Lillian H. Press, a valued Centre board member for 26 years and a pioneer in education, mental health and politics, died from COVID-19 on April 27. “Lil,” as she was universally known, was 95. Her husband, O. Leonard Press, founder of Kentucky Educational Television, had died last July at 98.
The outpouring of sadness at Lil’s death and celebration of her life have resounded across Kentucky. The only time Governor Andy Beshear has choked up with emotion during his daily press conferences was in announcing her death: “She did something that changed my life . . . changed the course of how I felt about myself and how I interacted with others,” he said, referring to her role in founding and running the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program.
The summer before his senior year at Lexington’s Henry Clay High School, Beshear had been a Governor’s Scholar and was the first GSP student to become governor. “I’m very proud of that,” he said. “I know she was too, because I had the opportunity to talk to her after the election.”
More than 27,000 students have been Governor’s Scholars, including countless Centre graduates and Centre’s last two Rhodes Scholars, Michael Lanham ’00 and Chase Palisch ’09.
Although both Lil and Len had degrees from Boston College, they liked to say that they “adopted” Centre, just as the College “adopted” them. The connection was formalized in 1992 when both received honorary degrees at Centre’s 169th commencement.
In 1994, Lil was elected to the Centre Board of Trustees, where she served for 26 years as board member and later as trustee emerita. President John Roush said that she brought new energy to the board’s Academic Affairs Committee and that her connections throughout Kentucky and beyond were invaluable as a member of the Honorary Degrees and Nominations committee.
“Lil had both a deep commitment to the liberal arts and a relentless and principled drive for excellence,” Roush said.
She was also very persuasive. “It was impossible for anyone to resist Lil’s persistence and charm,” said Richard Trollinger, Centre’s senior philanthropy advisor. “Some of her fellow board members became her closest friends.”
The Presses arrived in Kentucky 68 years ago, in 1952, after Len had agreed to leave Boston to spend one year at the University of Kentucky’s radio department. In the early years, Len and Lil spent many weekends crisscrossing Kentucky drumming up support for a new public television station that could provide enriched curriculum for rural schools, GED training, and non-commercial cultural performances. The two of them slowly and methodically martialed an army of supporters from Ashland to Paducah. KET was finally funded by the legislature and went live in 1968. KET has named Lil “First Lady of KET.”
A newspaper reporter in Boston, Lil joined radio station WVLK as a copywriter soon after arriving in Lexington and worked her way up to program director. She then organized and developed Kentucky’s first Regional Mental Health Board that led to the system of comprehensive care units throughout the commonwealth.
In 1983, Lil was in Washington, D.C., after being appointed special assistant to the Appalachian Regional Commission by President Carter. Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., brought her back to Kentucky to organize the first Governor’s Scholar Program, which has been held on the Centre Campus for 31 of its 37 years. Centre Professor of Education Jim Howard ’56 served for three years as its first dean, followed by Dean Milton Reigelman for 14 years. Centre professors Clarence Wyatt ’78 and John Kinkade ’95 and Centre alumnus Bryan Rich ’01 followed as campus coordinators after the program spread to a second and then a third campus.
In GSP’s second year, a large headline for a New York Times story by its education editor Fred Heckinger referred to GSP as an “Educational Utopia.” Lil often used that same phrase to refer to what goes on at Centre, Reigelman recalled.
Before retiring from the Kentucky GSP, Lil organized 28 governor’s schools from around the country into the National Conference of Governor’s Schools, an institution that grew and became stronger under her presidency for its first seven years. It remains a force for education across the United States today. After retiring from the GSP, Lil founded the Women’s Network to increase the number of women in politics. It is still growing.
Lil’s son Lowell has said that the Governor’s Scholars Program, which has been so important to Centre for the past 37 years, was his mother’s proudest accomplishment. Her obituary suggests that in lieu of flowers, gifts should be made in her memory to Centre College.
By Milton Reigleman
May 5, 2020