Nonprofit organizations engaged in building homes in areas where housing was lost to disasters were prominent in this year’s inaugural parade, Dec. 12, 2023, in Frankfort. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)
FRANKFORT — Jason Johnson was pleasantly surprised a couple of weeks ago when he got a call from his high school principal.
The governor’s office wanted Johnson, 41, the band director at Pike Central High School in Eastern Kentucky, and his dozens of band students to march in the inauguration parade down Capital Avenue and past the state’s towering Capitol building, welcoming a second four-year term for Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
“It was a shock,” said Johnson, who added that the last time Pike County students took part in the traditional inauguration parade was more than a decade ago. “He kind of volun-told me that we were doing it, which I didn’t mind. I thought it was a fantastic idea for our kids.”
His band students had never marched in a parade given that most parade opportunities in Eastern Kentucky had clashed with other music performances; they began practicing how to march within the past week in a parking lot. He hopes their Tuesday march would start a tradition of “representing our community at the state level.”
“Hopefully, it’s something that we’ll be able to return time and time again, no matter who’s being inaugurated, to show the coming together of Kentucky to support our elected officials for the greater good,” Johnson said.
The state capital community is known for reenacting inaugural traditions every four years to welcome in a new governor or hail another term for an incumbent. And inaugural parades always highlight the geographic crosscut of Kentuckians, from Pike County to Graves County, people who drive hours o support their governor (or their high school band). This year’s inaugural parade also highlighted Kentuckians who are trying to rebuild from natural disasters that battered both ends of the state during Beshear’s first term as governor.
Tuesday morning, before the parade, First Christian Church in downtown Frankfort hosted an inaugural worship service where current and former elected officials including Beshear, Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, and former Gov. Paul Patton listened to the echoes of rising voices — “stand up for rights,” they sang — of St. Stephen Baptist Church’s gospel choir from Louisville.
“Being equitable and fair, showing compassion,” said Jean Phillips, a member of the choir from Louisville when asked about the refrain they sang.
For Phillips, a retired teacher in Jefferson County, singing about standing up “for rights” also meant extending respect and recognizing people of all economic situations, all educational backgrounds, making sure people can “live in a decent home.” It’s something she believes the newly inaugurated Beshear has done well in advocating for people regardless of their political affiliation.
“Depending on where you live, what politics group you belong to, you may have a vision that for your group is fair. But is it for the other group?” Phillips said.
Phillips, who is Black, said the African American community had supported Beshear in his reelection effort but still wanted to hold him accountable to make sure he delivers on continued progress in supporting education and economic development.
Other key groups and constituencies that had made up Beshear’s reelection effort were also represented in the inaugural parade, which specifically spotlighted educators “who continue to lead Kentucky’s children into the future.”
Heather Thomsen, 62, of Lexington and a retired teacher of more than three decades, came to cheer on Beshear with her friend from Bowling Green as the governor rode in a horse carriage down Capitol Avenue.
When asked about Beshear’s comments at a private swearing-in ceremony Monday evening in the Capitol Rotunda calling for empathy over “poisonous and toxic” politics, Thomsen embraced his message.
“We are one commonwealth and we should look and work together for the betterment of this commonwealth and of this nation,” Thomsen said. “That’s what Andy embodies in my opinion.”
Thomsen said she hoped the GOP-controlled legislature could work with Beshear over the next four years on legislation, a sentiment echoed by others from around the state who came to watch the inaugural parade.
While sitting in a lawn chair along Capitol Avenue,. James Clay, 61, who retired after decades of working in Franklin County schools as a maintenance employee, mentioned he wanted to make sure Beshear “takes care of our pension.”
“We know that we’ve got a Republican legislature, and we hope that he can sit down and work with them and get some bills passed. And do a little bit more for our teachers and nurses,” Clay said.
Driving past Clay and other bystanders were reminders of the devastating natural disasters that Kentucky has faced during Beshear’s first term in office. A fire truck from Hazard in Perry County, one of the communities hit by deadly floods in the summer of 2022, drove by with community members waving signs mentioning the flood recovery from atop the truck.
Members of Homes for Hope for Kentucky, a Graves County nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding housing after the December 2021 tornado outbreak that devastated the county seat of Mayfield, and the county’s long-term recovery group also marched in the parade.
Matthew Allen, the executive director of the county’s long-term recovery group, said those who had received funding from the state-run relief fund set up to benefit tornado survivors were invited to march in the parade.
“We’re thankful for the momentum that we have right now, but it is a long-term recovery,” Allen said, applauding Beshear’s efforts to support disaster survivors. “We’re still anticipating this to go on for another three to five years until as many survivors as possible are recovered.”
Allen said about 250 families are currently working with disaster case managers with another 100 still waiting to receive case managers to work on personal situations. The county also still needs financial help with home rebuilding and repair, he said, after hundreds of rental homes were destroyed by the EF-4 tornado. He also said record flooding that hit West Kentucky including Graves County this past summer also has created about 100 families still needing assistance.
In the afternoon, as Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman spoke before a crowd of hundreds, Jim Daigle was taking in the moment this would be for his students.
Daigle runs the U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program at Todd County Central High School along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. For his students, being at the inauguration ceremony is “eye opening.” His group’s 30 cadets had marched in the parade.
“These guys have never seen anything like this. Most of these guys have never left Todd County,” Daigle said. “They’ve never seen the Capitol. You know, they’ve never seen this process. And we learn about it in school, but to actually see it in person is incredible.”
“Today, everybody’s just a Kentuckian,” he said.
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