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Photo of Ken CherryThe Well-Read Life
University Press Director Ken Cherry Retires

by Alicia P. Gregory

He's the first to admit he's a dabbler. But in Ken Cherry's case, it's been a good thing.

The Virginia native was schooled in many subjects—English, linguistics, history, sociology, geology, and French—at many places—the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles, East Tennessee State University, and the universities of Colorado, Tennessee, Washington, and Virginia. He discovered an aptitude for writing in Army intelligence school, the training ground for his two-year term as a corporal during the Korean War. He worked summers in Tennessee at Kingsport Press Inc., the second-largest book manufacturing plant in the United States, where he learned to proofread, write trade articles, and run an innovative computer typesetting program.

Then he got a job at Duke University Press as a "raw, junior copyeditor" where he experienced a moment of epiphany. "I was sitting in my office, which was an old bedroom with a fireplace, and there were big, old pine trees outside. I was working away on a manuscript, and I remember thinking consciously, 'This is like being paid money to play.' I was hooked."

Cherry went on to stints at presses in Georgia and Tennessee, and in August 2001 this poet, book reviewer, and editor retired as director of The University Press of Kentucky after 23 years. But the curiosity and vision that sustained his career are still very much a part of who he is.

"One of the great pleasures of being an editor is the breadth it gives you," says Cherry, who oversaw publication of more than 500 titles during his term as director. "I know a million things. That knowledge is this broad [throws his arms wide], though it may be this deep [shows a half-inch between his fingertips]." With a pause and then a chuckle, he says, "It comes in handy at cocktail parties."

Kentucky's Press
The University Press of Kentucky, the successor to what was the University of Kentucky Press, was formed in 1969 as a publishing consortium that includes Kentucky's eight public universities, five of the state's private colleges, the Kentucky Historical Society, and the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

"The press has a dual obligation," Cherry says. "The basic charge—the reason for any university press to exist—is to publish scholarship by scholars for other scholars in order to advance human knowledge. The other part of that charge is a special emphasis on publishing books on topics related to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the Upper South, Appalachia, and the Ohio Valley."

Photo of the Atlas of KentuckyHe notes that the press brings out more books on Appalachia than any other publisher, and the press has been recognized for a number of books that shed light on Kentucky history and culture. The most notable include The Kentucky Encyclopedia (1992), "which we brought out on bicentennial day," A New History of Kentucky (1997), Atlas of Kentucky (1998), The Encyclopedia of Louisville (2000), and Our Kentucky; A Study of the Bluegrass State (2000). "The New History is used as a textbook in a number of colleges in the state, and Our Kentucky is used at the fourth-grade and junior high level," Cherry says.

Cherry's favorite book series, "New Books for New Readers," is targeted at a specific group of Kentuckians—adults learning to read. "When we looked at starting this in the 1980s, the only press we could identify that had books for new adult readers was Cambridge University Press. But those books were all very urban. They covered the ghetto experience and that was something people in New York City could identify with, but wouldn't be relevant to a basically rural population."

He points to the two most recent books in the series, funded by the Kentucky Humanities Council and the Scripps-Howard Foundation. One, called Kentucky Home Place, traces a farm family through eight generations, and the other, Fights for Rights, is a primer on the struggle for civil rights in America. Cherry calls this primer "the best capsule book on that subject I've ever read."

"People can't think unless they can read," Cherry says. "A lot of people just sit back and let the emotions of television wash over them. If your only source of information is TV—a medium which boils down to hype and the buck—you can make some very glib, uninformed decisions."

"Ken Cherry has built the press up to where it has a high standing among university presses. And he has opened the way for Kentuckians to get their history in ways that had never been there before."
—Thomas D. Clark, Kentucky's historian laureate and "father" of The University Press of Kentucky

"Ken is both a good publisher and a good man. He leaves his successor not only a fine list of books, but also a firm financial foundation."
—Kenneth Scott, director of the University Press of Florida

"Year in and year out, Ken Cherry devoted his full energy to the Press, and it yielded an enormous return. He brought great distinction to himself and to the University of Kentucky."
—Jack Blanton, UK's acting senior vice president of administration

Making a Name
One important business decision Cherry made at the press was to focus on clusters—groups of books in particular subject areas. "The orphan won't make it nine times out of 10," he says. "You can't publish just one book in Medieval French Literature and expect it to sell, because it just won't work in the review system. You have to have clusters of books to market them."

Building clusters means finding niches, and one of the press's most successful niches is 18th-century literature. "Can you believe The University Press of Kentucky is toe-to-toe with Cambridge when it comes to 18th-century lit?" The Press has 45 books in this area, including reprints of rare period novels and scholarly studies of writers and their works.

Another niche, American military history, "just grew," Cherry says. It started in 1978 with Philip Ardery's Bomber Pilot: A Memoir of World War II, the first memoir by an American bomber pilot. "It goes on selling today, and that book has led to others." The press currently has 47 books in print on WWII alone.

The press's most recent niche, film studies, includes biographies of famous stars and studies of major studios like Paramount. This focus started in the 1980s, when film studies were not as respected as perhaps they are today, Cherry says. "We did a book on Sidney Lumet, a very impassioned director who is best known for his film '12 Angry Men.'" Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism followed, as did biographies of Marie Dressler and Mary Pickford. "The editors in New York weren't doing this kind of thing, but we found there's a healthy market for it."

The Unhectic Life
No deadlines. That's the best thing about retirement, according to Cherry. "Publishing is a high-pressure, high-stress business," he says, "and a very detailed business. Everything has to go right. If you've got errors in a book, they're going to be there for 50 years."

After years of pressure-reading—reading with the knowledge that you have to turn 200 pages tonight—Cherry is enjoying the opportunity to savor books. "I'm reading some things now that I have never read. I have started on George Eliot (whom my wife likes a great deal), the greatest woman novelist of the mid-19th century," he says. "I like to read a group of works by an author. You learn a lot about the author's vision of the world. It's a wonderfully unhectic way to live."