Oct. 26--ASHLAND -- People who admired Nancy McClellan, a woman with more best friends than she could ever count, will gather this weekend to mourn the passing of the local educator whose legacy will echo through these mountains for many years to come.
McClellan's fans and friends sang her praises during a surprise party for her 75th birthday at an art gallery in downtown Ashland on a bitterly cold evening.
"Years from now folklorists will look back, and there will be fiddle tunes named for her and songs and poems honoring her. She is kind of the heart and soul of music around here. I think of her as the patron saint of the music world of Kentucky, West Virginia and southern Ohio," said John Harrod, who added, "And, she is a wonderful poet. I would love to see her poetry collected and published."
Fiddler Bobby Taylor said, "Nancy stands at the top of the mountain surrounded by friends and loved ones. She is in first place when it comes to being a loving soul who has nurtured and made a place for old-time music, folk music and art and she has touched the life of everyone she's met. I consider her basically to be the queen of old-time music. She is one of the great ladies of the great state of Kentucky. For me, she is the greatest."
Guitarist Charlie Bowen recalled the scene at the party and thinking, "You could almost see thought balloons saying, 'I don't know who you think you are, but I am Nancy's best friend.' Each of those people was correct. They were her best friend. She had an incredible ability to make you feel important to her."
Reflections at 75
McClellan sat down with The Independent a few days after a surprise party in honor of her 75th birthday and talked about her life and possible legacy. At that time, McClellan says she was surprised by many aspects of her life. While she is often deeply associated with mountain music and art, her "first love" was ancient languages. McClellan said teaching was a job she never anticipated while working toward her own education.
"The one thing I was never going to do was teach school," she said with a warm laugh, explaining the job initially found her when "someone from Russell High School was desperate for a Latin teacher."
The high school teaching position led to a job at Ashland Community College, which would be her passion for the next four decades and the place where so many were exposed to her knowledge and exploration of arts, culture, language, history, tradition and music.
"I know I approached it in different ways than some of my colleagues. I generally felt the students were my equals ... they just weren't on the part of the path I was on. It was never difficult being friends with them outside the classroom. From the start I developed friendships that are still there," she said.
"If I did anything differently it was probably the informality. I was 23 or 24 and had lots of students older than myself," she said. "When I started I was 'Mrs. McClellan' because I didn't have a doctorate. By the '60s, I was Nancy."
In addition to teaching at the community college, she spent 10 years working with inmates at the federal prison in Summit.
"Many of them were conscientious objectors or political prisoners of some sort," she recalled, quickly pointing out those classes included "some of the best writers I ever had."
Throughout her travels and teachings, McClellan said "music was there from the very beginning." A muse rather than a musician, McClellan draws a direct cause and effect relationship between her appreciation for traditional music and her childhood in Summit.
"Any time my dad was in the car he was singing," she said, recalling the first tune she remembered in his voice was the time-tested ballad "Barbara Allen." Her father's sister, Bess, a banjo player who lived to be 103 years old, would commonly call from her nursing home and say, "Honey, I want to tell you a story." Her mother sang "old Baptist hymns" when she washed dishes and "the whole family were storytellers."
Summing up that history, she grinned and concluded, "I grew up in the country."
Life and love
She was introduced to her late husband, Harvey, by Bob Fearing, a man she called "Mr. Republican in Ashland," during spring break of her junior year at the University of Kentucky. Harvey was playing tennis at the time and made quite an impression as he crossed the court to greet them.
"He was gorgeous. He was a good looking man," she said, nearly blushing at the memory.
Just more than a year later they were married, "and it lasted 50 years and a couple of months," she said.
She credits her former student Charlie Bowen for planting the suggestion to develop a coffee house at the community college, remembering his enthusiasm for the concept as they drove back from a concert by Doc and Merle Watson.
"It continued until around 1981. It kind of petered out, but for years and years and years it was every Friday night," she said. "The music at the coffee house was utter delight for me."
Love of music
She studied piano lessons for eight years and summarizes the experience with few words, "I was not good." If she were a musician, McClellan says she would most enjoy playing either piano or guitar.
"I love the fiddle, but I have no temptation to play it," she said with a giggle.
Cited by many musicians and writers as their inspiring force, McClellan said it is important for people to encourage those who are new to song or story.
"For one thing, you never know what is going to develop," she said. "It is important for the person to have a listener or a reader. When I was grading papers I always tried to find something good in each of them."
Looking back at the many projects she was part of, McClellan said she was proud of the associations and performances forged during the Mountain Heritage Folk Festival, as well as the Ivydale Festival in West Virginia.
After considering her life and times, McClellan said she is perhaps proudest to have been able to share her love of so many things with the students in her classrooms.
"I always absolutely loved the materials I was teaching, particularly in all the humanities -- things I wanted so much for my students to feel. Somehow, that came through to a number of them. If ever I achieved anything, that may be the best."
TIM PRESTON can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2651.
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