Making a Difference: O. Leonard Press
When an idealistic young man arrived in the Commonwealth from Massachusetts more than a half-century ago, he quickly saw that the power of television could bring needed educational resources to children in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. Soon, his vision expanded to encompass all of Kentucky—and in 1968 KET was born.
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. I think of it as a geography of opportunities in which every block you walk opens to a number of branching paths,” he says.
The opportunities that 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.
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. However, Press listened to his father, who told him he’d better apply himself to a practical discipline, and so he 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 his résumés just happened to land at the University of Kentucky, where the young head of its broadcasting department had big plans for developing a television station. The idea took firm hold of Press’s imagination.
“And I’ve got to admit, I was intrigued by seeing another part of the country. 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 recalls.
“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!’”
All over the nation, Press recalls, people were making the connection between television and education. But 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.”
Press’s quest, of course, was successful. In 1962, the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation creating the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television and named Press as its first executive director.
From there, work went into creating a system of transmitters throughout the state and constructing the Network Center in Lexington, which contained two studios and offices for staff.
On Sept. 26, 1968, KET signed on the air for the first time, broadcasting weekdays during school hours. That same year, KET produced its first instructional program, Kentucky Is My Land.
And nearly 46 years later, our mission has expanded and changed to reflect the times, but the same vision continues: to serve the educational and cultural needs of the Commonwealth through electronic media.