As the international horse community gathers for the Breeders' Cup on its first visit to Lexington, it is a good moment to think of John Ryan Gaines.
John was the founder alike of the Breeders' Cup and — with his wife Joan and professor Raymond Betts — the Gaines Center for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. The Breeders' Cup is of course far better known.
On Monday, the Triangle Foundation will recognize Gaines for his impact on the Thoroughbred industry with a bronze plaque in the Thoroughbred Park Hall of Fame. John made an outsized contribution in many other ways — both locally and nationally — and the Gaines Center, like the Breeders' Cup, sprang from his remarkably inventive mind.
What was there about Gaines that enabled him to found these two wonderful institutions, and to make so many other contributions as well?
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First, he was a passionate dreamer, constantly coming up with new ideas on almost every conceivable subject. His dreaming about both the Gaines Center and the Breeders' Cup took place at roughly the same time, both coming to life in the middle 1980s.
There is not space to tell the complex story of the founding of the Breeders' Cup. Suffice it to say that the task demanded all of Gaines' creative energy and wily organizational skills. The same was true of the founding of the Gaines Center, which for over 30 years has provided a rich program of study for two dozen of UK's most outstanding juniors and seniors each year.
Gaines was a strong and genuine enthusiast for the humanities. He was a poet himself, and passionately loved both poetry and art. His speech at the opening of the center about the importance of the humanities was unforgettable.
Printed in handsome letter-press type, it is given to every Gaines fellow and read aloud on important occasions. John took a keen interest in each fellow, often offering advice on career choices, books to read, or just on life in general.
And his brilliant creation has borne rich fruit, for Lexington and beyond:
■ Former fellows Lester Miller (class of 2001) and Aumaine Mott (2002) started the restaurant boom on Lexington's Jefferson Street when they took over Stella's Kentucky Deli. They used healthy, local food and local talent as a tool of urban development as owners of Al's Bar on North Limestone.
■ Jeff Fugate (1999) is the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.
■ Haviland Argo (2001) is the managing architect of the 21C Museum Hotel Project on Main Street.
■ Shayla Lawson (2003) is a teacher and poet who often teaches at the Governor's School for the Arts.
■ Ouita Michel (1986) is a nationally renowned chef, and the owner of five local restaurants.
■ Mark Linton (1999) recently stepped down as a key White House adviser on urban poverty.
■ Dyche Mullins (1987), now running his own lab at San Francisco State University, is doing pioneering work on the bio-mechanics of the cell -— the forces that allow cells to hold their shape and do their work.
Although they never number more than 24 at a time, Gaines fellows have consistently represented UK in competitions for prestigious national awards, such as the Marshall, Truman and Fulbright scholarships.
The list could go on. The point for us is that Gaines had the wisdom, the courage and the skill to work with Betts to create one of the early humanities centers in the nation, and perhaps the only one in a major research university with a chief focus on undergraduate education.
As a former director and a current director of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, we express our profound gratitude for the inspirational leadership of John Ryan Gaines.
Dan Rowland is emeritus professor of history and the former director of the Gaines Center for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. Phil Harling is John R. Gaines Professor of the Humanities and director of the Gaines Center.