HINDMAN — Brent Hutchinson knew he had big shoes to fill. And if he had any doubt, more than 100 people have told him so since he arrived in October to become director of Hindman Settlement School.
Hutchinson succeeded Mike Mullins, 63, who died unexpectedly last February. During 34 years as director, Mullins transformed the 110-year-old school to keep its mission relevant to changing needs.
The institution now provides arts programming and dyslexia services to schools in Knott and some surrounding counties. It also runs two acclaimed summer programs: the Appalachian Writers Workshop and Appalachian Family Folk Week.
Mullins left things in good shape, financially and otherwise. How does Hutchinson plan to build on that success? He isn't sure yet, but he plans to do a lot of listening to the scores of people throughout the region who will help him figure it out.
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"We have a lot of flexibility," Hutchinson said of the school. "I want to figure out what people here really need more than asserting areas of interest to me."
Hutchinson, 38, has the benefit of coming in as both an outsider and an insider.
His mother was born in Germany, but she moved here when her mother married an American soldier from Knott County. Displaced by the Carr Creek Lake project in the 1970s, the family moved to Whitesburg. He was raised in Louisa, graduating as valedictorian of Lawrence County High School in 1992.
"I grew up driving past the settlement school and never dreamed I would end up here at this point in my life," said Hutchinson, whose twin brother, Brian, is athletic director at Morehead State University.
Hutchinson and his wife, Gwen, who is from Floyd County, graduated from Morehead State. They moved to Lexington in 1997. She earned a master's in social work at the University of Kentucky and led an Alzheimer's day care program. He earned a master's in family studies at UK and worked in ministry and counseling.
They left in 2001 for Nashville, where she did social work and he was in ministry, most recently at Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin. They have two sons: Adam, 9, and Miles, 5.
"I think it's difficult for a lot of people who leave Eastern Kentucky to get it out of their blood," said Hutchinson, who is finishing a doctorate in leadership studies from Dallas Baptist University in Texas. "We always thought we would come back. We didn't expect it to be this soon."
Hindman Settlement School was founded in 1902 along the banks of Troublesome Creek by two progressive women from Central Kentucky. Its original mission was to provide basic education and health services to people in this then-remote corner of the mountains, but its role has changed as the area has developed.
"Being a part of social change is something that's always been important to me," Hutchinson said. "I knew Hindman Settlement School was a place that did that."
Glenn Leveridge, a Lexington banker and chairman of the school's board, said Hutchinson stood out among 34 candidates as being well-suited to both carry out the school's missions and figure out new ones in the future.
"Every spoke of the wheel was tight," he said of Hutchinson's background and qualifications. "But the thing that really sent me over the moon was when he called toward the end of the process and asked, 'Am I going to be able to dream?'"
Hutchinson eventually wants the school to broaden its scope throughout Eastern Kentucky by partnering with other organizations to enhance education, arts and heritage programs. Rather than just try to help solve problems, he wants the school to be a positive force in shaping Appalachian culture.
More immediately, Hutchinson is looking forward this summer to Appalachian Family Folk Week and the Appalachian Writers Workshop. The workshop has become famous because of the participation of such literary icons as Harriette Arnow and James Still, who worked at the school for many years.
Kentucky-born author Barbara Kingsolver will be the featured lecturer at this year's workshop. And, despite her recently announced move from UK to South Carolina to be closer to aging parents, award-winning poet Nikky Finney will be back at Hindman, Hutchinson said. This will be the third year she has led a special workshop for young Kentucky writers.
"I was told by people that there's some magic that happens on the banks of Troublesome Creek," Hutchinson said. "The more I'm here, the more I realize that people really do believe that."