Stage & Dance

Uncommonwealth: In his new role, Ben Chandler begins 'a labor of love'

Ben Chandler, incoming executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council, is a voracious reader and a history buff. His home library has more than 5,000 volumes.
Ben Chandler, incoming executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council, is a voracious reader and a history buff. His home library has more than 5,000 volumes. Herald-Leader

Ben Chandler, beaming like he just won the Powerball, said he has always wanted to teach history.

His pride is his library at his home in Woodford County, which has 5,000 volumes. When the former congressman travels, he takes his books with him in a separate bag. He prefers hardbacks, which makes this a heavy proposition.

A recent favorite is the Countess of Longford's biography of the first Duke of Wellington.

Now, as the incoming executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council, Chandler, 53, figures he will get the opportunity to travel the state and tout its cultural beauties without having to work the hustings for votes and campaign money.

"It's an opportunity to do professionally what has always been my avocation," Chandler said. "How lucky is that?"

He'll still be pitching for money, but the cause will be different: to support the nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, that sponsors everything from Chautauquas — one-actor shows featuring Kentucky historical figures from Henry Clay to Adolph Rupp to Rosemary Clooney — to reading programs for recent immigrants and their families. It is not a state agency.

Chandler replaces Virginia Carter, who held the post for nearly 25 years. During Carter's tenure, the council evolved from an organization that makes grants to a provider of humanities programs throughout Kentucky.

One of those efforts, called Our Lincoln, went national during the 2008-10 commemorations for the bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln's birth near Hodgenville, including a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Under Carter's leadership, the council also started the Kentucky Chautauqua program, which has reached 490,000 Kentuckians since its debut in 1992.

Chandler, meanwhile, has held elective jobs for 21 years, including state attorney general, state auditor and U.S. representative from Kentucky's 6th District from 2004 to 2013. A Democrat, Chandler lost that seat to Republican Andy Barr in 2012.

He has gone from the corridors of national power to a quiet office on Maxwell Street, a corridor noted for University of Kentucky student housing, a socially active Presbyterian church and university offices.

Is he relieved to be out of politics?

Chandler raises his arms in the air, fists clenched, in a hallelujah pose.

His three children with wife Jennifer are growing up. The oldest, Lucie, is a student at Transylvania University; Albert IV is going to Valley Forge Military College; and the youngest, son Branham, is in high school.

Chandler regrets that his Washington career caused him to miss some of the time at home when his children were growing up.

Nonetheless, he said of his political career, "It's been tremendous training, the 21 years in public office.

"It tells on your family after awhile," he said of his Washington experience, having to miss many of his children's events as well as their daily lives.

Chandler credits Carter with building the Chautauqua program and getting it a $1 million endowment.

"I want to make that bigger," Chandler said. "I want to make Chautauqua a household word in Kentucky. It's something a young person might never forget."

Another priority is committing more of the Chautauqua presentations to video.

Chandler said he never would forget a Chautauqua presentation by the Vic Hellard, the late Legislative Research Commission director, who portrayed Kentucky Gov. Edwin Morrow (a Republican who served 1920-23), who often travelled with his opponent, Democrat August Owsley Stanley, and dined with him after the two traded barbs.

At one stop, Stanley, an anti-prohibitionist who had had too much to drink, vomited in front of the audience as Morrow spoke.

Stanley, whip-smart, took the podium and declared: "That just goes to show you what I have been saying all over Kentucky. Ed Morrow plain makes me sick to my stomach."

(Stanley went on to win the election by 471 votes, the closest gubernatorial election in Kentucky history.)

Chandler also was influenced by his grandfather, two-time Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler, who said, "I've never met a Kentuckian who wasn't coming home."

As director of the humanities council, Ben Chandler is eager to expand ties with, and spread the culture of, the immigrants who have contributed to Kentucky, from the Welsh and Eastern Europeans in Eastern Kentucky to the Mexicans throughout the state.

Their culture, he said, "is part of the fabric that was and is Kentucky. It's important that we understand the contribution that those groups made."

"Now I get to ask people what I think is really important: What is the fabric of Kentucky to build good citizens?... It will be absolutely a labor of love for me."

Ben Chandler

Education: B.A., J.D. from University of Kentucky

Home: Pisgah Pike in Woodford County, on a farm where his family settled in 1784

You would be surprised to know that: Chandler is a great fan of British writer Anthony Trollope, 1815-82, whose works include The Chronicles of Barsetshire.