“Every time we lose someone, it changes us.” — Dr. Bruce Ayers, president emeritus of Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College.
With the passing of Reecie Stagnolia, 79, brother, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, administrator, banker, friend, some in Harlan County share their stories:
Reecie’s brother, Eugene “Blue” Stagnolia, a retired teacher, reports “We were close. He was not only a brother but also a person I could go to for advice, financial advice or any matter on which I felt I needed a second opinion. He was always the leader when we lived as children in a mining community in Tennessee, Mom regularly said to him, ‘You take care of your little brother.’ I watched Reecie drop out of high school his junior year to join the U.S. Navy so he could get educational benefits for college. He completed high school in the Navy and got out in 1958. We were both at Cumberland College at the same time (He graduated in May of 1962, and I graduated in August of that year). At the campus grill, the Wigwam, he was always telling people I was the oldest. I got back at him when we went off campus to eat. I would point to Reecie and announce to the waitress, ‘Go ahead and give the bill to my dad, right there. He’s taking care of it.’”
Roland “Pee Wee” Cornett, a retired teacher and former coordinator of the Ready-to-Work Program at Southeast, says with humor in his every word, “Reecie and I got our driver’s license at the same time in the mid-50s. My dad had an old Buick, one of them long ones that was hard to park, and that’s what we took our test in. In Cumberland a state policeman was there to administer the test, and we tried to park that big Buick in downtown Cumberland and couldn’t. He gave us our licenses anyway.
“Once there was six of us in a car coming back from the state basketball tournament. Now anytime Reecie was along, whether it was his car or yours, he drove. I didn’t care much for the tournaments, but Reecie sure did. Went to every single one. He said that I should at least go to one, so I agreed. We were on the Pineville Road and Reecie was driving fast, very fast, when a highway patrolman pulled us over. Now among the six of us we knew all the patrolmen but not this one. As soon as Reecie stopped and rolled down the window, Nicey Hazen leaned over and said, ‘Sir, I’m so glad you stopped us. This guy has drove all the way like this from Lexington and we’re scared to death.’ The cop gave Reecie a warning, and we were on our way.”
AN UNSENT LETTER
Frances Turner, retired teacher and administrator, indicates, “I wrote Reecie a letter a few weeks ago, but I really didn’t know what to say, so I just tore it up and threw it away. I wanted to thank him for all he has done for me through the years. He was always there to talk, personal or professional, always there to right any wrong. Every time I ran into him at the grocery store, at work, or at the bank, he always had a big smile. My beautiful sister, Marilyn, was in love with him when she was 13 or 14, and I think it was reciprocated. Once when she had gained a lot of weight and was already a grandmother, we went into the Pine View Restaurant. He and Martha were there. Reecie and Marilyn recognized each other immediately and broke out into big smiles and began talking.
THE THREE ES
Leslie Combs, Kentucky Legislature, District 94, enjoys telling the story of meeting Reecie: “It was 2006, and I was running for the legislature for the first time. Dr. Roger Noe was trying to help me with the campaign and said, ‘You have to work with the three Es in the Tri-City area: Reecie, Bruce Ayers, and Nicey Hazen. I went over to talk with them, and they told me they had a long-term relationship with Howard Cornett and would be supporting him. I told them, ‘If I win, I hope I’ll make a believer out of you all for what I can do for Harlan County.’ After I won, I met with them again and told them, ‘Well, guys, it’s a new day. I’m here to work for you.’ I made a great believer out of them. I earned their respect, and they were a joy to be around. Reecie loved his home and his people. He was a genuine person, and I’ll truly miss him.”
TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
Bobbie Gothard, Main Street Director, Tri-City Heritage Development Corporation, had retired from the Coal Mining Museum when she received a call from Reecie. “He called me to see if I’d be interested in going to work part-time. He indicated there would be very little money and a small office (six feet by six feet). He also said, ‘We need someone to get things started.’ After Bobbie agreed to take the job, Reecie told her, ‘I knew we’d get two for the price of one, you and Earl.’” And he did as Bobbie indicates her husband, Earl, has been “painting and fixing up buildings “in the area and her office is still small, perhaps six feet by eight feet now.
REMINISCENCES AS THE CURTAIN CLOSES
Rayburn Doss, CEO of Fuelco, Inc., says with sincerity, “I’m attempting to fill Reecie’s shoes as chair of the board at Southeast, but it’s a big job: budget, getting kids in school and into the workforce. I’ve known Reecie since his school-teaching days in Lynch. We had a lot in common: good moms, fathers in the coal mines. He was a very thoughtful man, a good community leader, a family man. He always took the position of standing up for what is best and how the boards on which he served could change things to make life better for the people of Harlan County.
“I was at his house three or four weeks ago, and I’m glad I made that trip. We reminisced about old times when he remembers the snow being six feet deep and I remember it more like three feet. I felt really good when I left. With Reecie, it was always about glory for the community, not for him.”
A FEW MORE REMARKS
Dr. Bruce Ayers, who delivered a eulogy at Reecie’s funeral service, indicates, “I don’t know of anyone who took more pleasure in helping people than Reecie. He was most proud of our college’s national ranking with the Aspen Institute because the measures were about student success. Loving and serving others was his tangible way of expressing his love for God. He served because he cared and saw service as part and parcel of his walk with Christ.”
In the 1950s when Reecie Stagnolia’s family moved to Harlan County, the population was about 72,000. Today, it’s about 28,000. Each of these persons is important, and it’s critical that strong leadership be active in the county as it struggles with a host of issues.
Many have had to leave the county to locate employment to support their families, and that is to be expected. In 1963 Harry Caudill published Night Comes to the Cumberlands. It’s not night there, but it’s different. As long as leaders like Reecie continue to roll up their sleeves and address the challenges with passion, commitment, and intelligence- with respect always for the rich traditions that so many of us value- the county will always be a rich resource for the nation.
To Reecie I say, “Rest in peace. You live on through the lives you have touched and the ways in which they will influence others, whether they are living in Harlan County or in Dayton, Ohio, or San Francisco, California, or in Beijing, China.” Harlan County has always provided intelligent, thoughtful, motivated leaders in a world where they are always needed and often in short supply.
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