O. Leonard Press, whose vision became educational network KET, dies at age 97

KET celebrates 50 years

A clip from "The KET Story" of 1979 gubernatorial debate between Louie Nunn and John Y. Brown Jr.
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A clip from "The KET Story" of 1979 gubernatorial debate between Louie Nunn and John Y. Brown Jr.

O. Leonard Press, who transformed his vision of a statewide educational television network into the nationally respected Kentucky Educational Television, died Wednesday night at Baptist Health Lexington after a short illness. He was 97.

Kentucky veteran journalist Al Smith, a longtime friend of Press, said Press “did more for education in Kentucky than many of the state’s university presidents.”

“While it is with a heavy heart that we share news of Len’s passing, it is also with tremendous pride and admiration that we can look back on a life well lived, one that has made such a positive and lasting impact on the people of Kentucky,” said Shae Hopkins, who was hired by Press in 1986 and became KET’s fourth executive director in 2010.

“Len Press loved Kentucky and its people very deeply,” said Ginni Fox, who succeeded Press as executive director in 1991. “He did not just care for Kentucky, he acted upon that love. And we and future generations are all better for his labors.”

A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, Press was raised during the Great Depression and was a veteran of World War II.

Before the war, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in accounting but his passion was writing.

When he returned to school from the war, Press pursued a Master’s degree in communications from Boston University College of Communications. Radio and television fascinated him.

So did the young woman, Lillian, whom he married while in graduate school.

After school, Boston University hired him to handle all radio and TV spots for the university. He gained national notoriety for producing college tele-courses on a local commercial station.

The young couple had their sights on New York City. But one of his resumes landed at the University of Kentucky, which had plans for a television station.

Press was intrigued by the idea and took the UK job in 1952.

Not long after his arrival in Kentucky, Press worked in conjunction with WHAS-TV in Louisville to produce a program on Christmas in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

On the project, Press met Alice Slone, who was the founder and director of the rural Lott’s Creek Community School in Cordia in Knott County. It received no state funds and lacked accreditation.

The project sparked the idea of a statewide educational television network.

“Across Kentucky, I saw the heroic struggle to provide equal education thwarted by the barrier of unequal resources,” Press recalled in 2011. “Of course, I’m thinking, ‘Wow — if we could get television in there, they could have the courses they need for accreditation.’ I really wanted to do this. It was something I couldn’t get out of my mind.”

At Press’ urging, the Kentucky General Assembly in 1962 passed legislation creating the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television and named Press as its first executive director.

Press was involved in much of the fund raising for the new network. Paul Blazer, the founder of Ashland Oil and long-time education advocate, donated the money to secure 15 transmitter sites.

Former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. called Press “one of the greatest Kentuckians in my lifetime. His work on getting the legislature to approve KET and his efforts to get it funded have helped this state in many, many ways and still is contributing to its welfare.”

Virginia Fox, the second director of KET, posed with, left to right, former governor Governor Edward “Ned” Breathitt, first director of KET Len Press, and former Governor Louie Nunn. Kentucky Educational Television Kentucky Educational Television

Based in Lexington, KET signed on the air for the first time on Sept. 26, 1968, broadcasting weekdays during school hours across the state.

At KET, Press “created a climate for creativity for many wonderful writers, directors, camera people and other artists,” said Guy Mendes of Lexington, who worked there from 1973 to 2008 in several roles ranging from graphic artist to script writer and producer.

“Mr. Press, as we called him, had an expansive mind who was open to making things new,” Mendes said. “He was a true visionary.”

One of Press’ most publicized hires at KET was getting Russellville editor Al Smith to host a weekly Friday night public affairs show called “Comment on Kentucky.” It started airing in 1974 and featured working journalists in the state talking about the week’s news.

Smith said the show “resurrected his career.” It will air this Friday night from the Fancy Farm political picnic in Graves County as KET’s longest running program.

Press retired in 1991. Upon his retirement, KET was viewed as a national model for educational, cultural, historical and public affairs programming. Under Press’ leadership, KET grew to become the largest statewide public broadcasting network in the nation.

He was hailed as a role model for educational innovation as well as a telecommunications pioneer. He received multiple honors and awards throughout his lifetime, including an honorary doctorate from UK in 2015 — given jointly with his wife, a former newspaper reporter and public relations executive who served as the first director of Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program.

Lexington attorney Terry McBrayer, who was a longtime member of the KET board, said Press was “Mr. KET. He was the most kind, gentle, compassionate individual I’ve ever met yet he was a superpower in educational television.”

Besides his wife, Press is survived by a son, Lowell Press of the state of Washington, daughter-in-law Sasha Stoneman Press and two grandsons.

Smith said Press donated his body to the University of Kentucky Medical School.

On KET’s 50th anniversary, Press said, “Don’t ever fear imagining. Don’t ever fear doing what you think is bigger than you should.

“Know that almost anything is possible … if you put your heart and soul into it. You don’t have to be smart. You have to be determined.”

A memorial service for Press will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 20 at the KET O. Leonard Press Network Center, 600 Cooper Drive, in Lexington.

Seating is limited. For those who want to attend, please contact (859) 258-7005 or