Remembering Deb Bledsoe

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Remembering Deb Bledsoe  Posted: September 4, 2015

Stu Butler bore witness by his life to the need for our environmental policies to be driven by values more enduring and more robust than the short term politics and profit. He never drew attention to himself, and never took anywhere near what he gave to the many organizations and causes in which he was involved.

On hearing of his death, as I reflected on Stu?s work, I was reminded of a prayer by Marian Wright Edelman:

Lord, help me not to be a taker, but a tender,
Help me not to be a whiner but a worker,
Help me not to be a getter but a giver,
Help me not to be a hindrance but a help,
Help me not be a critic but a catalyst for good.

We are here tonight to remember Stu, whose life’s example continues to be a “catalyst for good” and his amazing qualities of dedication, tenacity, and giving spirit. Kentucky Heartwood has awarded the 5th Annual Stuart Butler Memorial Award to a most deserving “catalyst for good,” Deb Bledsoe, whose dedication, courage, and grit are an inspiration to us all.

You honor Stu and you honor Deb with your presence here tonight. It is my privilege to read some remarks from a friend and colleague who cannot be here – Hillary Lambert:

"I don’t remember when I first met Deb, but it would have been soon after I moved to Ohio in the mid-1980s. She was a long-time resident in the Oxford Ohio area, and we had daughters – mine, Peggy, and hers, Marjie – the same age.

When our girls were six years old, Deb and I both started Daisy Girl Scout troops for our daughters and their friends, so we got to know each other at Girl Scout trainings and cookouts. During those years, she and I were slowly emerging from the haze, chaos, and struggle of earlier crazy times, motherhood, family life, housework and day jobs. Throughout, we both wondered, Who am I? What should I be doing? What is the meaning of life?! We would meet and chatter intensely about these and other essential topics.

We soon realized that we shared similar values about our planet, and child-raising, and our love of the outdoors and the need to take care of it. We had similar academic backgrounds, and we both loved maps! In 1989 I found out about Kentucky and caves, on a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park with my kids and then-husband, and soon Deb and I both were fascinated and deeply involved with that strange land south of the Ohio River.

We looked Kentucky-wards for beauty and escape. Not escape from reality – but from Ohio!

After I moved to Kentucky in 1992, Deb was a frequent visitor, often with her Scout troop. They would come down to Kentucky for cave cleanups and adventures. I remember an early big trip when she drove her troop down from Ohio to explore and clean up Teamers Cave in Rockcastle County. To get there, we slithered along a deeply rutted, muddy road and parked in a field near the cave entrance. I was in my small car, and she was behind the wheel of a big heavy van filled with young girls, their luggage, and their caving equipment.

I had been caving for a while, so I knew that the apparently empty field with parked cars and pickup trucks scattered across it meant that caver friends were nearby, but underground. Deb did not know this, yet. She thought we were all alone, and worried: “What if we get stuck?” she asked. “How will I get us out? How will I get the girls back to Ohio?” “What will I tell their parents?” she was in a panic.

I assured her that all would magically be well – and it was. We got our cave gear on, went underground, and had a great trip with the girls. When we got out, sure enough – Deb’s van was stuck!

Then, suddenly – all these interesting people emerged from holes in the ground, and they came to her rescue, and dug the van out of its mudhole, and got it back on solid ground. Deb met a bunch of wonderful people that day, and they met her. The rest is history. I like to think that, from this moment, Deb’s Kentucky destiny was set.

In the 16 years I lived in Kentucky, I always went to Deb for advice about whatever environmental battle we were waging, and relied on her to set me straight when I exaggerated the facts, or got overly-paranoid. I would call her and say, “I need a reality check!” and she would listen carefully and help me sort out fact from fiction, and truth from emotion.

When the cavers decided to stop the proposed Kentucky Transpark that was to be situated with airport, rail and trucking nodes on the sinkhole plain a few miles south of Mammoth Cave in ’01, simultaneously with starting the fight against I-66 in cooperation with Kentucky Heartwood and other allies, Deb was a trusted advisor and organizer.

Many of you may not have met her until she moved to Kentucky to work at A-SPI a few years later, but for the Transpark effort she was our Ohio-based brain trust, instrumental in developing a coherent, viable environmental organization with listserv, media outreach, archives, regular meetings, and an inner core group of trusted companions. Her advice about I-66 was impeccable, reliable, scientifically driven and always fact-based.

Deb and her trusted tech-savvy side-kick Sam McCoy drove hundreds of miles at the drop of a hat to scope out situations, do fieldwork, conduct interviews, and monitor hearings. Whatever we needed – she gave freely. Our nonprofit organization KEEP – Karst Environmental Education & Protection, Inc. – owes its existence and success to Deb’s visionary ability to see both the local organizational nuts and bolts, and the long term big-picture goal -- and how to go after it.

By the time the proposed Bioweapons Lab was spun out of the agile brain of Representative Hal Rogers, to be situated on a karst floodplain on Buck Creek just off one of the proposed interchanges of his beloved I-66, Deb was a well-established and trusted resident of southeastern Kentucky, and Executive Director of A-SPI, Appalachia - Science in the Public Interest. She teamed up with the groundswell of 100% local opposition to this crazy scheme, also working with the usual suspects in the environmental community in other parts of Kentucky – acting as go-between. Deb had the deep wisdom to know that to be politically viable, the opposition had to be completely local to Hal’s home area.

I remember hearing about the day she met up with the BioLab opposition in a pasture near where the black helicopter from Washington DC was going to land. Inspectors were coming to look at the proposed Kentucky site for this goofy, deadly germ lab, and residents were ready, with signs and slogans, all 100% homegrown and local. They shouted and waved their signs across the intervening fence at the inspection team. Deb said that one of the signs read “Hal, No!” Then the group parted on either side of the pasture road to chant as the inspection team was driven out in a van, waving at the protestors as they went by. Deb told me by phone afterwards that this was the most fun she had had in a very long time.

(Today, there is no BioWeapons Lab in Kentucky. I-66 has not been built, excepting the northern bypass around Somerset. The Transpark is not the multi-modal monstrosity originally envisioned.)

I am sure that others tonight will talk about Deb’s accomplishments in recent years across watershed, cultural and political boundaries to educate about the value of clean water. She has helped train cavers, elected and appointed officials, and regular folks to monitor water quality on the surface and underground, working toward a better future for eastern and southern Kentucky.

Across the scope of all that work, in the examples I have described tonight – and in many others I hold dear – what we see shining is Deb’s great gift. When you spend time with Deb, you learn how your small actions can make a difference in the big scheme of things. You feel empowered, and you feel better about yourself, and more hopeful about society and the future.

Deb shares her gift freely and generously with all of us. She has made a great difference for us as human beings, and to this deeply challenged land. We, and Kentucky, are so lucky to have her."

Hilary Lambert
November 4, 2010
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