Laura Emberton Owens

This is a Quaz about a dictionary, and a signature, and the weirdness of life.

Back in 1995, while working as a reporter at The Tennessean, I’d occasionally cross the border into Kentucky to shop at Flea World, a weekly event in Bowling Green. In short, it was an enormous flea market, overloaded with used bags and baseball cards and rugs and the like.

I’d always return to my apartment with a couple of things—and once, after plunking down (I believe) $1, I returned with a red hard-cover Webster’s Dictionary. I didn’t give the book much thought, but it always stayed with me—from Nashville to New York City to New Rochelle. It’s now on my daughter’s book shelf, and last week we opened up the inside cover and noticed this …

“Who’s Laura Lee Emberton?” Casey asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But let’s find out.”

Thanks to the magic of the information superhighway (aka: The Google), it took me all of, oh, six minutes to locate Laura. And, man, is she a keeper. The young college student who etched her name inside a dictionary is not only a successful wife, mother and businesswoman, but the former Secretary of Education for the state of Kentucky. Put differently, the person who passed forth a book of words devoted herself to learning. I dig that.

In today’s 102nd Quaz, Laura talks about what it’s like to be asked about a long-ago signature. She breaks down the state of education, explains why she once ran, pants down, out of a school bathroom and admits she likes Walter Mondale … more than the iPhone. You can read her bio here, and order her book, Thank You For Blue Horses, here.

Laura Emberton Owens, you are officially the most unlikely of Quazes …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Laura, so I’m gonna start with the obvious: I found your name inside the front cover of my daughter’s dictionary. How did you feel when you received that e-mail? And what can you tell me about the Laura Lee Emberton who scribbled her name way back when?

LAURA EMBERTON OWENS: I must admit a bit of apprehension upon first reading your inquiry about my middle name, a name that was replaced with my maiden name almost 32 years ago. My first thought was that you were a potential hacker finding a way into my computer files, and then I thought perhaps a friend from the past. Being more trusting than cautious, I chose to respond.

I can only assume the dictionary was part of my “school supplies” as a freshman at Western Kentucky University in the fall of 1976 which found its way into a used book store. The young lady who scribbled the very elementary-looking signature into the book was filled with the natural excitement that comes with your first taste independence. Being the fourth generation to attend WKU I doubt I had given much thought to school. It was never a question of whether I would go to college and doubtful a question of where. For me it was just the natural progression of next steps. I am relatively sure I spent more time thinking about being an ADPi than a scholar. Upon reflection, a do-over would be nice, but I would hate to give up the wonderful moments that go hand in hand with being young. At the end of the day, they help mold who we are.

J.P.: According to your company’s website, you are “a partner with the JYB3 Group and assists clients working to improve Kentucky in a range of areas, but focusing especially in the areas of workforce development, education, and technology solutions that allow government to operate more effectively and efficiently.” I’m gonna be 100 percent blunt: I’m a New Yorker, and many of us view Kentucky as this sorta backwoods state that only cares about guns, tobacco, Wildcat basketball and Rand Paul. Please make your case for the Bluegrass State. Whar are we missing?

L.E.O.: Make no mistake, you will find no greater passion for basketball than in the commonwealth of Kentucky. I would be remiss not to point out that we are home to the last two national champions, the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville, respectively. Yes, we take the second amendment very seriously and for many decades depended on the tobacco crop to support the families who live in our beautiful state. But these are not the things that make Kentucky what it is. “Backwoods” perhaps, but in the most wonderful sense of the word. Is Kentucky a state full of nothing but polished socialites who ooze with etiquette when interviewed on national news? No, of course not, but what state is? Yet, we do indeed have our share, as seen in the recent broadcast of the 139TH running of the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps it is Kentucky’s unmistakable dialect that has contributed to the stereotype of a barefoot hillbilly, an image that has been exaggerated over the years, unfortunately. What you will find in Kentucky is a culture rich in tradition, proud of our horses and our bourbon. Periodically, there are events that may swap social graces for hospitality, but I would hope if you were visiting you would welcome feeling at home. We still respect our elders, take food to families who have lost a loved one or just moved into the neighborhood, have enough respect for strangers to pull off the road to show respect when a funeral procession passes, and take offense to those who choose not to show support for our country. I have been fortunate enough to travel to every region of the United States, and I can proudly say I can’t imagine living any place else.

J.P.: You are the former Secretary of Education for Kentucky. There seem to be contrasting statistics about your state’s educational output. On the one hands, you rank 47th in the nation in percentage of adult residents with bachelor’s degrees. On the other hand, you’re 14th in educational affordability. Laura, is Kentucky a smart place?

