Remembering Henry West

(Above photo of Henry West from the Advocate-Messenger in Danville.)

On Saturday we went to the funeral of Henry West, in Lancaster. Henry, a distant cousin of ours, died suddenly on Wednesday evening while working on his farm just outside of Paint Lick. Here’s the full story from the Advocate-Messenger:

PAINT LICK – Henry West, a prominent Garrard County farmer who played a large role in the federal tobacco buyout, died Wednesday. He was 64 and just a couple of weeks ago had been the parade grand marshal for Garrard County’s Rural Heritage Festival.

“Henry was one of those unique people who just possessed all the traditional values you look for in rural America – family, church and land – and he dedicated his life to all three,” said Mike Carter, former Garrard County agricultural agent.

West had served as president for both the Burley Tobacco Council and the Burley Tobacco Co-op. He was instrumental in sparking the charge for the landmark $9.6 billion federal tobacco buyout and forged many relationships with important figures to see it through.

“Henry made himself a personal friend to politicians. He worked hard with senators and congressmen,” said Carter.

Carter, who served as ag agent for 31 years before retiring in June, was both a professional and personal friend to West. Carter said West’s work and dedication to Garrard County will be felt for many years to come.

‘Henry was just an outstanding leader’

West was a selfless man, who always considered the benefit of Garrard countians above his own personal gain.

“Henry was just an outstanding leader. He really had a passion for doing whatever he felt was best for the average tobacco farmer,” said Carter.

Carter’s role as an extension agent allotted him a close, personal working relationship with West, a cattle and tobacco farmer who owned and operated Henry West Farms in Paint Lick.

West and his wife, Peggy, had three children, and Carter said it was a privilege to see them grow up and participate in the 4-H program.

Faith was also integral to West, being a lifelong and active member of Paint Lick United Methodist Church.

Outside of family, church and the land, West had another passion, according to Carter: the Kentucky Wildcats.

West’s son had been a standout quarterback for Garrard County and played at the University of Kentucky. West himself also was a stellar player for the old Paint Lick High School back in his day, said Carter.

“You ask anyone of the top five players from (the 1960s) in the area, and Henry West’s name will always come up,” he said.

West’s unexpected death leaves a void in the community where he was well-liked and well-respected.

“It’s odd, because in a time just like this, we would all go to Henry for strength, advice and support. Right now, this loss is unspeakable for Garrard County,” said Carter.

The Lexington Herald-Leader also ran a short piece on Henry.

(Gonna drop the third-person for a little bit…)

Though I only got to meet Henry a handful of times, I can’t think of a person I’ve known over my lifetime who has struck me with their generosity and kindness as much as Henry West. As a kid, every once in a while when we’d be on a family trip to Berea or Cumberland Falls State Park or other places in and around that part of the state, we’d drop in on Henry’s farm, and no matter what he and Peggy and the kids were in the middle of, they’d drop it immediately. The West family’s warmth and generosity never flagged or faltered, and some of my favorite memories are of visiting the farm, and of Henry’s great smile (as you can see above) and his laugh.

One of the other major things that struck me about Henry, evident to me even when I was a little boy, was his love of the land. We may have been city slickers visiting from big, dirty Louisville, but Henry would take the time to show us the farm, and explain what he was working on, from harvesting tobacco to raising cattle. His enthusiasm for what he was doing was inspiring and infectious.

I last saw Henry at a family reunion we held at Cumberland Falls during Thanksgiving in 2005, while I was still living in New York. He was as friendly and warm as ever, and I regret that in this past year that I’ve been back in Kentucky, I didn’t take the opportunity to visit Paint Lick and the Wests.

On Saturday Henry was buried in the Manse Cemetery in Paint Lick (a fascinating and beautiful place which includes the graves of Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers). On Kentucky State Road 52 to the cemetery from Lancaster, the funeral procession stretched at least two miles long, as Henry’s many friends and family came to pay their respects. As the burial began, the clouds which had covered the sky all day began to dissipate, and a beautiful sun came through, while geese on the other side of the hill from the cemetery honked and scattered. It was beautiful and touching, and I will miss Henry West.

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