes in 1964 with 875 students enrolled. It later changed to Paducah Community College after joining the University of Kentucky's community college system.
The industrial college's teacher training program transferred to what's now Kentucky State University and it kept its vocational offerings, reopening with a new name. In the 1970s, it was recommended for a new vocational school to be built and Paducah Junior College Foundation donated land near PCC.
It became West Kentucky Technical College. The main building was named in Anderson's honor in 1994.
Both colleges consolidated into WKCTC back in 2003. It serves more than 8,000 students each year and offers two-year associate degrees, transfer education and more than 30 different career and technical programs.
"It's hard to believe how the dreams of a few visionary individuals years ago could have resulted in a nationally recognized institution - a four-time Aspen (Prize) Top 10 winner and a four-time Bellwether (Award) finalist," Blythe said. "Clearly, West Kentucky -- your community college -- continues to do what its founders hoped that it would do so many years ago."