It may be Frankfort’s oldest unsolved murder. Few remember it, but author Ron Rhody does.
Rhody, a Frankfort native and 1950 graduate of Frankfort High School, remembers it so vividly that he focuses his latest work of fiction on the story to be released at the Kentucky Book Fair, Saturday, Nov. 12.
Rhody’s latest work is a prequel to “Theo’s Story,” a Frankfort-based novel of political intrigue and murder written in 2009.
“Theo and the Mouthful of Ashes” examines the protagonist’s younger days as a reporter at The State Journal when it was on West Main Street.
The book sets it sights on a murder in Frankfort more than 60 years ago. A woman was discovered at the bottom of a flight of stairs, her head bashed in and her throat stuffed with ashes.
The impetus for the story comes from Rhody’s recollection of Frankfort as a young man.
It’s both fact and fiction. The setting is a fairly accurate description of Frankfort in the early 1950s. Theo, the main character, is somewhat developed based on Rhody’s own experiences as a cub reporter covering sports for The State Journal.
But as for the main character being him, Rhody says no. Perhaps more like the experiences of his father, James Bummy Rhody, once a full-time newsman who became editor at The State Journal. He was the one who covered the woman’s murder in the 40s.
Rhody says he remembers his father coming home early one morning and talking in soft whispers to his mother about a scene he had just witnessed and written about for the next day’s edition.
Rhody sought the expertise of Frankfort historian and director of the Frankfort Museum, Russ Hatter, for archival information that might be available on the case.
Rhody says Hatter did not know the story, but was more than willing to see what he could find to provide the events of the mysterious tale that drives the action.
Ironically, Hatter’s historical research would take him to those exact newspaper accounts Rhody’s father wrote at the time and whispered to his mother.
“One can only assume she either had said something or knew something that someone didn’t want her talking about,” Rhody says today. Neither the reason behind the murder nor the murderer was ever discovered.
The elder Rhody worked for the late Jack Perry, who was editor and owner of The State Journal from the 1930s through the early 1960s until it was sold to an Ohio newspaper family that installed the late Albert E. Dix as publisher.
The author of the Theo books was recently in town to speak to the Frankfort Woman’s Club. He currently resides with his wife, Patty, in Pinehurst, N.C.
“I came here because they ask me,” he said of the trek he made by car.
But being here also gave him the opportunity to visit with his three siblings – Ann Hatterick, Don Rhody and the late Mary Lou Webb.
At 79 and retired, he owns a consulting firm that assists not-for-profits that need to win friends, he says.
He lectures at colleges and corporations on a subject he knows well: public relations. He served 10 years at the Bank of America in San Francisco as the executive vice-president of public relations and for other major companies, such as Kaiser Aluminum.
Having lived and worked all over the United States – West Virginia, New York and California – Rhody says he’s in Frankfort at least twice a year.
“Even though I have lived many places, had great success, I never left.”
Perhaps echoing Rhody’s sentiments, the title character Theo poignantly says, “Home ... I take it with me.”
Life in Frankfort was filled with days at Frankfort High School, with friends and teammates like Charles Hudson.
Rhody was a fullback on the FHS football team and his good friend, Hudson, was quarterback. Hudson, author of “The Pack Horseman,” among other books, is a retired University of Georgia professor now living in Frankfort.
“Both of us did talk back then about someday writing the great American novel,” Hudson told a State Journal reporter two years ago.
Rhody remembers LeCompte drug store where he went for sodas before he would walk across the Singing Bridge to the Capital Theatre.
“I vividly remember the Green Mill, what was then called ‘The Negro College’ and the ‘Feeble Minded Institute.’
“And state workers, Main and St. Clair, where the action was, and up the street was where my father worked alongside writers from the Associated Press and United Press International,” calling it his Frankfort of the 1940s and early 1950s.
One young man’s name, who he did not know personally, has indelibly been etched in his mind – Chad Burns, 20, who was Frankfort’s first casualty of the Korean War.
Burns’ war background is used as part of Theo’s experience in the latest novel.
As for Theo’s name, the author borrowed it from Theodore O’Hara, the soldier poet from Danville who spent his early life in Frankfort and was eventually buried in Frankfort Cemetery.
Rhody says his personal success is based on 10 percent luck and 90 percent on those in Frankfort he considers mentors.
“These people made me,” he said, listing his football coach Ollie Leathers, principal F.D. Wilkinson and teachers Cecil Underwood and Eudora South.
“Our boys’ quartet, under Miss South’s direction, won the state contest. We were a handsome group,” he said.
Another burst of pride for Rhody is his association with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and its program, “Kentucky Afield.”
Rhody says he was in the last semester of his junior year at UK, working part time as a sports writer at The State Journal and doing high-school football and basketball play-by-play at the local radio station to help pay for college.
Harry Towles, then director of Fish and Wildlife’s communications division, hired him to write for the “Happy Hunting Ground” magazine and to start a weekly radio and television show on Kentucky hunting and fishing, Rhody explained.
Rhody called working for Kentucky Afield the best job he ever had in his life because it allowed him to travel the state and hunt and fish.
His fishing passion is what drew him to retire in Pinehurst, where he says North Carolina has excellent trout fishing up in the mountains and some of the finest in-shore salt water fly fishing on either coast.
Rhody said we all live stories – those known by us and told by others.
“It is a shame to let these stories be lost. We must tell them. Writing, although it requires discipline, is one the best ways to do it.”
As for unraveling the unexplained ashes stuffed down a dead woman’s throat in Frankfort – the place to begin, Rhody writes, is at the Hockensmith place on Leestown Pike, after a left turn on a gravel road about a mile from U.S. 60.
At least that’s where Theo is sent in “A Mouthful of Ashes.”
More information is available about Rhody and his novels on his blog at www.ronrhody.com.