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On Monday, things finally will slow down for Duanne Puckett.
For the past 44 years she has gotten up and gone to work, first at The Shelby News and The Sentinel-News, where she finished as editor and in the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, and then for Shelby County Public Schools, where she spent more than a decade as the district’s public relations coordinator, but next week she can sleep in.
“I have a built-in alarm clock that I inherited from my father,” she said “I don’t’ even own an alarm clock, and it goes off at five-thirty every morning. But I hope to train my brain so I can stay in bed ‘til seven or seven-thirty. I look forward to that. It’ll be like a little mini-vacation in itself.”
But on Tuesday, she will have to make sure she’s ready to head out by 3 p.m. in the afternoon, when a community reception has been organized at Science Hill Inn, 525 Washington Street in Shelbyville, to celebrate her efforts and service as a leader in the community. There is a brief program scheduled for 4 p.m.
But despite not having an office next week, Puckett said she would remain on the go.
“I’m going to be brain dead for a while. And no, I don’t plan to pursue another job. Those are the first things I tell people,” she said with a chuckle. “But I do plan to do more volunteer work, especially with the Friends of Grove Hill Cemetery. I really enjoy doing that. And I’m going to write a book about my life experiences. I’ve already picked out the title, ‘Thanks To A Drunk Driver,’ but I need a subhead, so if anyone has any suggestions, call me.”
That title comes from the accident when Puckett was 16. A drunk driver rammed into the car in which she was a passenger. Puckett, a cheerleader at Shelbyville High School, the daughter of the city’s mayor, was injured gravely and has spent her entire adult life confined to a wheelchair, a fact that she hardly has allowed to deter her.
Only a few years later, she found journalism as a career, starting at The Shelby News, and worked her way up from the most entry of job levels, without having completed a college degree and having to negotiate many more obstacles than most journalists even would conceive. Soon she was running the place, and she never has slowed down, never letting disability stymie what she wanted to do.
And, no matter how she decides to spend her retirement time, all who have worked with her know that even though her position with SCPS will be filled, she will not be replaced.
“It’s simply not possible to replace Duanne,” Superintendent James Neihof said. “On a personal level I’ll miss her dreadfully. She’s been a sounding board for me on all subjects.”
Leon Mooneyhan, now the CEO of Ohio Valley Education Cooperative and former superintendent of SCPS, likes to joke that he had to hire Puckett away from the newspaper just to ease the pressure on his office.
“In the early years, when I came to know Duanne as the editor of The Sentinel-News, we would occasionally disagree on issues, which would lead to some negative editorials. So, I’ve always said the only way I knew how to deal with that was to hire her away,” Mooneyhan said with a laugh.
“Of course, that’s not true, but we often did disagree, and the thing I always appreciated was that she was willing to talk to me and listen to my point of view, and a few times we even agreed.”
And that willingness to listen and discuss different viewpoints was one of many reasons that Mooneyhan did eventually ask Puckett to come work for the district.
“Once I got to know her, I learned what an incredible human being she is,” he said. “Her knowledge of this community, her intelligence, her work ethic and love of children and education, all of it is what makes her so valuable to this community, not just the school district.
“I would call Duanne a community treasure. Her heart is in this community.”
Neihof echoed that statement, adding that her knowledge of the community and its people are an invaluable resource.
“She is a history book of knowledge on the community and school district that goes back well before her time as a part of it,” he said.
Puckett has used that knowledge to help her through Leadership Shelby and the Young Leaders programs; she has become a leader in her church, Centenary United Methodist, and she has shared her knowledge with students in schools. And its all the things she’s done outside her position – from volunteering to read with student to having a larger presence in the schools.
‘More than I expected’
“Oftentimes, in other districts across the state, district office personnel are not known by the students,” Collins Principal John Leeper said. “I will never forget seeing two young ladies run up to her asking for a hug and to know how ‘Bug’ [as they called her] was doing. She cares so much about the students and their work. She loves showing it to the world. The kids know it, and they love her for it.”
Said Mooneyhan: “When you hire someone, you have a job description and a certain idea of what they’ll be doing. But when she mentioned that she would like to be more involved with students – like an administrator that needs a ‘student-fix’ – I had no idea what it would become. I said go for it thinking she could learn more about the schools and find more opportunities to promote things. But as far as the total package as what she’d become, it was so much more than I expected.”
For instance, in 2000 when the district opened Painted Stone Elementary, not only did Puckett help the district decide on the school’s name, but also she has ensured that its legacy continues to be carried on.
“Duanne crafted the story of Squire Boone and the settlement of ‘Painted Rock.’ She has proudly shared that story each year with our students and staff,” Painted Stone Principal Michelle Shipley said. “Duanne enthusiastically shares her love for the community, learning, and especially family each time she rolls through our doors.”
Wanted to be a teacher
Puckett said she thanks both Mooneyhan and Neihof for letting her live out part of a dream.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, and this was as close as I could come,” she said. “I will always be indebted to Dr. Mooneyhan for entrusting me with this position and to Mr. Neihof for allowing me to continue with it. And yes, I’ll miss being called ‘Bug.’”
But she won’t leave the schools completely.
“After the [school board] meeting at Heritage [on May 9] the students asked if I could come back to read with them one more time,” she said. “Then one student: ‘Make it the last day,’ so I said, ‘OK,’ then another one said, ‘Make it a book about the last day,’ and another said, ‘Make it funny, because you’re always funny.’
“So I went online and found a book about the last day of school and took it out to Heritage to read for the last day with students. It was a great way to end the year.
“And next fall, like I always encourage the general public to do, I’m going to sign up to be a volunteer to read with students. So you can follow in my steps – or in my tracks – and sign up. It’s a great thing to do.”
Most who have met Puckett will describe her as an inspiration to them for all she has accomplished, but she said she doesn’t completely agree.
“People all the time will say, ‘Oh, you’re such an inspiration,’ but I don’t see it that way,” she said. “It [being confined to a wheelchair] is just something that happened that I had to deal with.
“But I’ve been blessed, really. I have had a wonderful life; I’m like George Bailey [from It’s a Wonderful Life]. I had unbelievable parents, and they’d be thrilled. They never got over the accident, but I did. They always worried about me.
“Sure my life changed completely, and it was never the same for anybody. I didn’t get to do anything I thought I wanted to. It just didn’t work out that way. But I just took a different path. I just went left instead of right. And now that I’m in a motorized wheelchair, I can go seven miles an hour.”