Mike Mullins, who took over the reins of Hindman Settlement School in Knott County in 1977 and helped turn it into a regional cultural and educational center, died Sunday night, apparently of a heart attack. He was 63.
As executive director of the school, Mr. Mullins' tasks ranged from fund-raising to fixing broken pipes. He tackled each with a hands-on, no-nonsense and down-to-earth approach, according to his friends.
His impact extended far beyond Knott County and Eastern Kentucky.
The annual Appalachian Writers Workshop and Appalachian Family Folk Week, which he helped establish and perpetuate at the settlement school, have resulted in wide-ranging networks of authors and musicians.
"I don't think it can be underestimated how important he was to the literary community of the region," said author Silas House. "I think of him as holding us all together as Appalachian artists. He fostered a community of musicians and writers and thinkers in the region, and he was like a father figure to many of us."
Mr. Mullins' dream of having a shop featuring quality art made by Appalachian artists was realized in 1995 when the Marie Stewart Crafts Shop opened in a renovated 1900s cabin near Hindman Settlement School.
Mr. Mullins was also instrumental in the establishment of an education program for children with dyslexia at the settlement school.
"He worked all the time for education and art and progress in Appalachia," House said. "His contribution was huge."
Knott County Coroner Jeff Blair said Mr. Mullins was pronounced dead at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the Knott County Sportsplex, where he had gone to work out. Blair said Mr. Mullins went to the center just as the facility was getting ready to close because of snowy weather. He asked employees whether he could stay until the doors were to be locked. Sportsplex workers found him lying unresponsive near a fitness machine and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the coroner said. Blair said Mr. Mullins had a history of heart trouble.
Still, his death shocked many people.
All day Saturday, Mr. Mullins was at Hindman United Methodist Church refereeing basketball games, said Dr. Grady Stumbo, a former gubernatorial candidate and state Democratic party leader.
"You can see the thumbprint of Mike Mullins on many, many things," said Stumbo, a close friend. "He was one of those guys you'd call a dreamer, and (he) wanted to change the world."
Mr. Mullins thought if something was wrong, someone could work hard enough and make it better, he said.
"There was nothing too important that he wouldn't try to do," Stumbo said, adding that Mr. Mullins was a great mentor to young people.
Mr. Mullins, a native of Hi Hat in Floyd County, attended Berea College and received a master's degree in history from the University of Cincinnati.
Mr. Mullins was involved in many efforts to improve Eastern Kentucky, according to his friends. He was a founding board member of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation and Leadership East Kentucky. He helped organize and launch the Hindman/Knott County Community Development Initiative, which brought more than $20 million in community projects to the county.
Over the years, he also served on the Knott County Food Bank board and was on the state Board of Claims and Crime Victims Compensation board.
After a brief stint at Alice Lloyd College at Pippa Passes, where he headed an oral-history project, he took the executive director job at Hindman Settlement School. It was a time when the settlement school found itself with less of a purpose than it had in the past.
The school was founded in 1902 to provide education in Knott County at a time when a public school system had not been formed. During the settlement school's heyday, teachers from Smith, Vassar and Mount Holyoke colleges taught more than 100 boarding students a year.
After Mr. Mullins took over, the settlement school began sending art and music teachers into local schools and tutors into homes. Other initiatives followed.
Mr. Mullins was so wedded to Hindman Settlement School that he had to travel all over to keep it alive, author George Ella Lyon said.
"He traveled all over to speak to all kinds of groups to persuade them that this work was crucial and that it related to what they believed in," she said of his fund-raising efforts on behalf of the school.
"He had a great vision and a great heart," Lyon said, adding that Mr. Mullins was able to hold on to what was critical to the integrity of the school but change what had to be changed to keep it working.
At the annual writers workshop, she said, "the metaphor he always used was 'family,' and that was the atmosphere he created there."
In addition to his other duties, Mr. Mullins helped make sure that James Still, the late former Kentucky poet laureate who was one of the founders of the workshop, was well cared for in his later years. Still and the Mullins family lived next door to each other on campus, Lyon said.
The settlement school was Mr. Mullins' home, and he wanted visitors to feel at home, House said. Mr. Mullins also wanted them to respect the school and the literary giants who had been there.
"He cared a lot about respect and honesty. ... He had a great wit. ... He was very proud of his accent and where he was from. ... He defied stereo types," House said.
Although he received many honors and awards during his life, Mr. Mullins was proudest of being named Knott Countian of the Year in 1992 and being inducted into the Knott County Hall of Fame in 2010 because those honors were bestowed on him by fellow citizens, according to his friends.
"He was just somebody that was a team player. It was all about getting the thing done. It was not about who would get the credit for it," Stumbo said. "He deserves a lot of accolades for the real work that he's done at the center and the work he's done generally in Kentucky."
Mr. Mullins is survived by his wife, Frieda Smothers Mullins; his mother, Mildred Mullins; a son, Nathan Mullins; two daughters, Brenda Egleston and Cassie Moses; a special "adopted" son, Ronald J. Costanzo; two sisters; two brothers; and five grandchildren.
Services will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at Hindman Funeral Services, with burial in Mountain Memory Gardens in Hindman. Visitation will be 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the funeral home. Memorial gifts were suggested to Hindman Settlement School New Office Fund, P.O. Box 844, Hindman, Ky. 41822.
Jennifer Hewlett: (859) 231-3308.Twitter: @heraldleader