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January 14, 2014

A Key to the past

Meet the 89-year-old Louisvillian who went through the Great Depression, the 1937 flood, desegregation in public schools and a tornado that threw a church sign into her backyard — and lived to blog about it

Before I am first introduced to June Key, her daughter Tara warns me that I won’t get much out of her right now. After 89 years and a whole lot of listening, June’s ears aren’t what they used to be, and the speech-to-text app on her iPad isn’t working for some odd reason. She will smile and nod in order to be polite, explains Tara, but she won’t really understand what you’re saying or asking. She promised a proper interview later, somewhere quieter.

Between other visitors to the table where June patiently sits, Tara walks me up to her mother. “I’m going to say something important now. Tell me if you can’t hear me, OK?”

June smiles and nods.

Four decades ago, you could have called June a professional listener. A former president of the PTA turned community relations liaison for the school board, she was on the frontline during perhaps the most turbulent period in education — racial integration in the ’70s, when Jefferson County merged its two racially divided school districts. At a time when there were protests in the streets, her job was to be among the public, speaking to rooms full of parents about their desires and concerns over restructuring and busing.

During one such meeting, an exasperated mother quipped that June must be forgetting that the audience of black parents she was talking to were primarily high-school dropouts who weren’t comfortable navigating the school system, especially predominantly white ones. Without missing a beat, June responded that she, too, had dropped out of high school (to work after her mother died). Get over it, June instructed. “I had to make a decision,” she later quoted herself as saying, “Forget what I was or wasn’t and think about what was best for my kids.”

There were no excuses, only actions. June led by example, first for people in her hometown school district and later as a consultant to other school districts across the nation, including the high-profile Los Angeles School District.

Bernard Minnis, who worked in Jefferson County’s human relations department at the time, remembers warning people: “Don’t let that grey hair fool you. This is a tough lady.”

She was as comfortable being the only woman in a room filled with men in suits as she was standing across from a Klansman, both of which she’d done without batting an eye. June helped set up and operate a hotline where concerned parents could call for information. It was nicknamed the Rumor Control Center.

“June talked this lady out of injuring somebody. A man had threatened to kill somebody. That was the kind of thing happening,” says Minnis, who now teaches at Bellarmine University. “People were taking it so hard. They didn’t know what to do and where to go. (June and her colleagues) became the source of how people could deal with the desegregation order.”

Her brazenness and communication skills didn’t go unnoticed. The Courier-Journal called her “the best thing the Louisville schools have going for them.” Then-president Gerald Ford asked her to come to the White House for a personal meeting to consult with him about integration. When she got the invitation via a phone call by Ford’s secretary, she laughed, convinced it was a prank. She quipped back, “Well, this is the Queen of England and I must go to Buckingham Palace.” Eventually, she realized it was legit and made the trek to the Oval Office, where Ford himself teased her by saying it was a pleasure to meet the Queen. She shared with him stories from education ground zero.

June can’t remember now how many times she’s told that story about meeting the president. She’s a humble lady who acknowledges it wouldn’t have happened without dozens of factors beyond her control. Still, that’s the kind of story you wind up telling a lot throughout your life.

There are other stories — hundreds, maybe thousands, of them. Some of them, even after decades of opportunities, daughter Tara had never heard. There was that time June shaved her head and pretended to be a boy so she could join a boys-only soapbox derby, or her stint working at a munitions factory during World War II. She was in the 9-millimeter department.

It was because of all these that Tara encouraged her mother to write. And in October 2008, she began The Raving Pundit (junekey.wordpress.com), a blog devoted to three things: “reflection, real talk, rabble rousing.”

If you doubt her feistiness, consider her introduction to that world: “I’m a new blogger. My name is June C. Key, I’m 83 years young and determined to live to at least 90-100, just to aggravate those who think I should give up and cash in my chips.”

At 89 years old, one might assume the real talk and rabble rousing would take a backseat to reflection, but every morning when June wakes up just after dawn, she reads the newspaper to keep up with the world. “I watch news instead of reality programs,” June says. She’s surprised and a bit disappointed in some of her peers at Oxmoor Retirement Lodge, where she’s lived for the last five years, for not paying enough attention to the world outside their collective home. She’s considering starting a weekly current events program to encourage people to pay more attention. She just needs to find an audience.

