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Collins honored for historic preservation

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He received the Kentucky Heritage Council’s highest honor

By Cameron Koch

Steve Collins has spent a lifetime preserving the history of the state and county he calls home.

Vice chairman of the Kentucky Heritage Council, member of the Shelbyville Historic District Commission, as well as chairman of both the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission and the Ida Lee Willis Memorial Foundation, Collins now is being recognized formally for all of his contributions by the groups he has helped build.

Collins is the president of Hall-Taylor Funeral Home in Shelbyville and son of Kentucky’s first female governor, Martha Layne Collins. He received the Heritage Council’s highest honor on May 23rd at the governor’s mansion – the Ida Lee Willis Memorial Award.

The governor’s mansion and Collins go way back. He lived in the nearly 100-year-old home near the capitol while his mother governed the state, and from his time within its historic walls grew Collins’ passion for preservation of Kentucky’s historical heritage. On June 16, 1984, Collins and his wife, Diane, married there.

But even before all that, in the fourth grade, Collins arrived at the mansion with a mission of preservation.

His class sought to help raise money for the preservation of the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington. Collins was tasked with collecting the money and presenting it to then First Lady Beula Nunn at the mansion.

 “We found out Mrs. Nunn's schedule had changed, and we weren't going to be able to present the money to her – we were going to have to present it to the governor instead,” Collins said. “For a fourth-grader that was something else.”

After presenting the money raised by the class, $38, the children were disappointed in not being able to enter the mansion because of rain. Tours of the mansion in those days weren't given on rainy days to prevent water damage to the interior of the building. Gov. Louie Nunn, however, made an exception for the children, Collins said.

“After that I felt I was really involved in preservation, always very keenly interested in it,” Collins said. “It's just ironic I went to the mansion for the first time raising money to help save a building and then years later received an award for preservation there.”

The preservation of Kentucky's historic sites is Collins' passion, one that he said is well-worth investing time and money into seeing done.

“Historic preservation is a great tool for education, tourism, and economic development,” Collins said. “...It's something that really enhances the quality of life...the ambiance and the image of a town.”

As part of serving on the Kentucky Heritage Council, which works with communities throughout the state to acquire funding to help preserve local historic sites, Collins said it was difficult to choose an historic property that meant the most to him; he said every property he has dealt with is special to him in its own unique way.

“You’re a small part of so many things that need help,” Collins said. “But certainly to this day every time I go past the Mary Todd Lincoln House I think, ‘We helped do that, our class did.’”

If he did have to choose his favorite, Collins said it would be the Spencer House, located on Main Street in Taylorsville, the current home of Hall-Taylor. Collins was chosen for the award without his knowledge and with 100 percent consensus from his peers on the Kentucky Heritage Council, said Diane Comer, public information officer for the organization.

“Steve is really held in high regard with anybody he’s ever worked with,” Comer said.

Marcheta Sparrow, secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, presented the award.

The Ida Lee Willis Award is named after the former Kentucky first lady of the same name. Willis was appointed as the first executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Commission, now the Heritage Council, in 1966. The foundation that bears her name was chartered in 1979 to honor her efforts in preserving Kentucky’s historical and archeological sites.

The daughter of Willis, Sally Willis Meigs, currently serves on the foundation board. She had only kind words for Collins during the award ceremony.

“[Steve is] a tower of strength in all good things,” said Meigs, the Ida Lee Willis Memorial award recipient in 2000. “He has been our backbone and helped carry this legacy forward. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him.”