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Annalee Hubbs Long Reads Uncategorized

Save the republic for Ralph Smeed

A chance meeting leads to a strong ‘tie.’

Chris Derry
Western Kentucky University Professor Chris Derry ties one on each day for his life influencer, Ralph Smeed.

By Annalee Hubbs

It was Sept. 7, 2010, and several men wearing fitted black suits tucked one-of-a-kind bolo ties neatly beneath their button-down collars before lining up as honorary pallbearers for the funeral of a man who had become a constant in their lives — up until his death.

The bolo ties were gifted by this man, and the pallbearers were expected to keep them in his honor. Self-titled as the “Bolo Brigade,” the pallbearers swore a blood oath that day to wear bolo ties henceforward, and one man in particular did just that.

Chris Derry is known throughout WKU’s marketing department as the man whose daily attire is unwavering. He wears suspenders and a different bolo tie each day because to him, a promise is a promise.

On the first day of class each semester, the Barnesville, Ohio, native tells his students a story of the funeral he attended as an honorary pallbearer and how he left it a strict member of the Bolo Brigade.

That first tie Derry received from the funeral, a braided leather cord threaded through a pink agate, is the tie he wears on the first day of class. Although there wasn’t any blood involved in their blood oath, the gusto behind it was no less impactful for Derry, who thinks of his old friend, Ralph Smeed, every time he gets ready for work in the morning.

“He was an inspiration to me,” Derry said.

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Long Reads Manny Dixon-Peralta Uncategorized

Being Jerry Wayne

Sarah:Jerry
Sarah and Jerry Wayne are heading toward 50 years of marriage.

Leading a full life under the radar.

By Manny Dixon-Peralta

Burdine Street. Late July. The sun has fallen. All is quiet, bar the tunes of the crickets and cicadas drifting aimlessly into the warm summer dark. In his humble home, along this modest street in Somerset, Kentucky, Jerry Wayne, 76, is almost ready for bed.

He sits in his recliner, drinking a cold glass of water. The television is playing, but he is not watching.

He keeps it on to fill the quiet of the house.

His wife, Sarah Jane, 75, is on vacation with her sister in sunny California. They have been married more than 50 years. She loves him almost as much as the sound of her own voice.

He is not accustomed to the quiet.

On the mantle above the hearth sits an old clock. At the change of the hour, the show he was not watching comes to an end, and the clock chimes 10 times. He clambers up from the chair, slowly, and by the dim light of a lamp, begins making his bed on the couch.

Though the bedroom is vacant, he is accustomed to the feel of the couch, and climbing up into the bed would be too big a feat for his ever-aching back.

The television is now off as is the lamp. He lays still and stiff on the couch. He wears nothing but his bloomers — no blanket covers his hairy, freckled body.

The home is decorated with things he once was: a picture of him wading in a river fly fishing sits on the table by the lamp; his painting of a Native American man hangs above the old clock on the mantle; a plaque inscribed with “To ‘Mr. D’ our teacher, father, friend” hangs on the wall by his computer; and the plans of various houses and business around Somerset he designed sit stacked on his desk.

Of these things — fisherman, artist, teacher, architect — he was and still is.

But add old man to the list.

On the couch he does not sleep. There is a pain in his right side, and it is growing ever-more sharp. His breath becomes laborious, shallow, painful. He lays like this early into the morning, until it becomes unbearable.

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Long Reads Sara Krog Uncategorized

A wounded soldier

Megan Karr suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual assault while she served in the military. She awaits a disability payment to compensate for how one night in 2009 changed her life. To acknowledge assault and rape in the armed forces, American military law has designated it officially as “military sexual trauma.”

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Megan Karr faces mental and physical challenges that appear in myriad ways.

Story by Sara Krog

Photos by Sofie Skødt Mortensen

Megan Karr, 36, walks back and forth in her bedroom in Louisville, Kentucky, on a Friday in November 2019 looking for her hat in a pile of clothes.It does not hang on the wall with the rest of her neatly sorted hats — a contrast to the rest of her apartment, where most of her belongings lie all over the place.

She is still trying to get everything organized after moving in back to her home town in August, she says.

“It sounds stupid, but this dumb hat can make me relax,” Karr says. “Kind of in the same way as a kid relaxes with its favorite blanket. It is frustrating that I can’t find it. I saw it yesterday.”

Tonight, she gets easily irritated.

Earlier today, her divorce was final. The court decided that Karr’s two daughters, age 6 and 9, will live with her ex-wife.

If she stays away from alcohol, she can eventually gain shared custody.

