JoAnne Thompson James, a civic activist who promoted education in Kentucky, died Monday. She was 73 and had lived in London for almost 40 years.
In 1986, Mrs. James became founding chairwoman of Forward in the Fifth, a non-profit group established to improve schools in southeastern Kentucky's 5th Congressional District. The district, represented by Republican Hal Rogers since 1981, long has ranked as one of the nation's poorest, unhealthiest and least educated.
"JoAnne's passion for education and contributions for enhanced learning sparked new ideas and vigor for change," Rogers said. "My wife, Cynthia, and I extend our deepest heartfelt sympathies to JoAnne's friends and loved ones."
Mrs. James remained at the helm of Forward in the Fifth through 1991 as it launched teacher training, rewarded students for their attendance and academic achievements, sponsored educational programs and advocated for public schools to any audience.
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"She took kids in the 5th Congressional District who had never been outside of their counties to visit the city of Lexington, to see Shakertown, to tour the state Capitol in Frankfort, to meet people and see what you could so with an education," said Al Smith, a longtime friend of Mrs. James who helped organize Forward in Fifth while he published a newspaper in London.
Forward in the Fifth remains active, based in Somerset.
Mrs. James also served on the Kentucky Council for Higher Education, the Kentucky Educational Television Foundation Board, the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television and the Georgetown College board of trustees, among other posts.
Friends said Mrs. James carefully negotiated local politics in a region where school districts are a primary source of power and patronage. She wanted to avoid unnecessary fights and reach students.
"She always made us think long and hard about working positively with the schools," said Ginny Ann Blackson, who worked at Forward in the Fifth from 1986 to 2004, the last 14 years as executive director. "It was going to have to be a partnership between the community and the schools, between the parents and the schools."
Smith said, Mrs. James asked politicians, including Rogers, for support, but tried to remain independent. In the 1990s, when Rogers was building the $15.5 million Center for Rural Development in Somerset — locally dubbed "the Taj Ma-Hal" — Mrs. James "smiled sweetly and said, 'Hal, why don't you forget this and give the money to scholarships?' " Smith said.
Mrs. James and her husband, Kenneth Ray James, moved from Louisville to London in the 1970s so he could take an executive position at Appalachian Computer Services. Mrs. James earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Eastern Kentucky University in 1975.
Mrs. James is survived by her husband; her sons Kenneth Ray James II and Brett Alan James; her daughter, Holly Lynn James; and six grandchildren.
Visitation will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday at London Funeral Home in London and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday. Memorial services will be at 1 p.m. Thursday at the funeral home, with burial to follow at A.R. Dyche Memorial Park.