Carter's Henderson visit brought big crowds, celebs
By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
President Jimmy Carter must have grabbed a chunk of coal on his way to Henderson in 1980.
What other explanation could there be for his appearance as his motorcade made its way down Main Street before 6,000 to 8,000 people?
"The president -- somehow looking younger and more handsome in person than he does on television -- waved an inexplicably blackened hand to the people and they waved back," The Gleaner reported. "They also cheered, cat-called, whistled and did everything but handsprings."
Where did that black hand come from? It's still unexplained. But coal seems a logical surmise. After all, coal was on everybody's mind back then, Carter's included.
As you may recall, that was the midst of the synfuel controversy, when the federal government was pushing the construction of several huge plants in this vicinity to distill gasoline from Kentucky coal. The plants never materialized -- which some people thought a good thing.
The only protesters during Carter's visit focused on the synfuel controversy. "What is the truth on synfuel?" one sign read, while another asked "Do you care?"
"Protests notwithstanding, Carter's statements in support of synthetic fuels drew the longest and most enthusiastic applause during his brief remarks at the barbecue fund-raiser near Robards," The Gleaner reported.
"You have a special opportunity in Kentucky in the future," Carter said. "That is energy.... I want to depend not on foreign oil at the end of a 12,000-mile uncertain pipeline into a doubtful area of the world, but in the future I want to depend on Kentucky coal."
Carter's visit on July 21, 1980, was one of only two times Henderson has been visited by a sitting president. The first time was in late September 1948 when Harry Truman made a whistle-stop speech at Union Station.
Other presidents who have visited before they were elected include Zachary Taylor, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Ike Eisenhower. Like them, Carter also visited Henderson prior to becoming president. He first came Jan. 28, 1975, at the invitation of Dale Sights, to address the annual meeting of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce.
Sights and his wife Margaret also were Carter's hosts in 1980, when the president came to raise more than $200,000 for the national Democratic Party. They put on a $500-a-plate barbecue dinner at their home near Robards, which drew celebrities and the cream of Kentucky's Democratic politicians. Guests included Gov. John Y. Brown and former governors Earle C. Clements and Julian Carroll, U.S. Senators Wendell Ford and Walter "Dee" Huddleston, U.S. Reps. Carroll Hubbard and Carl Perkins, and Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Palmore.
Celebrities included well-known television journalists Sam Donaldson of ABC, Leslie Stahl of CBS and Judy Woodruff of NBC. The latter made it abundantly clear she knew little about Henderson County when she pronounced Robards as "Row-bards" -- the surest sign of an outsider. Donaldson and Stahl ducked that bullet only because they didn't use the town's name in their reports.
The other celebrity to attend was Grandpa Jones, the Grand Old Opry singer who was a Henderson County native. The festivities at the Sights house -- except for a long stint of presidential hand-shaking -- ended with a surprise performance by Jones, the president, Gov. Brown and Dale and Margaret Sights leading the crowd in a rendition of "Amazing Grace."
Carter badly lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, of course -- he didn't even carry Kentucky -- and Carter T-shirt sales during his visit were dismally low. But at least one good thing happened during the president's visit; the Sights family cat returned after a long absence.
"He'd left home more than a year ago, evidently liking someplace else better," Margaret Sights explained.
With tongue firmly in cheek, Dale Sights accused the family cat of betraying its essential nature, turning into a glory-hound to seek the spotlight of a presidential visit.
Reprinted with permission
The Gleaner, Sunday, July 17, 2005
Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS