At 90, Anne Caudill talking to new generations about her family's Appalachian experience

jcheves@herald-leader.comApril 26, 2014 

When Harry Caudill published Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area in 1963, he dedicated it to his wife, Anne, "without whose assistance and insistence it would never have been written."

That was no exaggeration.

For more than four decades, Harry Caudill fought for Eastern Kentucky's downtrodden as a lawyer, state legislator, writer and activist.

By his side until his death in 1990, Anne Caudill maintained their home outside Whitesburg and raised their three children; worked as his legal secretary; traveled the world with him; turned his eloquent soliloquies into neatly typed manuscripts; assisted with his extensive research; wrote his letters and delivered his speeches if he was busy elsewhere; and fed thousands of people who arrived at their door, sometimes unexpectedly, wanting to meet the famous author.

In her scarce spare time, Anne helped establish the Letcher County public library, was a board member and fund-raiser for Appalachian Regional Hospitals and devoted herself to any charity she believed could uplift the region.

Harry Caudill, for one, thought his wife deserved more credit.

"She has been indispensable and still is," he told interviewers in 1981. "All that I am, and all that I ever hope to be — as Lincoln said about his mother — I owe to my wife over there."

As he prepared to publish Theirs Be The Power: The Moguls of Eastern Kentucky in 1983, Harry tried to convince Anne that it was time for her name to join his on the cover as co-author.

"I said no," Anne Caudill recalled in a recent telephone interview from her home in New Albany, Ind. "My expression was 'He was the brains and I was the woman-power.' My contribution was on the typewriter, but his was the original thinking."

After a brief pause, she added: "Of course, I had done a lot of research for that book at the University of Kentucky, going to libraries and getting information and making copies of things for the class he was teaching at the time. But it was a partnership, one for which I am eternally grateful. I had a wonderful life."

Anne Caudill is getting attention these days because of a new biography, The Caudills of the Cumberlands: Anne's Story of Life with Harry, written by retired educator Terry Cummins, and a documentary film by Joy and Lee Pennington, Room to Fly: Anne Caudill's Album, which debuted last fall in a packed auditorium at the University of Louisville.

At the age of 90, Anne Caudill is amused to find herself the featured guest at book signings and movie screenings, talking to new generations about her family's Appalachian experience.

"The roads did improve while we were there," she said. "We got a vocational school, and there was school consolidation, so a lot of the little one-room and two-room schoolhouses finally disappeared — not all of them, but most of them. There was a coal boom for a little while, so some people who made a lot of money in that were able to build nice houses, even if they couldn't keep them for very long.

"But the basic problems, the lack of jobs, all of the poverty, the environmental destruction caused by the coal industry, they were still there when I left, and they're still there today," she said.

'More than a love'

Harry Caudill and Anne Frye met as students at UK in 1945.

Harry was a tall, lanky, brilliant young man whose family roots in Letcher County stretched back to 1792. He had just returned to the United States from military service in Italy, where his left leg was mangled by a mortar as he battled Nazi troops. The wound caused him misery for the rest of his life.

A Bluegrass girl, Anne was raised in an erudite Cynthiana household. Her father was a civil engineer, her mother a school teacher. She listened to Harry talk about literature, history, science and politics, and she offered her own thoughts in reply.

She called him "Omar" because he had memorized two different translations of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a set of poems originally written in Persian. He called her "Annabel" from Edgar Allen Poe's poem Annabel Lee. ("We loved with a love that was more than a love, I and my Annabel Lee.")

They were engaged to be married within weeks. He later told friends his only regret was waiting so long to ask her.

In 1949, the Caudills moved into a new house near Whitesburg, across a valley from Pine Mountain. Harry got busy as a lawyer and, later, a three-term Democratic state representative with an interest in improving rural schools and regulating strip mines. He earned a reputation in Frankfort as a reformer. But he didn't become famous outside the state until he wrote his first book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands.

It was Anne who convinced him to write it. Harry Caudill's heart broke when he attended a ceremony at a shabby Letcher County schoolhouse and watched hungry, dirty-faced children sing America the Beautiful as rain poured through the leaky roof. The next day, he walked in the woods and pondered how a century of exploitation by outside timber and coal companies ravaged the Appalachian Mountains, hauling away the wealth and leaving people destitute.

"Anne didn't say 'Let's write a book,' but she did say 'We should start by writing these things down,'" Cummins wrote in The Caudills of the Cumberlands.

"They did, and his musings became a book three years later," Cummins wrote. "The book did not correct all the ills in Appalachia, but it called attention to leaky schoolhouse roofs and a whole host of other social and economic conditions. As a result, significant and dramatic changes began to occur a few years later."

'The great joy'

Night Comes to the Cumberlands won international attention and brought intensive news coverage to Appalachia during the 1960s. President Lyndon B. Johnson poured $1 billion in federal aid into the region. Thousands flocked to Eastern Kentucky to take the "poverty tour" or volunteer their services.

And everyone wanted to meet Harry Caudill.

Whitesburg did not offer much in the way of public accommodations, so Anne prepared meals and guest beds for visitors. Some stayed for days.

Anne saved her guest books. On one random page, there are signatures from four United Nations officials, journalists from National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal, the president of the United Mine Workers and the Bingham family, who owned The Courier-Journal in Louisville.

A prolific letter writer, Anne stayed in touch with many of these visitors for the rest of their lives, including Charles Kuralt of CBS News and best-selling history writer David McCullough.

Anne moved with Harry to Lexington in the late 1970s after he was hired to teach Appalachian history at UK. They enjoyed campus life, surrounded by books and youth. Anne enrolled in classes. But by the mid-1980s, they were ready to return to Whitesburg. Harry's health was failing, in part from the onset of Parkinson's disease, a disorder of the nervous system.

"He was in constant pain from his injured left leg and the even worse misery of his right knee, which had worn out from carrying the extra burden of his walking in a twist caused by his severe limp in his left leg," Anne told Cummins for his book. "The last year at UK was a torture, and he spent every available minute stretched out on a sofa or bed. In addition, he suffered from the acute miseries of the urinary system so common in older men. Then the tremors and difficulties with speech began, and he realized he could not continue teaching."

Eventually, the pain was more than Harry Caudill could bear. On Nov. 29, 1990, he waited until Anne went into town on errands. Then he walked into their yard and shot himself in the head. It was Anne who found his unconscious body on the ground and who called for help, and it was Anne who decided, hours later, that he should be taken off life-support. They spent 45 of his 68 years together.

"I never remember a day when Harry didn't kiss me and tell me he loved me," Anne told Cummins.

The next year, Anne left Eastern Kentucky for good and moved to southern Indiana to be near two of her children. Twice she has worked with writers on a Harry Caudill biography. To her frustration, the first writer lost interest halfway through the project; the second died just as he finished the manuscript, which his family has held for years, refusing either to publish it or to answer Anne's calls or letters.

For now, Harry Caudill's story will continue to be told by his widow.

"The great joy in my life was being able to be of real service to him, and I do not feel that it was — as the feminists would have it — deferring to a male," Anne told Cummins. "I was not deferring, I was supporting and assisting a rare and able spirit. It's been a rich and wonderful life with never a dull moment."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service