In a recent blog post, June, an Episcopalian, angrily vents in response to a recent editorial about Pope Francis that appeared in The Courier-Journal. Refusing to name the author in question — “I do not give credence to such crap” — she outright calls him an idiot. “Perhaps he has never been hungry, cold, ill or without care, or perhaps he is just plain mean.”

When Nelson Mandela died, she blogged.

After cutbacks were made to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), her entry empathizes with the 44,000 Louisvillians and 824,000 Kentuckians who will be affected by recalling times during her own youth when her single mother was forced to ask a local organization for a free basket of groceries. “Almost always, mice had visited the basket first. … We ate a lot of half slices of bread.”

Over the course of a few years, The Raving Pundit went from something her family, friends and some acquaintances read to a blog with a modest following of complete strangers. One is a Harvard student, another an elderly lady from Canada, a third lives in the Philippines. The blog drew the attention of media like Reader’s Digest, which featured her in an issue.

Readers are surprised and attracted to the mix of current-events commentary, learned perspective and a healthy sense of humor. “My hearing went south over the last year,” June wrote last month. “I think it went so fast it skipped over Key West and headed for Cuba.”

The idea of a memoir had floated around June’s family for a while, most prominently by her youngest child Tara, though older siblings Donna and Rick also recognized the extraordinariness of their mother’s life. Then, one blustery day in February 2012, Tara, Donna and June drove around the West End neighborhoods where she grew up. June had been blogging a lot about childhood memories, so they visited 1814 Garland Ave., now part of the Brown-Forman distillery, where a house once stood. That house was purchased by June’s mother with a $2.99-a-week mortgage. They visited 2301 Garland Ave., where June’s Aunt Mamie and Uncle Raymond lived. That home still stands, bringing back a warm flow of family memories.

When they returned to Oxmoor, June ignored her daughters’ instructions to wait in the car until one of them could help her out. Instead, the determined octogenarian stepped out on her own and slipped, falling backward and cracking her head open on the car and concrete.

Covered in blood outside the retirement lodge, screaming for her mother to come back to them, Tara feared the worst. She worried her mother wouldn’t make it off that sidewalk, or that if she did, she wouldn’t be there 100-percent cognitively anymore.

June turned black and blue, received stitches and staples in her head and elbow, and spent weeks at a physical rehab center. By mid-April, before the hole in her head was fully closed, she was blogging about the ongoing Romney campaign again.

For everyone, it was a reminder that life can slip away without a moment’s notice. June vowed to be more patient and accept help getting out of cars. Suddenly, getting her life down on paper seemed more important than ever.

The following spring, June started writing. Five months later, she was done.

On the first Sunday in December, 75 people are milling about the Oxmoor dining room at the launch party for June’s completed memoir, “Blue Streak,” which has been self-published on Torcello Editions, an imprint started by Tara and her husband, Tim Harris. The room is a mix of fellow residents and family friends, and complimentary goody bags of candy original to the ’40s are being handed out. One of her doctors is here. So is a successor from the school board. There’d be more people, but the weather has intervened. Outside, snow is sticking on the roads for the first time of what will prove to be a frigid winter, and June knows better than anyone how dangerous that can be for people of a certain age.

Named after her beloved bike, “Blue Streak” chronicles June’s life from the first day of kindergarten until the time she picked up her iPad and started writing the memoir. Harris, who edited the book, describes it as not just a memoir of one woman’s life but also a memoir of a city and a unique time in American history.

Specifically, says Harris, getting the testimonies of people who lived through the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression is crucial. “These people won’t be with us a lot longer,” he says.

Born in 1924 inside her grandparents’ home on Prentice Street, June was a child during Prohibition. In “Blue Streak,” she recalls assisting her mother with home brewing, which they did to bring in much-needed extra money. Afterward, June and her brother filled her wagon full of the contraband, put boxes of donuts on top of them (their cover story) and rolled around the neighborhood selling to trusted neighbors.

She recalls fleeing to Elizabethtown on a pontoon boat during the great flood of 1937 and mourning the loss of her George Raft photo collection, pieces of which she found floating around her neighborhood.

Much later, there’s the 1974 tornado, which deposited a church sign into her backyard.

The Belle of Louisville shows up in all three of its incarnations — the Idlewild, the Avalon and the Belle — as do dozens of long-gone shops, retailers and hangouts from the city’s past.

