KET founder O. Leonard Press dies at 97
Published 8:20 pm Thursday, August 1, 2019
KET founder and first executive director O. Leonard Press died Wednesday, July 31, at the age of 97.
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“While it is with a heavy heart that we share news of Len’s passing, it is also with tremendous pride and admiration that we can look back on a life well lived, one that has made such a positive and lasting impact on the people of Kentucky,” said Shae Hopkins, who was hired by Press in 1986 and became KET’s fourth executive director in 2010.
“Len Press loved Kentucky and its people very deeply. He did not just care for Kentucky, he acted upon that love. And we and future generations are all better for his labors,” said Ginni Fox, who succeeded Press as executive director in 1991.
Born in Lowell, Mass., Press — a World War II veteran — earned a master’s degree in communications from Boston University and moved to Kentucky in 1952 to accept a position as head of broadcast TV at the University of Kentucky.
Once here, the idea of helping launch a statewide television station took hold, particularly after he met Alice Slone, founder and director of the rural Lott’s Creek Community School in Cordia, which received no state funds and lacked accreditation.
“Across Kentucky, I saw the heroic struggle to provide equal education thwarted by the barrier of unequal resources,” Press recalled in 2011. “Of course, I’m thinking, ‘Wow — if we could get television in there, they could have the courses they need for accreditation.’ I really wanted to do this. It was something I couldn’t get out of my mind.”
Press sought to use the relatively new platform of television to not only improve basic education in the mountains, but throughout the entire Commonwealth — a goal he described in full in his 2008 book, The KET Story: A Personal Account.
After years of campaigning by Press, the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation creating the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television in 1962, naming Press as the agency’s first executive director. Work followed to create a system of transmitters throughout the state and to construct KET’s Network Center — which was renamed in Press’s honor in 1992 — in Lexington. On Sept. 23, 1968, KET signed on the air for the first time, broadcasting weekdays during school hours.
Press led KET as executive director for nearly 30 years, until his retirement in 1991, when he was succeeded by longtime colleague Fox.
Under Press’s leadership, KET grew to become the largest statewide public broadcasting network in the country. He was hailed as a role model for educational innovation as well as a telecommunications pioneer. He received multiple honors and awards throughout his lifetime, including an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Kentucky in 2015 — given jointly with his wife, Lillian “Lil” Henken Press, a former newspaper reporter and PR executive who served as the first director of Kentucky’s Governor’s Scholars Program.
In September 2018, Press was instrumental in celebrating KET’s 50th anniversary, as part of the documentary The KET Story and the unveiling of a Kentucky Historical Marker at the Network Center.
“Len Press inspired everyone who knew him, especially those who were fortunate to work with him, including myself,” said Hopkins. “We are proud to remain true to his vision and the mission he established for KET. His legacy will live on through our work and the millions of lives that have been improved and enriched thanks to his brilliance, tenacity and goodwill.”
Press is survived by his wife Lillian, their son, Lowell, daughter-in-law, Sasha Stoneman Press, and two grandsons.
KET will present special encore presentations of The KET Story Thursday, Aug. 1, at 8/7 pm; Friday, Aug. 2, at 9/8 pm; and Saturday, Aug. 3, at 1pm/noon on KET. The program is also available for viewing online anytime at KET.org.