Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Neil Chethik to write new chapter for Carnegie Center

Tom Combs, 3, stopped Neil Chethik at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning to show Chethik his book. Chethik, writer-in-residence at the center for the past six years, takes over Tuesday as the center's executive director, succeeding Jan Isenhour, who retired after 13 years in the post.
Tom Combs, 3, stopped Neil Chethik at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning to show Chethik his book. Chethik, writer-in-residence at the center for the past six years, takes over Tuesday as the center's executive director, succeeding Jan Isenhour, who retired after 13 years in the post.

Neil Chethik had been a newspaper reporter and a syndicated columnist, but he dreamed of writing a book. He knew he needed some help, so he went to the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

The first person Chethik met when he walked in the front door was Jan Isenhour.

"She was so welcoming!" he said. "I hope I can continue to project that for the Carnegie Center."

On Tuesday, Chethik succeeds Isenhour as executive director, a post she's held since 1998. She is retiring after 19 years at the center to focus on her own writing, including her first novel.

Since coming in for help that day 14 years ago, Chethik, 54, has been a constant presence at the Carnegie Center. He joined the non-fiction creative writing group, and after finishing his first book, FatherLoss, he started leading it. He has been the center's part-time writer-in-residence for six years and chairman of the fund-raising committee for five.

"Having worked with Jan for so many years, I have a trust in the direction we're going," he said. "We have an extremely firm foundation, and we are ready to launch from that foundation."

Chethik plans to continue the center's adult writing and language workshops, and literacy and arts engagement programs for youth, adults and families. Among other things, the center provides free individual tutoring after school for 140 children, many of whom are from low-income families.

He also envisions the center playing a bigger role in developing Kentucky's great writers of the future. "There's something about Kentucky that has always produced great literature," he said. "Part of what I want to do is understand that and help drive it."

The Carnegie Center is named for its 106-year-old building in Gratz Park, which was one of more than 2,500 public libraries that industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded around the world from 1883 to 1929. After Lexington's main library moved to a new and bigger building on Main Street in 1989, the building was renovated and reopened as the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in 1992.

Chethik had moved to Lexington a year earlier when his wife, Kelly Flood, became minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church. (She is now an educational fund-raiser and, since 2009, a state representative. Their son, Evan, is a senior at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School.)

Chethik, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., spent a dozen years as a newspaper reporter in Tallahassee, Fla., and San Jose, Calif. When he moved to Kentucky, he wanted to focus on his own writing projects.

He wrote a syndicated newspaper column about men's issues for several years, then he started thinking about his first book, which grew out of his and his father's experiences after the death of his grandfather. The 2001 book FatherLoss was recently adapted into a PBS documentary. His second book, VoiceMale, was published by Simon & Shuster in 2006.

In addition to practical advice about writing and publishing, Chethik said, his instructors and fellow students at the Carnegie Center provided a supportive community.

"For writers, it can be a lonely existence because we have to be alone when we're writing," he said. "Having a community of writers breaks that isolation and helps give us perspective."

The Carnegie Center has become a magnet for many of Kentucky's best-known writers, who teach, take classes and participate in readings and conferences. Chethik hopes to expand that community by involving more writers, would-be writers, professors, publishers and booksellers.

Chethik says he thinks the Carnegie Center should become a sort of capitol for literary arts in Kentucky, a state that has always seemed to have more than its share of great writers.

Think about it: Kentucky produced the first African-American novelist (William Wells Brown), the writer of the first American novel to sell a million copies (John Fox Jr.), the first writer to win Pulitzer prizes in more than one literary genre (Robert Penn Warren) and one of the pioneers of "new" journalism (Hunter S. Thompson).

The list of great Kentucky writers is long: James Lane Allen, Jesse Stuart, James Still, Harriette Arnow, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Hardwick, Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, Bobbie Ann Mason, Sue Grafton, Richard Taylor, Barbara Kingsolver and many more. "And now we have this whole new crop of writers, such as Frank Walker, Erik Reece and C.E. Morgan," Chethik said.

The Carnegie Center recently received a grant from the Lucille Caudill Little Foundation to have its first "books in progress" conference, in the spring. Among its goals, Chethik said, is to bring New York publishers to Kentucky "so they can see what we have and publish more of us."

As a transplant, Chethik said, he marvels not only at Kentucky's literary tradition but at how it keeps reinventing itself with such groups as the Affrilachian Poets and Holler Poets.

"There's something about Kentucky," he said. "There's incredible natural beauty, a fascinating history and a sort of conflict about who we are. There are people all over Kentucky writing about who we are, and I think the Carnegie Center can be a home for them."

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