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MY WORD: Thank you to a legend of Shelby County

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By Bonnie Burks Gray

Give me a “S.” Give me a “C.” Hip, Hip, Hooray, Shelby County!

We’ve learned that Shelby County’s most exuberant, tireless and faithful cheerleader has announced her retirement. Shelby County’s strongest advocate, Duanne Puckett, is retiring this month from her role as Public Relations Coordinator for Shelby County Public Schools.  Leaving the role of the face and often the handshake of Shelby County’s education system marks the close of just one chapter in Duanne’s lifetime of service to this community.

From that day in 1967 when a drunk driver interrupted the role of the Shelbyville High School Red Devils cheerleader, Duanne has represented what is best about Americans, Kentuckians, Shelby Countians, followers of the Great Physician. Duanne has never allowed that tragedy to define her as she went from spirited teenager to inspiring young woman.

Her strength and support of her family and community became the story that changed peoples’ lives. A story so compelling it went from the pages of the old Sunday supplement, The Courier-Journal Magazine, to newspapers across America, and to be translated in newspapers around the world.

People in Poland, U S soldiers stationed in faraway outposts, admirers from East to West, sent cards; some even sent money to the young woman from Shelby County.

Duanne is fearless. She steps into roles of responsibility with shoulders squared and ready to carry the load. While some of her fellow SHS graduates were still looking for a job, Duanne went from a kindergarten aide, to “rolling reporter” and weekly columnist plus a dozen other roles when she launched her journalism career at The Shelby News in 1971.

Duanne didn’t know everyone in Shelby County when she took her seat at the front desk in the front office of that weekly newspaper, but there wasn’t a person who entered those doors that she didn’t gain their respect if not their friendship.

Regardless their concern, despite their state of mind ­– frustrated or downright mad, she competently took on their challenge, sending most folks out with their problem solved.  

Her qualifications as a journalist were enhanced by what she learned from some of the best teachers in the business, whom Duanne has acknowledged and appreciated all: colleagues, employers, associates. Duanne is probably the most prolific writer the local papers have ever had. From her start as receptionist/classified assistant/researcher to reporter/columnist/editor, Duanne put in the hours and gave the effort to get the story told, the deadline met, the paper sold.

Duanne helped the paper take on tough issues: deplorable housing in Martinsville, fighting an international jetport, raising money for worthy causes, holding local officials accountable. At the same time, she championed every good cause to help her community prosper and attract quality retailers or industry.

She recognized the needs of citizens to have a voice and of subscribers to have an insight to opportunities and responsibilities. She covered school news as if each child was her own. She made the transition from working for a weekly to serving a semiweekly with a full service shopper when the two local papers merged to create The Sentinel-News and The Sentinel-News PLUS, seeing the tri-weekly publications as a greater opportunity to serve.

Her efforts won her awards, lots of awards. Under Duanne’s leadership, The Sentinel-News won journalistic excellence awards from the Kentucky Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and from the paper’s corporate office, Landmark Community Newspapers, Inc. She received awards for her writing and community involvement from the Kentucky Farm Bureau, Shelby County Chamber of Commerce and Business Professional Women’s Association. Her work gave her more opportunities for mentoring young journalists and for speaking engagements, which inspired so many.

One unforgettable engagement could have been a disaster except for the strength of the lady on stage. It was 1998, and Duanne was being inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. She shared the stage in the giant auditorium of the UK College of Fine Arts with four other inductees. The four males went to the podium at the far, right end of the stage to accept their certificates and deliver their messages. Typically, no one had considered that the only microphone on stage was inaccessible to their fifth recipient. The clueless emcee (I no longer remember whom) announced “Duanne Puckett” and then scratched his head – realizing there’s no microphone for her.

Undeterred, Duanne rolled to the middle, front edge of the stage. In a firm, clear voice she declared, “I believe I can be heard from here.”

Her poised, deliberate voice filled the hall to the balcony and carried to the back row of every corner. The room became pin-drop still. Leaning forward in her wheelchair. She began to thank people on whose shoulders she had been blessed to stand to reach this moment in her career. She remembered and thanked her late father and mother, her family, her community and her colleagues. She called several people by name, and the respect and sincerity in her voice for those good hearts who had helped her through the years humbled the entire audience. If there was a dry eye left in the room when Duanne rolled back to her spot, I didn’t find one, and the roar of the applause was a standing ovation.

The irony of the recognition was that it came within hours of her acceptance of a brand new role, the one from which she retires this week: PRC, SCPS.

Look around, parents. Many of the programs you rely on to know your children’s school better, its policies, administrators and teachers, were the creation of Duanne. From student achievement awards, to art programs, spelling bees, etc, Duanne has been either the creator or the champion. She has given her all for Shelby County Schools, and many of us hold her in awe for her unflagging efforts.

Her biggest fans, the students, know her as “Miss Bug.” If they see her out and about in the community, they make a beeline for her, just to bask in her smile and her genuine pleasure to greet them. Parents are often the beneficiaries of a sweet anecdote on their child they would never have been able to treasure had it not been for Miss Bug. Teachers know she champions their needs just as she does their students.

I can’t imagine the welfare of our community, its people and schools in hands with any greater passion for them than Duanne. Of course, others will step up to do good things for Shelby County, but none will go to the leaps and bounds to cheer us on and shout our praises like Duanne Puckett.

Thank you, Du, your love for your hometown, county, its people and its schools has made us better citizens.

 

Bonnie Burks Gray lies in Shelby County.