Karr finally finds the hat.

She puts the green military cap onto her head and sits down in her brown armchair in front of her TV. Her service dog Blaze rests right beside her in the flickering light of the TV screen. He calms her down when she needs it and carries her medicine in a little dog bag.

This is how the U.S. Army Military Police veteran spends most of her time —  in the brown armchair. If the anxiety kicks in, it is easier just to stay in the dark living room and when Netflix is on, she can let out most of the bad thoughts and focus on the program. Today, she chose “Mindhunter.” She usually binge-watches because she can’t cope with cliff-hangers if an episode features an open ending.

“Some days it is even hard to get out of bed,” she says. “TV is really good for me if I need to shut down disturbing thoughts.”

All of these symptoms of the diagnoses Karr will carry for the rest of her life.

Her medical records show she suffers from anxiety, depression, tinnitus and a lower back injury. Her injuries came from working in the military, serving at Guantanamo Bay guarding some of the most dangerous accused terrorists in the world. It’s a time in her life that she is restricted from discussing publicly.

“They were never afraid to let us know that they intended to kill us if they had the chance,” she said. “Because of security circumstances we were unarmed. I have been in a fist fight with some of them, and I am a small woman. I have had all kinds of bodily fluids thrown at me.”

Most severe is her Traumatic Brain Injury and the post-traumatic stress disorder caused by an episode she describes as a rape committed by two former colleagues. The case was never prosecuted. The Department of Veteran Affairs has recognized that this serious trauma will never leave her. She suffers from military sexual trauma, a term now used in American military legislation.

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Annalee Hubbs Long Reads Uncategorized

From death ’till we part

The embalmer’s story is a tale of art and heart.

By Annalee Hubbs

Kevin Kirby, a Bowling Green funeral director, leads his life knowing the moment we breathe we start taking our last breath.

He reckons we’re all just a blip in the grand scheme of things. But Kirby has been tending to death all his life and knows firsthand the toll it takes.

It’s hard, “helpin’ people get through things,” he says.

The last thing on earth you can do for a person is prepare their body for burial. Some believe a body carries a soul throughout life.

Some end up on a table ready for embalming, and they get dressed and dolled up for an open-casket funeral.

Others must be pieced back together after a tragic accident — homicide, suicide, so many car accidents.

Embalming is tedious.

The embalmer replaces blood with chemicals.

Skin gets painted with Kalon restoration makeup to mimic the look and feel of a live human — for a little while.

Meeting the expectations of the deceased’s loved ones becomes the top priority because seeing people you love one last time comes with lasting impact.

“Death is not a terrible thing,” Kirby said. “But it is when it happens to you.”

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Long Reads Manny Dixon-Peralta Uncategorized

Fast (food) friends

images

The McDonald’s Man thinks you deserve a break today.

By Manny Dixon-Peralta

Monday. 3:30 a.m.: Jimmy Smith, 54, rises to the sound of a blaring alarm. His joints pop as he stretches out his arms to silence the electronic yell. To most, it is still the middle of the night.

For Jimmy, it is the start of new day.

Jimmy lets out a loud yawn, as he reaches for the pack on his nightstand, and fishes out a cigarette: a Marlboro Red 100. He takes long, slow draws and blows out thin-white clouds of smoke.

He enjoys the feeling. He takes his time.

After the butt is mashed into his ashtray, Jimmy rises from his bed and tiptoes across the hall to the bathroom. He is careful and quiet. He does not want to disturb his mother — asleep in the room next door.

In the bathroom, Jimmy showers, shaves and dresses. He stands for a moment, looking in the mirror. In a cup by the sink is a set of dentures. Jimmy picks them up, sets them to his gums.

Ensuring their placement, he smiles at his reflection.

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Jeremy Chisenhall Long Reads Uncategorized

Dangerous steps when ‘walking the grain’

A Grave Mistake
Photo illustration by Jeremy Chisenhall

By Jeremy Chisenhall

Temperatures reached 91 degrees in Mount Carroll, Illinois, on the day rescuers pulled Alejandro “Alex” Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread’s dead bodies from a grain bin.

The heat started it all.

Whitebread fainted while “walking the grain,” in which a person enters the bin with an object like a piece of pipe or a shovel to try to loosen clumped-up grain, allowing it to flow out of the bin and onto a conveyer belt below.

None of the workers wore safety harnesses, and the corn beneath Whitebread gave way just before 10 a.m. Panicked, Pacas, 19, and Will Piper, 20, a coworker, tried to drag Whitebread out of the bin, said Catherine Rylatt, Pacas’ aunt and the founder of the Grain Handling Safety Coalition.

