Jerry Deaton met Harry Caudill once, at the 1990 Kentucky Book Fair, a few weeks before Caudill killed himself.
Caudill was an Eastern Kentucky lawyer, activist, orator and writer. His 1963 book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” drew national attention to the plunderous activities of the coal industry in Central Appalachia and the devastation it left. The book helped bring new environmental and property-rights laws, a massive increase in federal aid to the region and an influx of idealistic young people, some of whom still live in the mountains as idealistic old people.
As a native Eastern Kentuckian himself, Deaton knew who Caudill was, but he hadn’t read the book. He didn’t get around to that until 10 years ago. When he finally did, it left him stunned. The challenges that Caudill described — What jobs are there for Appalachian people beyond the boom-and-bust of coal mines? Why should ancient mountains be razed for quick profits by distant mining corporations? — remained just as vexing as they were a half-century earlier.
Three years after that, Deaton chanced to meet Anne Frye Caudill, Harry’s widow, at an event in New Albany, Ind.
He already had written a couple of Kentucky history books and a film about Breathitt County’s bloody feuds. Given his background, he realized this was kismet.
“A light went off in my head,” Deaton said last week from his home outside Frankfort. “I said, ‘Mrs. Caudill, why don’t we make a film about your husband?’ She was reluctant at first. You know, there was a lot of controversy about Harry Caudill. So I let it go. But then a few months later, I happened to see her again, and I pressed it, and finally she said yes.”
The resulting documentary — “Harry Caudill: A Man of Courage” — will premiere at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre in downtown Frankfort. It was produced by David Harl of Lexington’s Pinnacle Productions and was financed by Louisville philanthropist Christina Lee Brown.
“Courage” is an appropriate word for Caudill, Deaton said. He raised a family in tiny Whitesburg, the Letcher County seat, while pounding out books, articles and speeches about political corruption and environmental destruction, sometimes naming as culprits people whom he was bound to see around town. Once, he was physically accosted at the post office. Coal companies steered business away from his law firm. Threats and insults were common. The local newspaper, which published Caudill, was firebombed in 1974, as were the homes of other activists in the region.
Through it all, Caudill kept agitating to find a brighter future for Eastern Kentucky.
“I admire courage,” Deaton said. “To me, Harry is almost like the way they describe Atticus in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” He is one of those men put down on this Earth to do the tough work for us. And he did it. He didn’t care about the the consequences to himself. He said what needed to be said, and I admire that.”
Deaton’s documentary opens with archival images of Eastern Kentucky’s coal boom during World War II. Underground mine jobs were plentiful. Kentucky produced about 72 million tons of coal a year, nearly 20 percent more than it did in 2015.
By the 1950s, however, the scene had changed. The Tennessee Valley Authority was buying such vast quantities of coal that underground mines couldn’t keep up. Simultaneously, massive new machines had been built that let mining companies rip into the tops and sides of mountains so coal seams could be clawed out, rather than sending teams of men inside to remove smaller loads. Production soared, but fewer workers were needed, and the landscape left behind looked like the shattered surface of the moon.
Many idled miners either packed up their families and moved away or went on welfare, watching miserably as the mountains, forests and streams around them were ravaged. Using the broad-form deed — a legal construct that Caudill eventually helped to abolish — companies were even entitled to dig on private land by claiming that they long ago had bought the rights to the underlying coal, perhaps from the current landowners’ parents or grandparents.
“A once fiercely proud culture of mountain people — independent and capable — had fallen victim to nearly 50 years of corporate greed and governmental neglect, in dire need of a champion,” Deaton says in the documentary.
Caudill proved to be that champion, Deaton says. His writing, his crusading lawsuits, the Appalachian history classes he taught at the University of Kentucky later in life, all advanced a vision of a self-sustaining Eastern Kentucky that proudly could be handed down through the generations.
That said, Caudill was a complex man. He could be “prickly and sharp,” turning casual conversations into lectures, David Hawpe, a retired Courier-Journal journalist, tells Deaton in the film. He became frustrated when so many of the problems he wrote about did not seem to visibly improve. As he began blaming his neighbors for their own poverty — ascribing their plight to inbreeding and “weak genes,” pondering the possibility of sterilization clinics for families with low IQs — Caudill alienated some who once revered him.
In 1990, Caudill, 68, was suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and worsening pain from a foot that had been mangled during his wartime service in Europe. He shot himself in his front yard, facing his beloved Pine Mountain. An ambulance rushed him to the small hospital in Whitesburg. But his wife told doctors to cancel the airlift they had planned to carry Caudill to Lexington for emergency brain surgery.
“I said ‘No,’” Anne Caudill tells Deaton in the film. “‘No. He didn’t want to live this morning. And the last thing I can do for him is let him go.’”
Although Caudill has been dead for more than a quarter-century, his battles go on today, Deaton said. Eastern Kentucky continues to be plagued by crooked politicians, a fouled landscape and seemingly intractable poverty. What looks like the final collapse of the coal industry — stunning the region by eliminating thousands of jobs — was predicted by Caudill decades ago. What, Caudill repeatedly asked, would Eastern Kentuckians do once the coal stopped running?
“We still don’t have the answer,” Deaton said. “The main reason I did this documentary is that I believe the man’s message needs to stay alive. People need to hear it. More important than the man himself, with all due respect, is what he tried to tell us.”
If you go
“Harry Caudill: A Man of Courage” will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre, 312 W. Main St., Frankfort. Tickets are $8.