Fayette County

Don Edwards, columnist who chronicled life in the Bluegrass, dies at 75

Staff file photo

Don Edwards, a retired Lexington Herald-Leader columnist who chronicled life in the Bluegrass with passion, wit and humor for 22 years, died early Tuesday. He was 75.

He was at Northpoint Lexington Healthcare Center after battling a series of health problems since before his retirement in 2001.

Edwards wrote thousands of columns filled with Kentucky personalities, history, nostalgia and a deep understanding of what made Lexington tick.

“One of the ways that newspapers best convey a sense of place is through columnists who know their towns and the eccentricities that make them unique,” said Tim Kelly, retired publisher and former editor of the Herald-Leader. “Don did that with relish, and with humor and skill but was never mean-spirited.

“He was a solid newspaperman and an all-round great guy who, even when ailing, always had a good word and a smile when you saw him,” Kelly added.

“He knew and understood the Bluegrass as well as anybody and told memorable stories about its people and institutions,” said another former editor, Pam Luecke. “He was a graceful writer and an exceedingly kind person.”

After reading Edwards from afar for years, I enjoyed getting to know and work with him after I moved back to Lexington in 1998 and became managing editor.

In my first week as a columnist in 2008, I interviewed Edwards for a column about his induction into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. He said being a columnist was the best job he ever had.

“You never had to do the same thing twice,” Edwards said. “You met everyone from the mayor to the town drunk.”

Edwards enjoyed poking fun at Lexington society’s pretentiousness through fictitious characters Buffy Bleugrazz, “an over-the-hill horse farm debutante” and her country cousin, Barbara Jean.

“One represented Lexington and one represented Eastern Kentucky,” he said. “That’s what Lexington is, a combination of those two.”

Edwards occasionally took on controversial topics such as politics, religion and Lexington’s exploding suburban growth of the time. He rankled some readers when he wrote about gay people and civil rights.

Organizers of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast honored Edwards in 2007 for a column he wrote in 1996 after attending the second such event. He noticed that only about 40 of the 325 people attending were white.

“Where are the rest of the white people?” Edwards wrote. “You will know when unity has arrived in Lexington. You’ll see it at the Unity Breakfast table.”

The next year, a lot more white people attended. The event now attracts more than 2,000 people each January, including virtually every local leader in government and business.

Edwards told me the work he was most proud of was the 15 years he spent teaching chess to about 1,000 children in the Fayette County Public Schools.

“I run across people all the time, young folks in their 20s, who come up to me and say, ‘You taught me chess in school and I still play it and enjoy it,'” he said. One young man even thanked him on national television as a contestant on “Jeopardy.”

Edward loved writing about celebrities who came here for the Kentucky Derby. He once memorized the names and dates of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s seven husbands in preparation for interviewing her. He said it was a good thing he did: she couldn’t remember them all.

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Edwards loved a good party, and he became close friends with Anita and Preston Madden, owners of Hamburg Place farm, who for many years threw a legendary Kentucky Derby eve party.

Anita Madden wrote the foreword to “Life is Like a Horse Race,” a 1999 book the Herald-Leader published of some of Edwards’ best columns.

“He has enriched us with his blend of social and political commentary, his moving stories and humorous anecdotes, his personality profiles and character sketches,” Madden wrote. “Don’s love for Lexington and Kentucky is evident in every column and in the many other ways he has given himself to his community.”

Former Mayor Pam Miller said, “Don could always see the humor in any event, public or private. It was a treat to be around him, and we will miss him.”

“Don Edwards’ columns were required reading when I first came to Lexington as a reporter,” said current Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak. “He really knew the people and stories that made Central Kentucky such a special place to live and cover the news. Even better than reading his columns, though, was getting to hear him joyfully tell the stories behind those stories first-hand.”

Donald Clay Edwards was born Aug. 25, 1940 in Corbin to Emmett Clay Edwards, a fireman for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad from Lincoln County, and Anna Lee Edwards of Richmond. He grew up in Richmond and attended Eastern Kentucky University.

Edwards was city editor of the Bloomington (Ind.) Tribune and managing editor of the Winchester Sun before joining the old afternoon Lexington Leader as a reporter in January 1967.

He became city editor of the morning Lexington Herald in 1972 and city editor of the Lexington Leader in 1977. He wrote a column about Kentucky writers for several years on the Sunday Herald-Leader’s book page and became a columnist for the Leader in 1979. The newspapers merged in 1983.

Edwards won many awards from the Kentucky Press Association.

Edwards is survived by Elaine Holloway Edwards, his wife of 36 years; a sister, Anne Hammons; two sons, Clay Edwards of Louisville and Gentry Edwards of Atlanta; a daughter, Lee Anne Quarles of Frankfort; and five grandchildren.

There will be a gathering of family and friends from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, with a celebration of life at 6 p.m., at Clark Legacy Center, 601 E. Brannon Road, Nicholasville.