My first friend from Clay County was Bert Combs. The second was Charles House. In 1981, when I bought the London Sentinel-Echo in Laurel County, an unexpected and most pleasant benefit was the editor I inherited from the former owners.
Charles never hesitated to disagree with me when he thought I was wrong, beginning with the geography and history lessons he tried to teach me. "You think you have moved to the mountains," he said firmly one day. "But you have not. To understand this region, you must get away from the interstate and go farther east, to where I come from. I mean Manchester, in Clay County," he went on. "Now Clay County — that's serious Appalachia."
A few months after, John Y. Brown, Sr., father of the then-governor, dropped by and recalled a visit he made years before to the Clay courthouse during a coal strike. When Brown, a noted champion of the miners, gave the clerk his name, an anti-union deputy nearby knocked him to the floor. "I came to looking at a ring of pistols pointing down on me," Brown said. "But I was saved when the sheriff shouted at his men to put up their guns."
As Brown left, Charles whispered, "So that's what I mean about serious Appalachia."
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After Navy service, Charles had taken his talents to Louisville where he was playing drums in a band when he met Nora Hawkins. She was working part time as a waitress and studying to be a school teacher.
The marriage and Nora's pregnancy pulled him out of the band and into two careers, first as a social worker and then into the newspaper business where he excelled.
Another of Charles' interests was art, in which he had a degree from Eastern Kentucky University. It surfaced when he saw a traveling exhibit of paintings by Henry Faulkner, another Clay County celebrity who lived in Lexington until he was killed by a drunken driver the day after Charles called him to praise his work. Charles obtained a grant from the Kentucky Oral History Commission to pay his and Nora's expenses for a trip to Key West, Fla. to interview Faulkner's friends, including the famous playwright Tennessee Williams. Williams told Charles he and Faulkner had taken a trip together to Italy and Faulkner had left Williams a small Clay County farm in his will. (Both Williams and Faulkner were gay; one would have enjoyed either in Italy or Manchester their fanciful discussions of painting and writing and living together on a hillside in Clay County.) The book Charles wrote with Nora's considerable help was published by the University of Tennessee Press and enjoyed acclaim in literary and art circles.
Years later I got a call from the owner of the weekly paper in Apalachicola, Fla., where Charles had applied for a job. "You couldn't hire a better editor," I said and burst out laughing. "You can get the boy out of Appalachia, but assuredly you can't get Appalachia out of the boy."
The Herald-Leader's account accurately reported on the Houses' 18 years in Florida, including working as bridge inspectors, living three years on a sailboat they built and a new career Charles created in Sarasota as a graphic artist and design instructor at a college.
Charles, who left a legacy of five published books, was recently honored as the foremost local historian in Kentucky for reviving the Clay County Historical Society, and instilling pride in the accomplishments of a community which had almost forgotten to be proud because of scandals by a corrupt few.
Wherever Charles has gone, I hope the newspapers afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. If that is so, and the editors tell it like it is, then one of them is Charles House, a dear friend and an outstanding American journalist.