June 7, 2016: Standup Guy

In the summer of 1948 the citizens of the Big Sandy Valley were treated to an unusual diversion from the Dewey-Truman Presidential campaign: an undertaker fight. Now as a rule, undertakers aren’t warlike. Even if the most persuasive preacher can’t straighten you out while you’re alive, undertakers will surely straighten you out afterward, and they’re the very last folks who’ll ever let you down. Still, the fracas occurred. A local mortician named Guy Preston ran a series of newspaper advertisements almost anticipating Jessica Mitford’s controversial 1963 book “The American Way of Death,” claiming that his industry largely overcharged its clients and offering what he termed as fairer prices for funeral services. As with Mitford’s work later, the Kentucky Funeral Directors’ Association at Louisville took a dim view of these ads, so its officers ran their own paid announcements locally in retaliation: they claimed that Preston’s accusations were oversimplified and inaccurate, and ethical Kentucky undertakers who charged fairly were the rule rather than the exception. Even so, Guy had had his say, and although nowadays we might wince at his declaration that higher-priced funeral homes were run by “buzzards,” his bluntness was surely a welcome contrast to the political hay being pitched elsewhere in the country that year.

But then again, Guy Preston was long accustomed to speaking his mind whether anyone else liked it or not—and often, they didn’t. At least preachers. Years before, he himself had been an ordained minister and pastor in a local religious denomination, but he had been forced from the clergy and the church by circumstances largely beyond his control. Out from under the thumb of a restrictive religious hierarchy, though, he discovered a new voice. He founded his own newspaper of opinion that he called “Baptist Tidings,” in which he became a spokesman for religious open-mindedness long before that quality became fashionable among his former clergy brethren. His editorial pen also gave him the opportunity to skewer many of these erstwhile brethren verbally for any acts of cruelty, hypocrisy, or just plain foolishness that he observed. And since we live in a country where the separation of Church and State and freedom of the Press are both guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, there wasn’t a thing the clergy could do about him—except, perhaps, cry persecution.

One typical, and memorable, incident occurred during the darkest days of World War II. A group of mothers, who belonged to various churches and in some cases perhaps no church at all, began to meet regularly to pray for their sons fighting overseas. The leadership of one sect took offense at its mothers praying together with women of other faiths in this fashion, and so brought several “sisters” up on charges for “walking disorderly,” “departing from the Faith,” or some such accusation and threatened to expel them from the church if they didn’t stop their group praying. Sadly, we can’t say at this point whether the accusers got away with this self-righteous little act of cruelty or not. A religious hierarchy, even merely a religious community, is still an intimidating force to many people in the Southeast, and no doubt was even more so, and to more people, back then. Though Preston now had the freedom he needed to speak his mind, the poor mothers still may have been either browbeaten into submission or kicked out of the church. Perhaps there were some instances of both. But regardless, Guy defended those women with every bit of strength he could put into his pen and paper, and he did not allow their persecutors to do one bit of their dirty work under cover.

Guy Preston died in 1952 and his newspaper, his ads, and the turmoil of a world war are all long past. Faded collections of “Baptist Tidings” still exist in the trunks and attics of a few local homes, and when I’m shown such treasure troves of community history I always encourage their donation to a public library for posterity’s sake. I’m not sure I’ve ever convinced anybody to donate them, though. Some of the present owners of these collections may still be afraid of offending somebody either in their family or their church. “Baptist Tidings” was eagerly read by a lot of people in its day, but one still hears the occasional disparaging joke or story about Guy Preston, claiming that he had “the big head” and that he thought he was better than everyone else around him. But that’s pretty much standard fare for anybody who stands outside the majority or the mainstream in a small rural community, and anyone with backbone enough to take an independent stance on any issue had better be ready for such accusations to come and go. Many of the predictions Guy made in his newspaper have come to pass, not because he had any prophetic gift—he’d have scorned that idea himself—but because he wrote with plain old common sense and a firm idea of the consequences of right and wrong. And in a day and age when so many politicians are trying to combine Church and State all over again for the sake of votes, oh Lord! We need voices like Guy Preston’s more than ever.

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