L.E.O.: One cannot argue Kentucky’s adult population is lagging behind the nation regarding the percentage of bachelor’s degrees. It should be noted, however, that aggressive measures are being taken both through legislation and university initiatives to promote increased attainment.

While more students are going to college directly from high school, the specific demographic that is lagging behind is that of adults. One initiative, Project Graduate, is Kentucky’s collaborative effort to reach out to the 11,000 Kentuckians who have earned 90 or more credit hours and encourage them to return and complete their bachelor’s degree. A second initiative, KnowHow2Goky, was designed to raise awareness about thE steps needed to prepare for college and to motivate low-income, first-generation students to turn their dreams of going to college into a reality.

To me, part of being “smart” is recognizing the problem and making effort to correct it. So, yes, Kentucky is a smart place.

J.P.: How do you motivate a kid to learn, when he sees no reason to be motivated? For example, my cousin used to teach in an inner-city school; a REALLY bad part of Brooklyn. Most of the kids were from single-parent homes, and only some of those parents had—at best—high school degrees. They live in a crappy, crime-infested area, there are few role models to show, “Hey, see what an education can do?” You have an opportunity to make quick money on a corner slinging rock … etc … etc. The rich suburban schools received far better materials, resources, etc. How do we reach those kids and say, “Hey! Studying pays off?”

L.E.O.: Giving relevance to education is essential for student buy-in and student success. For example, for a student who enjoys building things use carpentry to teach math. What better example of a right angle than the truss of a house. I am adamant that schools cannot succeed by offering a “cookie cutter” approach to education, in other words using the same methodology for disseminating the same information to every student.

When students find success in the early years of school and build on that, learning does not feel like an obstacle, but rather a mechanism for success. I agree maintaining student enthusiasm is difficult and a great part of expectations, or lack of, comes from the home. Unfortunately, most of what we emulate comes from what we see at home. I would also agree that it is more difficult to find role models for inner-city school kids, but they are there. It may not always be an adult who succeeded, but a peer who can set the example. Sadly, until we can teach the value of education to parents it will remain difficult to teach it to their children, a cycle that affects a nation.

J.P.: You’ve served on the White House Commission of Presidential Scholars at the invitation of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. That’s a head-scratching thing to read, because this nation is so politically divided right now. Can you work with/for presidents of both parties without: A. Catching grief from friends/colleagues/etc? B. Feeling guilty?

L.E.O.: Being on a commission is by no means the same as actually “working” for the President. It is an honor to be chosen, but a bit of unrewarded commitment in the end. Education is one of the few areas that both parties can somewhat agree on. I mean, who isn’t for giving students the best opportunities for success. While I appreciate President Obama extending the invitation to remain on the commission during his first year in office, I am realistic enough to know it is hard to come into office and make sweeping changes.

J.P.: What’s your path? Like, how did you get from a girl scribbling her name inside a book to where you are? How did this happen?

L.E.O.: Sometimes I wonder that myself. I have been so blessed, never imagining as the girl who wrote in the dictionary that I would have the wonderful opportunities that I have been given. For the most part I worked hard and was the right place at the right time.

J.P.: You worked as the assistant to the president for regional development at Western Kentucky University. I recently served as an adjunct professor at Manhattanville College here in Purchase, N.Y. The tuition is $53,000 annually. Many of these kids will be in debt for the next decade … two decades. Is it really worth it? Especially when technology seems to offer so many ways to make a career sans a formal degree?

L.E.O.: It absolutely depends on the student. First, I do not believe that college is for everyone, regardless of the tuition costs. I use my two children as the perfect example. My son, of whom I am extraordinarily proud, has chosen a path that didn’t require a degree. As hard as I tried to mold him into the role I wanted him to fulfill, he went down his own path.

He has done everything from make duck calls, to train horses, to be a commercial fisherman, and now is a guide for his duck hunting business, Double Banded Outfitters. He is so good at what he does and he loves it.

In high school I made him take honors English and enroll in college upon graduation. Not going was not an option. Thirteen years since his high school graduation, I am relatively sure he has never discussed Beowulf. I did him a disservice by not allowing him to go to the vocational school to learn skills that he was interested in.

My daughter, on the other hand, attends a private university with extraordinarily high standards for being admitted and even higher academic standards for staying. The privilege for attending comes with a hefty price tag. For those who attend, the acceptance rate for post-secondary programs is exceptionally high. She plans to attend law school so this is a great fit for her.

