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I have just returned from a weekend trip to the hill country of Texas.
If you haven’t been there, I recommend this vast land, filled with millions of acres of sprawling ranches, billions of live oak trees and zillions of jaw-dropping vistas of a sparseness and grandeur that are far removed from our beautiful north-central Kentucky.
I never once set foot in a city or even drove on an interstate highway, and from those old-fashioned viewposts I defined there a dichotomy of a different cultural crevice in our country.
There were quaint towns that displayed a sense of pride for their community and their state, small cities teeming with history and a sense of personal investment that painted them as unique on the loose landscape that I’ve plotted of this country.
But in a way they have nothing on us here in Shelby County.
Heck their history isn’t nearly as deep and rich as ours, their populace is more scattered and their economic bases, in some cases, aren’t as broad and flourishing.
Yet, I was nagged about how what I saw compared to Shelby County and what seemed to be different.
And the word I jotted down and circled in red ink in the notebook in my mind is a simple and unassailable quality that sometimes can be misinterpreted:
By comparison, I now question the actual pride we Shelby Countians have in our community.
Don’t get me wrong. I hear that word all the time.
Residents speak of their love for the God-fearing neighbors they have.
We’re proud of our schools, our athletes, our performers and our leaders (well those are more subjective because politics always dulls pride).
Our people are intelligent, kind, creative and committed.
Whether you were born in Shelby, educated in our schools and carried forward on the family plot or departed as a fresh-faced boy and returned decades later as a graybeard, it is that inherent “pride” we cite as the reason why we have chosen our paths.
But the pride I saw in Texas was something that made me focus not on what they had but what we were missing: that wide, deep prideful commitment.
It’s ironic that I type these words on the eve of the first hoofbeat in the Shelbyville Horse Show. There perhaps is no greater obvious sense of pride than from among those who raise, train and show the fine and graceful animals we claim as the eagles on our seal.
But after that, what can we share as the symbol of our pride?
Our churches and our schools are inherent symbols, but they are more or less chosen for us by our personal histories, geographies and theologies. We migrated to them not so much out of commitment but of familiarity.
What we do is a lot like a church experience: We talk about what we have, evangelize to the outside world, sermonize to one another and sprinkle or dip each other until we are believers or we otherwise move on.
But all that seems sometimes to be so much oral grandstanding until we see the personal investment behind it all.
Years ago, when Shelby County was one of the burley tobacco meccas of the world, we embraced that mantra with a fierceness and a grizzly-like tenacity that left no doubt how we felt. We were united behind our beloved ‘backy.
We flocked to the parades, crowded through closed downtown streets in thick swarms of friends and families, turned out for the beauty contests and mustered up our team spirit at the Burley Bowl football game.
Schools were closed, stores were open and boys with water pistols and peashooters ran amok in assault of each other through the sometimes riddled fortresses of humans in the streets.
And let me say that as great and wonderful as our horse show and its jubilee are – among the best in the state, we understand – there still doesn’t seem to be that sense of county-wide pride to share in them.
Face it, during these two weeks, have you seen anything like the Tobacco Festival I just described? Did you go to a downtown concert and have to fight your way through the crowds?
Does the competition itself – an economic powerhouse and presenting some of the best athletes in the world – capture your passion like a football game?
OK. I’m one of you, not an outsider pointing fingers, but I have been blessed with clear lens of perspective, having visited other similar towns around the country and seeing how they embrace their heritage and the events that celebrate them, levying their public’s pride in themselves into sort of a stock in trade.
A sampling: Beaufort, S.C., Blowing Rock, N.C., Fairhope, Ala., Georgetown, Colo., and – I now add – Fredricksburg, Texas.
Each of them has something we should covet.
Some are larger, some have unique attributes that we don’t and won’t have – such as waterfront and mountains – but none has the horses and antiques we have here nor, setting aside Beaufort, the centuries of American history carved on its soil.
So this is my challenge to you:
Let’s make pride in Shelby County our human battle cry.
Let’s not just talk about it at rallies, clubs and other prescribed speechifying.
Let’s hop on the horse show, flock to the fair, take a stake in our new industries, eat from our farmers’ market, sample our restaurants, shop at our stores and, best of all, embrace each sliver and shard of our lives until they are pressed into a beautiful and ineffable whole.
Don’t just talk. Let’s all walk.
Let’s not let any resource in our county go untapped, and let us especially not cede to our neighboring counties any of our blood, sweat and tears until we have nothing more to give.
That is my sermon. Amen.