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In a darkened auditorium Wednesday at Collins High School, former Gov. Martha Layne Collins sat down with Shelby County Public Schools Public Relations Coordinator Ryan Allan for a question-and-answer session to help enlighten the school’s senior class.
The assembly – which was handled in a style akin to the classic Inside the Actors Studio – featured Collins informally answering questions from Allan as the students provided a backdrop of laughs and clapping.
Collins touched on everything from her days as a cheerleader at Shelbyville High School to her time at the University of Kentucky and from how she got started in politics to how she wooed Japanese automaker Toyota to come to Kentucky.
“I’ve had lunch with the Queen of England and negotiated with CEOs from the largest corporations, but it’s important to never forget your roots,” she said. “I’m still that girl from Bagdad. It just shows you that the sky’s the limit. It’s not where you’re from that matters.”
Collins said she was an OK student, not one that anyone said was destined for greatness.
“Oh, no, I was student like everyone else, and then I went on to college [the University of Kentucky] and was a student like anyone else there, too.”
After majoring in home economics – Collins said she thought she would go on to star on TV as an appliance model – she became a teacher in Versailles.
“I was teaching junior high at Versailles Middle School, and I was invited to some meetings and asked to begin getting involved in politics,” she said.
From there, Collins told the students, her political career took off. She never worked on an election and lost.
“I started off running for a statewide office, a constitutional office,” she said.
That fits her motto of aiming big.
“You have to think big, because the water hoses are coming,” she said. “If you don’t think big, by the time the water hoses hit you – and they tell you all the reasons it can’t be done or why you can’t do it – then you won’t have anything left.”
After that election, she went on to serve as lieutenant governor and then as governor, the only woman ever to hold that job. At the time, you couldn’t run for back-to-back terms, so she had just four years to get things to accomplish her platform of education and economic growth.
She noted how she hit some roadblocks as the first female to be governor of Kentucky – “It took a lot of people a while to change and get used to having a female governor,” she said – and she stressed how important it is to have a good team to stay on top of the governor’s duties.
“You have to have help,” she said. “I’m a strong believer in the team approach, so I put together the best team I could.”
As she unfolded her life from student, to home ec major, to teacher and into politics and governor, Collins said she wanted to make sure those seniors left the session with one main point in mind.
“Continue to learn every day and prepare yourself for what’s next,” she said. “When you get that diploma, you don’t immediately have to know what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. You might have ten jobs and twenty titles. But it’s important to continue to study for what’s next.
“Don’t just say, ‘This is it.’ You don’t have to decide your career right now. Let it evolve instead of throwing yourself into a career where you’re not happy.
“It’s important that you wake up happy to go to work every day, that you’re happy to be at work and enjoy what you do.”