His name might not be immediately familiar to all. But adults and children of all ages across the Commonwealth who enjoy the educational, cultural and entertainment programming broadcast through Kentucky Educational Television owe a deep debt of gratitude for the lasting legacy to its founder, O. Leonard Press, for his life's work.
Press died July 31 in Lexington. He was 97. A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, he was a Kentuckian by choice.
A veteran of World War II, following the war he earned a master's degree in communications from Boston University. His love of radio and television - still in its infancy at the time - lured Press to accept a job with the university's stations following graduation.
While still in Massachusetts, Press learned of an opportunity to teach and build a television station at the University of Kentucky. Intrigued by the idea, he and his young bride, Lillian, accepted the job offer and moved to Lexington in 1952.
While working in partnership with a Louisville television station to produce a program on Christmas in the mountains of Kentucky, Press was taken by the plight of a small rural school in the Knott County community of Cordia. Lott's Creek Community School struggled to attract qualified teachers and had no state accreditation.
In an interview years later, Press commented on the situation and opportunity he saw, "Of course I'm thinking, 'Wow, if we could get television in there, they could have the courses they need for accreditation," he recalled.
That observation set Press on a crusade.
As he described the mission, "It was essential that we harness the power of television to assure the education and enrichment of our people so they would have every possible opportunity. We could not afford to accept less."
Not to be dissuaded by obstacles and challenges, as a result of his vision and persistence, in 1962 the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation creating the Kentucky Authority for Education Television. Press was named its first executive director and he served in that role for 30 years including the formative years raising financial and moral support across Kentucky.
KET signed on with its first on-air broadcast on Sept. 23, 1968. Since those early days initially airing education programming during school hours, KET continues to be the benchmark model for public education television networks nationwide.
In her own right, Lillian Press has equally been an important catalyst for education in Kentucky, serving as the first director of the Kentucky Governor's Scholars' Program.
When conferring honorary doctorates to Press and his wife, Dr. Eli Capilouto, the UK president, said of them both, "You bestowed upon the Commonwealth an abundance of goodness and talent that still lifts us all."
That his final wishes included donating his body to UK's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging for research on Alzheimer's disease, further illustrates the lasting impact of his giving nature.
As you next have opportunity to tune in to watch a favorite program on any of KET's four channels, give a moment's thanks and think fondly of O. Leonard Press, a pioneer for educational television in Kentucky and beyond.