The two tried desperately to keep Whitebread from becoming a blip on the radar of a giant funnel of corn.

Just as they thought they grabbed Whitebread, the corn gave way beneath them, Rylatt said. An ocean of corn swallowed up Whitebread. Pacas and Piper became entrapped at that point, an OSHA investigation report stated.

Whitebread, 14, died first.

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Long Reads Sara Krog Uncategorized

A night of a thousand Dollys

This fall, Dolly Parton celebrated her 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. The impersonator Carla Jean Morgan is keeping Dolly’s image — and legacy in country music — alive on the party-town streets of Nashville.

Lead photo
It only takes Carla Jean Morgan 30 minutes to “put on her Dolly.” The breasts are already there, she says.

Story by Sara Krog

Photos by Sofie Skødt Mortensen

Carla Jean Morgan comes driving down Lower Broadway in downtown Nashville in her red truck. The street is busy and full of lights, bars and dolled up bachelorettes getting their drink on. This is NashVegas, ground zero for country music and its fans, a place where T-shirts, cowboy boots and an atmosphere of picking — and lots of grinning — plays on, 24-7.

Even though she’s partially hidden inside the car, Carla Jean’s blonde wig makes people on the street take a head-turning gaze. That’s a feat if you consider the buzz and the cast of characters parading this flashy venue on a Music City Saturday night.

Could it be?  Fans look at Carla Jean and then look at each other with eyebrows raised.

“Was that Dolly Parton?” they whisper before taking another look.

Carla Jean’s truck takes a turn left into a parking lot. She opens the door and jumps to the ground before she puts on her black heals, a necessity for her outfit. In Dolly’s world, there are no flat shoes. And nearly everything has some sparkle.

Soon the crowd realizes – this is not the real Dolly, but it’s a pretty good Almost Dolly, as Carla Jean calls herself.

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Drake Kizer Long Reads Uncategorized

The ‘Principal’ of wrestling

In God’s house, powerslams and piledrivers are the mission for promoter and school leader Tortorello

1a
Steve Tortorello, the principal at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois, and owner of Warrior Wrestling, addresses the crowd prior to “Warrior Wrestling Six” in the MCHS West Gym on Sept. 1, 2019.

Story by Drake Kizer

Photos by Basil Mahmud

In a dimly lit venue about 30 miles south of Chicago, 800 professional wrestling fans cry out to their favorite, and least favorite, competitors with reckless fervor.

“Moose!”

“Cero Miedo!”

“S-C-U!”

“This is awesome!”

They represent only a handful of the chants that rain down on the wrestlers flying off the ropes and slamming each other onto the mat. The ring is almost entirely black except for a gold “Spartan” helmet logo emblazoned in the center of a weathered canvas. Above that, the phrase “Warrior Wrestling” is etched in gold.

The passionate cries echoed through a high school gymnasium in a struggling town where wrestling fanatics paid as little as $35 or more than $100 to watch costumed villains and heroes pretend to inflict harm on their enemies — all for the purpose of keeping the students who use the gym for standard athletic fare from doing or suffering the same fate in real life.

Steve Tortorello, a lifelong fan of professional wrestling, sits and watches the action with a discerning eye. But as chatter rings through his headset, Tortorello is reminded he’s not just an onlooker.

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Long Reads Uncategorized

From pictures to a president

Evan Sisley’s photo of “Sully,” President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, taken at the president’s memorial service received more than 280,000 “likes” on Instagram.

By Laurel Deppen

On the evening of Nov. 30, 2018, former President George H. W. Bush laid in his bed, surrounded by his family as Ronan Tynan, a member of the Irish tenors, sang “Silent Night.”

The president loved Christmas carols, and as Tynan sang by his bedside, Bush mouthed the lyrics.

“You can’t help but maybe take a step back and kind of look at this from a historical perspective, but he wasn’t just a patient,” said Evan Sisley, a former Western Kentucky University student and Bush’s personal aide for the last four years of his life. “He was a mentor.”

About four hours later, Bush died.

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Long Reads Uncategorized

King of Hearts

Ethan Cale performs a card trick to promote the custom playing card company he hopes to start. Ethan, 20, learned card and magic tricks after a heart condition left him unable to participate in sports and hungry for a new passion. (Cale Card Co. via instagram.com/calecardco)

 By Chris DiMeo

A two of spades flutters loftily through the air, then dives into Ethan Cale’s hand like a slam dunk into a basketball hoop.