Op-Ed

Len Press did more than build KET. He fought for access to justice for those in need.

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.

There will be many fitting tributes in the coming weeks and months to the visionary work of O. Leonard Press in founding KET and running that fine organization for many years. I could offer one more tribute to Len Press as a loyal and grateful KET viewer whose life has been greatly enriched by KET’s many superb programs.

Instead, I offer a tribute to another aspect of Len’s life and work that might otherwise go unnoticed, a cause that Len pursued with quiet dignity and uncommon grace in his retirement – working to improve access to our justice system for those in need.

Len had already retired from KET when he established the Association for Older Kentuckians, A-OK for short, with seed money provided in part by then Gov. Brereton Jones. One of the projects established by A-OK was a telephone helpline for elderly persons who needed assistance with legal problems, among other matters.

At the same time, a group of attorneys started the Access to Justice Foundation, based in Lexington, with a goal to develop and support different means of delivering legal services to those in need. This was a time when federal aid to legal services for the poor was being drastically cut.

After a chance meeting with Access to Justice’s then Executive Director, Jamie Odle, Len suggested that A-OK’s helpline could become one of Access to Justice’s projects staffed by an attorney who could expertly field calls from elderly persons concerned about life challenges that involved legal issues.

Not only did Len graciously transfer the assets of A-OK over to Access to Justice, he readily agreed to become a member of Access to Justice’s Board, quickly assuming a leadership role as Board Vice-Chair. Len continued to serve as Access to Justice’s Vice-Chair for another 10 years, well into his 80’s.

While Len served as Vice-Chair of Access to Justice, he was asked by then Chief Justice Robert Stephens to serve as a lay member of the newly formed inquiry commission established by the Kentucky Bar Association as a part of its attorney discipline process that was revamped in the late 1990’s. Len served with great distinction for several years as a lay member of the inquiry commission, hearing lawyer discipline cases and making recommendations about whether and to what extent discipline might be warranted in bar complaints brought against individual lawyers by their clients and others.

I found it so remarkable that Len could turn his considerable energy and wisdom to an entirely new, for him, experience – our justice system and the needs of those caught up in our justice system. Len was, however, a true renaissance person equipped with a sharp mind and an all-encompassing curiosity. He was also a person imbued with deep compassion and an all-abiding concern for those less fortunate.

I cannot begin to recount the many times I personally benefited from Len’s sage counsel and insights. Even after Len retired from Access to Justice’s Board, I continued to rely on his advice and insights while working on access to justice issues that continued to arise in our court system, a system that strains from severe underfunding and a sharply escalating demand for legal services in recent years.

In a time when there are not nearly enough people drawn to civic engagement, Len was a refreshing exception. While in retirement many people retreat entirely from civic engagement, Len Press jumped headlong into the challenges of our justice system and our justice system was greatly improved by his efforts.

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