"I think we still have a bit of the frontier in us," radio host Bob Edwards says of Kentuckians. "We're bold and outspoken, not afraid to go against the grain. We're proud of our history and our orneriness."
Edwards expects you'll find all those traits and more in the new book, This I Believe: Kentucky (Butler Books, $19.95), for which Edwards, a Louisville native, has written the foreword. The 62 writers represented in the book include Muhammad Ali, George Ella Lyon, Silas House, Sena Jeter Naslund and Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker, plus many lesser-known contributors.
This I Believe is a nonprofit organization and the brainchild of Dan Gediman, a Massachusetts native who is the organization's executive director. Based in Louisville, This I Believe solicits, selects, edits and records audio versions of essays in which people espouse, according to This I Believe's website, "the core values that guide their daily lives." Since 2004, more 150,000 people worldwide have submitted essays to This I Believe.
Based on a 1950s radio series from broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow, the modern This I Believe began airing essays in 2005 on NPR. These days, you can hear This I Believe essays during The Bob Edwards Show on SiriusXM satellite radio and Bob Edwards Weekend on public radio stations nationwide.
Co-edited by Gediman and his wife, Mary Jo, a seventh-generation Kentuckian, the new book is the eighth in the This I Believe series, the first of which, 2007's This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women was a New York Times bestseller.
We talked to Gediman about the birth of This I Believe and its connection to Kentucky, where Gediman has lived for nearly 30 years. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Question: What have you learned about Kentucky from working on the essays in This I Believe Kentucky?
Answer: They reinforced what I already knew about Kentucky, which is that the people of this commonwealth feel a greater love and reverence for this place than I think is true of other places I've traveled.
There's also definitely a sense of people here being treated sometimes as inferior by people from other places, but in that context, there's also an intense pride and a sense of place. I'm not saying in every single person, but a lot of people feel that way here.
And I share that. I moved here in 1984. By '86, I'm crying when I hear My Old Kentucky Home. There's just something about this place.
Q: How did This I Believe begin for you? Why revive a 50-year-old radio series?
A: When I came up with the idea in March of 2003, I had been laid off. My unemployment had run out. I was having no luck looking for a job. My wife and I had 1-year-old twins at home. The Iraq War loomed. The Patriot Act was in effect. I was home with the flu one day and I happened to pick up a copy of this. (From his bookshelf, Gediman pulls out a worn copy of Murrow's This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of 100 Thoughtful Men and Women from 1952).
I started reading and I took 10 pages of notes. It was the same. The issues and anxieties of people then were the basically the same as what we were experiencing 50 years later.
Q: How was the original Murrow radio series different from your version?
A: All of the original Murrow contributors were solicited. They didn't invite the public to contribute the way we have, which we thought was very important. Although there's a Kentucky connection to the original series as well.
Barry Bingham Sr. (the former Louisville newspaper publisher) was friends with Murrow and solicited some Kentuckians he knew to contribute to the series in the 1950s, and many of those essays also appear in This I Believe Kentucky.
Along those lines, in the last 10 years, we've had solicited essays from prominent people, and some have been very good, but we've seen too many crappy essays from people who may have other talents but can't write especially well, have nothing to say or have tasked it out to someone on their publicity staff.
Political figures in particular are often troublesome because almost everyone who's agreed to write for us has been running for that next office and they, like celebrities, tend to want to use This I Believe as a platform for themselves, and that's not what we're here to do.
Plus, so many well-known people who are of the moment today are footnotes tomorrow, and we want these essays to be timeless.
Q: So what makes a great This I Believe essay?
A: We tell people to be honest and don't worry about trying to be inspirational.
People sometimes write about what they aspire to believe in rather than what they actually believe in. Don't pretend to be better or healthier than you are. Tell us a story about how your belief has been tested or how it's manifested in your life. The essays that do that get our attention.
As an exercise, try this: Get some index cards. Write 10 things you believe in, one on each card. Go through the cards, and each time you go through, remove one card that describes something you believe less than the others. Keep doing that until you have only one card left. Write about that.
IF YOU GO
'This I Believe: Kentucky' book launch
What: Bob Edwards will host, and many of the book's contributors will read and sign copies of the book. Essayists confirmed for the event are Silas House, George Ella Lyon, Frank X Walker, Dianne Aprile, Sallie Bingham, Tori Murden McClure and Sena Jeter Naslund.
When: 2 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: Spalding University Center Building Auditorium, 824 S. Fourth St., Louisville
Tickets: $20 general admission, $100 VIP ticket, which includes special seating and admission to pre-event reception. Available at Thisibelieve.org.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE
To submit an essay to This I Believe, go to Thisibelieve.org/submission.
Graham Shelby is a writer and storyteller who lives in Louisville. Contact him through his website, Grahamshelby.com.