It’s a unique portrait of Louisville, mixed with a heavy dose of family history, which might be tiresome to the uninitiated were it not for the colorful characters who pop up — like Aunt Fannie, the family black sheep who made money as a madam running a home that “entertained men.” (June’s take: “It can be said she made her own way in the world by working at one of the longest-running professions, and she made people happy doing so. You have to admit: That’s the American Dream.”)

One of the challenges in producing the book, says Tara, was getting her mother to write about herself at length. “She kept wanting to talk about us, and it was, like, nope. Try again. We don’t need to hear about what the grandchildren were doing. We need to hear about you.”

And so she did. Parts of “Blue Streak” are refreshingly honest. On giving up working at a now defunct Old Louisville bakery after the birth of her third child, June writes, “I was happy being a mom again, but there was a void in my life I could not explain. Being a wife, mom, and housewife was enough to fulfill most women at the time. It was and it wasn’t for me. I guess I should feel a little shame about that. I just had a feeling my life had some other purpose. I think I was a good mom, a reasonable housekeeper, a good wife … and a dreamer.”

When I finally sit down with June, it is a week after her launch party, in her little bedroom suite at Oxmoor. It’s a week or so before Christmas, and June’s door is decorated with a wreath and lots of garland, way more than the other doors in her hallway. The speech-to-text app on her iPad is working again, but we don’t have to use it until the very last question.

“I never thought much that I had an exciting life,” admits June, “but when I look back, I think, how did I do all that?”

During some of her busiest working years, she traveled to Los Angeles 21 times in 18 months. It was a demanding, exciting, important time, which never could have happened without the support of her longtime husband Bill Key, who died seven years ago and supported his wife’s career during a time when many others were still at odds about women in the workplace. Even today, when June talks about Bill and her grandmother, who died when she was a child, her emotions break through, and her slow and steady words crackle.

As tears well in her eyes, she doesn’t apologize for stopping to compose herself. When you’re almost 90, you know you only have to apologize when you’ve done something wrong, and compassion is never wrong. Her mother and grandmother taught her that.

“One thing they taught me was never think more of yourself than someone else. If one person is hungry and you don’t help them, you are hungry — but in a different way. In your soul and heart. That’s worse than being hungry. We should always help people when they need it.”

That was the compassionate call that drove her, even when things were heated, or when long hours were demanded. She made things work, because it was the right thing to do. June always managed to get to PTA meetings all around town without a car. She never learned how to drive. It’s one of the few regrets the accomplished woman has in her life.

“Not jumping out of a plane with a parachute” is another. She was particularly envious of George H.W. Bush in 2009, when he went skydiving to celebrate his 85th birthday, which is around the same time as her own.

Sometimes she wishes she could have stayed in school, at least through high school, but recognizes that life doesn’t always work out that way. She still recalls her English teacher’s response when she informed her she was dropping out: “You will never stop learning.”

And she didn’t. Learning didn’t require a structured classroom. It happened at a new job, where she’d take on additional responsibilities. It happened while reading the newspaper and keeping up on foreign and local affairs. After a stroke, she pushed her brain to recuperate faster by remembering and reciting all 120 of Kentucky’s counties.

“I’ve always admired her interest for life,” says daughter Donna. “She’s never been satisfied with the status quo. I think that’s what’s kept her young at heart.”

Since finishing her book, June has held a workshop at Oxmoor about writing for your kids, which she’s come to realize is of the utmost importance. (“If you don’t, who will?”) She says five others in the lodge have taken her advice and started writing their own memoirs. After almost 60 years of volunteering and working in education, she can’t help herself from teaching and influencing others.

Before her husband died, the couple toured Oxmoor, but she decided she wasn’t ready for an assisted-living facility. “I saw it as so regimented,” she recalls. “They’ll ring a bell and we’ll go like little soldiers to the dining hall.”

A few years passed, as did her husband, and suddenly things were getting a bit harder to do at her apartment at Seventh and Main streets. When she came back for a second tour, she saw the lodge through different eyes. Now, she acknowledged the benefit of having somebody nearby in case she fell. She liked the idea of not having to cook her own meals or do menial housekeeping. She was happy her kids wouldn’t worry about her so much.

It wasn’t that the fiercely independent was giving into dependency, just that life was taking a new path. One that involved having more time to read, blog and watch her sports teams. (She watches anything University of Louisville and “my Cubbies!”)

Naturally, June is also big into texting with her family.

“She’s 89 and she freaking texts,” gushes Tara, who lives in New York City. “It’s amazing.” 

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