Mike Pryor stands with his hands on his hips and looks up at the lighted outdoor flag that hangs above the clock tower on the historic Nicholas County Courthouse. He talks about how Magistrate Rudy Randolph enlisted the help from East Kentucky Power and how two co-workers went a hundred feet into the air in a bucket truck to replace burned out bulbs.
“It’s only one of two of those left in the United States. It cost around $50 when they bought it back in the 1900s,” he says. “That flag really represents how I feel about me and this county – to be able to be free, to be able to do what I need to do and say what I need to say. When something like that makes you feel this good in your heart, that counts for something.”
He turns again and this time catches the muted glint of the streetlight on a small wire cage on the courthouse lawn. The cage protects the latest addition — a walnut sapling.
Each year, Pryor explains, the forestry service plants a new tree. There is a celebration, a picture in the paper, and then a protection – more than one tree has been mowed down because it wasn’t clearly marked.
This tiny tree will grow, given the right conditions, the right opportunities. Some things are just destined for change. Some things are meant to stay the same. Pryor and his team work each day to make sure they can discern the difference between what changes and what doesn’t. He might be the ‘boss’ of the county, but he’s not alone.
“I’ve learned that when you have a plan, and when you can express that plan, you can go to anybody and tell them what you are trying to do. Most everybody in state and local government, and in the community, will work with you if they see that something positive is going to happen,” Pryor says. “What we have to do is we have to evolve, we have to adapt to the problems we have. To me, that’s what it’s all about. I can’t tell you how much I love it.”
Pryor turns once more and looks up Main Street. He is a man who knows where he has been, and he knows where he is going. It’s just a matter of the right steps to get there.
Long before he was Nicholas County Judge Executive, Mike Pryor was a city kid who played Babe Ruth baseball at the East End Ball Park. He tossed around the pigskin with his buddies in Dr. Kingsolver’s front yard out on Scrubgrass Road. He participated in track and was a Nicholas County Bluejacket in basketball during his high school years.
Some of his fondest memories are of the annual Blackberry Festival. The festival started out as a homecoming of sorts for those who had fought in World War II. Every July, the citizens came together, celebrated independence, danced and listened to music.
“When I was real young, they blocked off Main Street and it would be blocked off from Broadway to Walnut for a week. The big grandstand was set up in the street,” he says.
“The kids would come and ride bikes up and down Main Street all day. We’d have potato sack races and three-legged races and bicycle races. Usually, the officials would come around and give you 50-cent pieces if you won.”
A lot of the families who had moved away came back year after year. Pryor says not a festival goes by that he doesn’t see someone who has come home, even for a short while.
These days, the street is no longer blocked off for an entire week. The grandstand has moved to nearer the courthouse, and there don’t seem to be as many young people riding bikes hither and yon. Pryor suspects it is the lure of the Xbox for youngsters now that seems to keep them away.
“That’s just a part of how the world has changed. Nowadays, kids can play a game and become Michael Jordan or whoever they want to be,” he says. “When I was a kid, you literally had a baseball and a bat. You had to get outside and do it and be active.”
While times have changed to some degree, Pryor says the things that haven’t changed are the desire to come together as a community, to have a conversation and to really know how people are.
Knowing his neighbors was an important part of his growing up years. In the early 70s, Pryor had a chance to know Judge Walter Shepherd.
Judge Shepherd was silver of hair, lanky, and had retired from the bench to be a farmer by the time Pryor got to know him. Pryor and his friends played baseball, softball and football games in the Shepherd’s front yard on a regular basis. After the games, Pryor went inside to glean from a real master.
But Judge Shepherd wasn’t the only influence. Pryor’s father, Paul, was active in politics and was chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee. He also remembers his early experiences with the county judge executives of years past.
“As a child, and even as a young adult, every time I came up here to say hello and I stuck my head in that door, I felt like I was I a different realm, I really did. I admired the people that sat in this seat. A lot of good old boys,” Pryor says, then lists all the county judge executives he can remember, going way back into his childhood. “I knew just about every one of them when I was a kid. Any time I would get a chance to talk to Judge Reece Smoot, I felt like I was blessed and privileged. He always had a smile on his face, always had a little bit of wisdom to impart.”
These relationships informed Pryor’s philosophy and his future.
Keeping the good
At an early age, Pryor decided he didn’t mind working, so he secured a position with a local drug store, followed that with a stint at Food Lion, and then went to work for a friend who had a body shop. After his high school graduation, Pryor went to work at Jockey, then started building a reputation with Tabor Builders. In the early 90s, Pryor began his own business, Pryor Contracting.
“I built a lot of houses. I think I built my business in being honest and doing what I would say I would do,” Pryor says. “I tell people there is not a lot of difference between building houses and being a judge. I had two or three houses started at one time. I went from site to site putting out fires, so to speak. I think that prepared me best for this job.”
In 2012, when the current County Judge Executive Kenny Lyons decided to step down, Lyons asked Governor Steve Beshear to consider appointing Pryor. It was a match that worked.
“My wife said I would regret it if I didn’t try this. I had dreamt of being judge and I’ve always enjoyed public service. I knew she was right,” he says of his wife, Monica. “I’m one of those people that, to get my reward in life, I enjoy serving and helping other people. I don’t have any agenda for this job other than accomplishing something, making a different in public service.”
And over the years he has served, Pryor has made a notable difference, even through what he calls a baptism by fire.
“Our problems have made national news. Our hospital shut down, a big negative. We found out our ambulance service filed bankruptcy on a Monday. We had record snowfall and spring flooding. It’s been one thing after another,” he says.
But in a true spirit of community, the folks in Nicholas County, led by Judge Pryor, rallied. They still lost their hospital, but some other services have been filled in by neighboring Harrison County. Within six days of discovering the ambulance service bankruptcy, the county did their research, made a budget and a plan and the employees decided to give whatever it took to retain ambulance services.
“A group of people in this county came together to help make this place safer and better off. It happens time and time again here. We have a strong community and a spirit of cooperation today,” Pryor says. “Somebody else, when I am dead and gone, will talk about me like I talked about old Judge Shepherd. I hope when they talk about me, they will say that I tried. That’s what I’m here for.”
— Kristy Robinson Horine