J.P.: I have one I’m thrilled/fascinated to ask you: You’re a Western Kentucky grad (two degrees), and you worked for the school. Recently, Western Kentucky hired Bobby Petrino as its football coach. Petrino, as you probably know, has quite the, ahem, record at past gigs (lied to administration, hired his mistress for gig she was unqualified for, lied to police about motorbike accident involving said mistress). Do you think it’s OK for a college to bring in such a man? Does it send/present the wrong message? Or are athletic departments different entities, and should be viewed, perhaps, separate from the universities?

L.E.O.: I have mixed feeling on this. First, I think we will all agree athletics is an entity all its own. Right or wrong, they create their own island. WKU is such an outstanding university dedicated to raising education standards and has long been about tradition. I was a little surprised when they hired a coach with such a notorious past. According to Athletic Director Todd Stewart, Petrino was their top choice despite the scandal. In part because of his record as a coach and in part because of the way he accepted responsibility for his mistakes. I respect the decision of those closer to the situation and hope that I am a big enough person to realize everybody deserves a second chance.

J.P.: You spent eight years as an English teacher at Warren Central High School. Give me your absolute best/craziest/funniest story from your days as a high school educator …

L.E.O.: One that stands out still brings a chuckle, mostly because I am still so embarrassed. Taking for granted my usual surroundings in the restroom, it took me a moment to notice there was something a little different. In the corner was a snake coiled with its head pointed right in my direction. Taking no time to investigate, I ran into the crowded hall with my pants still at my knees. While I am all for being the center of attention, this isn’t what I usually had in mind.

J.P.: I always hear that we, as a country, have fallen behind [fill in the European/Asian] nation in education, and that this will come back to kill us. Do you agree? Does it really matter? And what do we need to do to fix things—if anything?

L.E.O.: I do agree, and yes, it absolutely matters. Perhaps the urgency may best be ascertained from your own statement that “it will come back to kill us.” At best, it is a slow but certain death for our economy. At its worst, it offers a mechanism for the annihilation of American citizens. We must find ways to nurture and promote human capital though education and innovation. Until our government becomes more fiscally responsible, it will be difficult to maintain revenue streams and impossible to increase the necessary funding for improvement.


• Five things always in your purse: Lipstick, billfold, pen, hand sanitizer, Christmas list.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): John Calipari, Empire State Building, iPhone 5, Starbucks, Billy Joel, Tellis Frank, Amanda Bynes, neck tattoos, jeans with high heels, the color green, Walter Mondale, Tim McGraw, sand beneath your toes, Valentine’s Day: Sand beneath your toes, Tim McGraw, jeans with high heels, Valentine’s Day, Starbucks, Billy Joel, Tellis Frank, John Calipari, Empire State Building, the color green, Walter Mondale, iPhone5, Amanda Bynes, neck tattoos.

• Your first job was as a payroll supervisor. This sounds insanely boring. Am I correct?: On one hand it was extraordinarily boring—I never really understood how people enjoyed working with numbers all day; on the other hand, I stayed a little petrified because it did not come easily to me. I had actually gone to apply for a teaching job (English). They said we don’t have an opening, but would you like to be the payroll supervisor … go figure!

• Did you attend your senior prom? If so, what do you recall?: I did. My date and I matched. I wore a yellow dress and he wore a yellow tux. Remember, this was the mid-seventies … still sounds awful. I had my first beer and was the only one out of my group who didn’t get to spend the night out.

• Smartest person you’ve ever met: No question, my father. He seems to know everything about everything. He is the retired Chief Judge on the Kentucky Court of Appeals, a true statesman and, more important, a great father!

• If you took the SAT right now, what would your score be?: I would be afraid to even guess. I am fairly certain my highest score would be in English/reading with my lowest in math.

• You were a member of the Glasgow City Council. How many times per year would the words, “Dude, just stop talking” enter your mind during meetings?: Believe it or not, very few. I served with a great group of folks who did such good job. Interesting note, I received more constituent calls and complaints over my vote on bingo than any other issue that came up. I voted “no” to allowing a bingo hall inside the city limits.

• As a former English teacher, are you cool with cursing? Is there a place for a good “shit!” or “fuck!”?: As a writer, philosophically, I want to say yes. In reality, I am not comfortable with it.

• Had she run, would Ashley Judd have had a shot against Mitch McConnell?: No. She is too liberal for most Kentuckians.

• Are you OK with students writing inside their dictionaries?: Absolutely! As long as the book is theirs I encourage students to write in every book, put notes in the margins, highlight significant points of interest, make it your own! Besides, you never know when it will lead you down an unexpected path.