A life worth noting

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

It was not, as I feared, the floods in Wisconsin and Kentucky last month that kept me from hearing from my friend Viki. She probably didn’t even notice them.

It was something much bigger.

Her father, Raymond B. Preston of Henderson, Ky. died at 86, at home, surrounded by family. I didn’t know him well, had met him only a few times, but his influence on Viki made him seem very much alive and well even in his later years when that sharp mind had begun to dull.

My last memory of him was during the celebration of his grandson Peter’s wedding two years ago. I see him as patriarch, seated in an armchair in the midst of hubbub, occasionally drifting off, with the tribe’s newest baby cradled in his arm.

Can you say someone who is dead is still larger than life? I choose to. A broad brush paints a picture of a successful banker, chemical distributor, philanthropist, and churchman. For all the details, Google his name and read the obit and a feature story published in The (Henderson, Ky.) Gleaner.

Preston was involved in so many aspects of small-town middle-America that it is very likely no single member of his family – not even his beloved wife, Hattie Lou – knew exactly what or whom he had benefited over his long life.

Most of the gifts bestowed on his community came from the Preston Family Foundation and the Ohio Valley Bank, together donating more than $6 million to educational, health, arts and community betterment projects in Henderson and western Kentucky over the past 15 years.

Henderson County High School built a media center with $300,000 from the bank. The Raymond B. Preston Health and Activities Center on the campus of Western Kentucky University, Preston’s alma mater, received $800,000 toward its construction in 1990.

The Preston beneficiary dearest to my heart is the John James Audubon Museum and Park at the edge of Henderson. Most of the dense woods there are unchanged since the famed bird cataloguer stalked and studied birds there, identifying new species as well as developing the patterns of relationships among species. It’s a charming museum, dedicated both to birds and to the complicated life of its namesake. The Preston Foundation has contributed greatly to the wealth of the museum’s collection.

Preston held those around him to impossibly high standards, but no higher than his own. Viki Brigham, one of the Prestons’ four daughters (and a son) told me about a neighbor’s son who goofed around and just barely got through college. Seeing the potential about to be wasted, Preston gave him a job and after a year or so, promised to pay for every B or better he earned, if he’d go on to grad school. The kid never dropped below a B and qualified for law school.

“Now,” Viki says, “after years of a very distinguished law career, he’s running for Circuit Judge, and, I suspect, will win.

“None of that would have happened had my dad not taken a chance.”

Legends surrounding Ray Preston abound, and won’t stop coming just because he is no longer on the scene. When he was acting president of OV Bank in 1986, a fellow banker told Chuck Stinnett of The Gleaner, Preston started a sales process for bank staff. Today everyone in banking has one, but at that time, people thought he was nuts.

Bankers don't make sales calls, was the philosophy of the day. They sit in their offices and wait for people to show up. Preston thought otherwise.

It was this belief that led to the story recorded in The Gleaner of Preston’s prowess as a pilot. He flew anything from single-engine Cessnas to the company’s jets. To be successful as a businessman he believed he had to meet lots and lots of people, so he learned to pilot an airplane. Or airplanes.

A colleague recalled an incident late one afternoon when Preston was flying home from Baltimore. His navigation radio – the only piece of navigation equipment on what was a rather rudimentary aircraft – went out. Evening was approaching when he landed at an airport in West Virginia that had an avionics repairman and asked how long the repair would take.

The repairman was incredulous. “You're not flying out tonight,” he stated. Preston informed him that he did indeed intend to fly out and expected to land in Henderson by 10 p.m.

The repairman shook his head in disbelief. “Buddy,” he told Preston, “You've got more guts than equipment.”

Ray Preston died Aug. 17, and, in typical proper Southern protocol, lay in state for three excruciating days in the funeral home. The service was at the family Episcopal Church, which has primitive air conditioning at best.

Viki and her sisters had known for weeks that a funeral was imminent and thought they had enough black garments at the ready. The heat and the time-span did them in and they made almost daily forays to dress stores on two sides of the Ohio.

One grandson, who loves to play the poor student, arrived without black shoes to wear. His mother sent him to the family shoe store. It was low on black shoes, too, but proprietor Larry Simon thought for only a moment before turning to the young man and saying, “I sold your grandfather a pair of size 9 black wingtips not long ago. Go look in his closet.”

They were there, and Corey literally went to his grandfather’s funeral, wearing his grandfather’s shoes.

During one of the viewings, with somber family members greeting the townspeople who turned out, likewise, in somber garb and demeanor, the murmuring voices suddenly paused and faces turned to the open door. Enter a – well, clearly not a family member. He was wearing bright green shorts, a shaggy demeanor, and was unknown to anyone. One of Viki’s brothers-in-law stepped forward. “May I help you?” he asked.

“I heard someone famous had died and I wanted to see.”

Someone famous. In his own place and time, yes. But since he was not so famous that anyone in Fayette County, Ga. knew Raymond Preston, who here would want to read about him?

Who wants to read about someone who does good things with his gifts?

Whose largesse will long outlive him?

Whose memory will be honored as long as there are small Kentucky towns and kids who need classrooms?

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