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KET pioneer O. Leonard Press named 2012 Hellard Award recipient

(FRANKFORT Dec. 17, 2012) -- O. Leonard Press, Founding Director of Kentucky Educational Television and nationally acclaimed pioneer in bringing classroom and civic education to Kentuckians through the nascent medium of public TV, has been named recipient of the 2012 Vic Hellard Jr. Award for excellence in public service.

The Hellard Award, the highest honor the Legislature can bestow, has been given annually since 1997. Press was chosen for this year's honor by the 16-member legislative leadership that comprises the Legislative Research Commission.

The award's namesake, Vic Hellard Jr., was executive director of the LRC staff for 19 years. The honor goes each year to someone who embodies the professional vision and unique personal qualities that Hellard brought to his own long and distinguished career.

In announcing Press’ selection, legislative leaders noted that Len – as everyone knows him -- has throughout his working and personal life met those lofty criteria perfectly.

‘Len is an ideal candidate for the Hellard Award,’ said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. ‘He is, as Vic was, someone who truly respects history and how its lessons can help us make a better future.  He has never been satisfied with the status quo, and has always looked for ways we could make the world better.  Kentucky is in a much better place because of him.’

Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, agreed. ‘Like Vic, Len Press has always championed the dignity and potential of all. Like Vic too, he has devoted his considerable energies to direct engagement and two-way dialogue between the people and their government – especially the Legislature, the Peoples’ Branch -- all in a spirit of commitment, caring, generosity and humor.’

Press’ long life and career (he just turned 91) are historically remarkable. A Lowell, Massachusetts native, what he often calls his life’s ‘geography of opportunity’ led him from a Depression-era upbringing through service in World War II to various jobs in radio broadcasting in the Northeast, and the emerging and revolutionary medium of television. Eventually, the ‘branching paths’ of his career’s ‘geography’ led him to Kentucky. ‘I was intrigued by seeing another part of the country,” he recalls. He originally came to teach at UK for just one year. But a visit to a poor underserved mountain school gave birth to a vision.

"Across Kentucky, I saw the heroic struggle to provide equal education thwarted by the barrier of unequal resources,’ he said once. ‘It was essential that we harness the power of television to assure the education and enrichment of our people so they would have every possible opportunity. We could not afford to accept less"

That driving vision kept him here. After 10 years of hard, personal lobbying for what some in Frankfort called a pipe dream, Kentucky Educational Television went on the air in 1968, statewide in reach, boundless (it proved) in potential.

Under Press, KET quickly outgrew being simply ‘educational TV’ bringing classes to poor rural schools. It evolved dramatically to become a unifying force in Kentucky life, drawing the far-flung Commonwealth together through one statewide public-affairs network. KET defined, from the mountains of the East to the lake country of the West, what it meant to be ‘a Kentuckian.’ In fact, for several years ‘Bringing Kentucky Together’ was the network’s tagline.

Press’ innovative 1978 decision to bring coverage of General Assembly sessions to every hill, holler, flatland farm and town and city of the state played a key role in fostering the era’s fledgling Legislative Independence Movement. KET’s nightly coverage brought the Legislature into folks’ living rooms, enhanced its institutional stature and professionalism, and helped cement its status as a co-equal branch of government. Legislative independence was Hellard’s passion, and Press was a key ally in that fight.

Current LRC Director Robert S. Sherman said his old mentor Hellard would surely be pleased with this year’s selection, citing the ‘historic connection’ the two men shared.

‘Len Press, through his groundbreaking KET coverage, lent a welcome hand to Vic and the Legislature in the early days of legislative independence, a time when the outcome of that struggle was far from certain,’ Sherman said. ‘He is a welcome and absolutely appropriate addition to the honor roll of Hellard Award recipients.’

Press, no stranger to awards and accolades, said he was ‘especially moved’ by this latest recognition.

'I'm honored, I'm touched, and I can only accept this award humbly,' Press said. 'Vic Hellard was a special man, and this is a special honor, even more so since it at least in part recognizes my heartfelt commitment, which Vic shared, to connect Kentuckians more closely with their government through the simple, obvious, but hard-won act of just showing it to them.'

O. Leonard Press is the 16th recipient of the Vic Hellard Jr. award. Hellard himself died in 1996, a year after his retirement from the LRC. The award in his name has been given annually since.

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