Founding Director O. Leonard Press
Len Press’s life could have easily been that of a mild-mannered English teacher at some New England college, a beloved professor whose wit shone not only in the classroom but in that oft-seen twinkle in his eye. So it might have been, had the Massachusetts native made a different turn in what he calls his own personal “geography of opportunities.” English teacher at this crossroads, the founder of what would become one of the nation’s premier educational television networks at another.
“In my experience, reasons for picking a path are usually based on the paths available to choose from,” he says. “I think of it as a geography of opportunities in which every block you walk opens to a number of branching paths. To say you picked one is really to say you made a choice among availabilities rather than that you dropped on it from outer space, as it were, as if you selected it out of nowhere.”
But it is also true to say that the opportunities which presented themselves were a product of Press’s times and upbringing. Raised during the Great Depression and a veteran of World War II, Press came of age in a time of great optimism, as well as one of great responsibility.
While still in graduate school, he produced weekly radio programs focusing on the plight of returning vets, who couldn’t find places to live while the mansions of the wealthy were empty all winter as the owners sunned in Palm Springs. It was perhaps at this moment that he took a turn at the next street along the block.
Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Press was writing at a very young age, mainly stories and essays about what he was learning and experiencing. In those days radio was still new and exciting—but when the time came to enroll in college, he considered English or the liberal arts. In the end Press listened to his father, who told him he’d better apply himself to a practical discipline, and so majored in accounting.
Yet radio—and the new thing, television—still lured him, and when he returned to school from World War II, it was a master’s in communications he sought. By then he had met, wooed, and married his wife, Lillian, who joined him as a graduate student at the Boston University College of Communications.
He got a job. Not his dream job, yet, but quite possibly the final turn which would lead Press toward the creation of Kentucky Educational Television. Boston University hired him to handle all radio and TV spots for the university.
“Television had just come on line, so I worked with Boston’s first commercial TV stations producing some of the nation’s first telecourses.”
After they received their master’s degrees, the young couple had their sights set on one place: New York, a lifelong dream of Lil’s. But one of Len’s résumés just happened to land at the University of Kentucky, where the young head of the broadcasting department had big plans for developing a television station. The idea took a firm hold of Press’s imagination.
“And I’ve got to admit, I was intrigued by seeing another part of the country,” he recalls. “I’d never really been anywhere.
Not long after his arrival, Press was working in conjunction with WHAS-TV in Louisville to produce a program on Christmas in the mountains. He found himself in the company of Alice Slone, who was the founder and director of the rural Lott’s Creek Community School in Cordia, which received no state funds. The Christmas program was produced, but Press came away far more interested in the educational problems of the area: Lott’s Creek had no state accreditation due to a lack of qualified teachers.
“Of course I’m thinking, ‘Wow—if we could get television in there, they could have the courses they need for accreditation!’” he remembers.
“So Alice and I would talk a lot about that. And I remember one time I left there and she said, ‘I really think this is great, and I know you can do it—just hurry!’”
See our history pages for more about Press’s campaign to convince governors, educators, and others to support the creation of KET.
All over the nation, Press recalls, people were making the connection between television and education. Here in Kentucky, Press made it his mission to use the power of this new technology to improve basic education, not just in the mountains but throughout the Commonwealth.
“And again, the fact of my times, my upbringing—all of that contributed to the drive I felt about this. I really wanted to do this. It was something I couldn’t get out of my mind.”
But just imagine, for a moment, a different world. The one where Len Press took a different side street, became that college professor and decided that the world didn’t need KET. Is that a place we’d like to live?
“But even if we didn’t need it—why not?” Press answers. “We don’t really need museums. We don’t really need libraries. They’re not necessary to make a living.
“But no matter how richly educated you are, this is going to enrich you more. And if you haven’t had the advantage of a good education, it may be the only enrichment you’re going to get. And there was no other way to do Sesame Street, even in a rich world.
“And it would be a shame to live in a world without Sesame Street.”