Guest columnist: Sad to see tower go, hopeful about Frankfort’s future

By Charles Pearl

Contributing writer

When the Pearl family moved to Frankfort in 1988, we lived in a two-story, stone house on St. Clair Street, right behind the then-Farnham Dudgeon Civic Center. It was almost in the shadow of the Capital Plaza Tower.

I walked to work. My office was on the fifth floor of the tower, with a nice view of the Capitol in the distance. I worked in the communications office for the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet. Having a background in small-town journalism, my new job was primarily answering reporters’ questions about statewide environmental issues. I quickly found out it’s much easier asking the questions than giving the answers.

Veda Jewell, secretary for the communications office, was always nice and tried to help me understand how state government operates. We laughed a lot and she probably thought I was a hopeless case.

I liked Art Williams, first general counsel for the cabinet and later commissioner of the Department for Environmental Protection. He was one of the smartest people I have met. He had a polite and patient way of translating complex environmental issues into a language the general public could understand.

My best memories of working in the tower were the days I was out of the tower, flying in small planes with Cabinet Secretary Carl Bradley when he was speaking to a civic group in Paducah or to coal executives in Prestonsburg. One time, a speaking engagement in eastern Kentucky was canceled because it was too foggy for the plane to land in the mountains.

Another assignment I enjoyed was flying in a helicopter to take aerial photos of the worst landfills in the commonwealth. It was during Gov. Wallace Wilkinson’s administration that more stringent landfill regulations were enacted to protect the land, water and air.

In the shadow of the tower was where my son, Kevin Pearl, a Second Street School student, got his inspiration to enter a contest in Sports Illustrated for Kids. He was one of the winners in a Foot Locker “Who Did It First Contest.”

In his entry, he said, “We were playing street Football. I pitched the ball to my tailback and dashed out for a pass. I caught it, turned, and smash! I was tackled by a street pole.”

In the December 1989 issue of SI for Kids – with the Lakers’ Magic Johnson in a sleigh with two children on the cover – there’s an illustration depicting Kevin getting tackled by the street pole.

He was always playing football in the Capital Plaza area with Quincy Thurman, Bill Bob Ward, Brad Franklin and Corey House.

Daughter Charlsie Pearl, a three-year starter for Frankfort High’s basketball team, occasionally got to play inside the civic center in tournaments. The civic center – and later Frankfort Convention Center – gymnasium was always my favorite place to watch basketball games, not those larger arenas in Lexington and Louisville.

After working in the tower a year-and-a-half, I moved to the Department for Environmental Protection on Reilly Road.

When the Wilkinson administration was winding down, I returned to community journalism and eventually found my way back to Frankfort, the best place I’ve ever lived.

While working at The State Journal, I returned to the tower several times to interview people for stories. The most memorable ones were:

• On Sept. 11, 2001 – one of the saddest days in U.S. history – I talked with NREP Cabinet Secretary James Bickford near the ground-floor entrance of the locked-down tower. A retired brigadier general with 32 years of service in the Army, Bickford worked two years in the Pentagon and 10 years in Washington, D.C.

“This really hurts because it’s an attack on our homeland,” he said. “I’ve heard people comparing it to Pearl Harbor, but it’s actually much worse than Pearl Harbor because civilians are involved. This is pure terrorism.”

In October 2002, Bickford died of cancer at age 65.

• In March 2005, I returned to the fifth floor of the tower to interview the energetic LaJuana Wilcher, secretary of the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet in Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s administration. For the in-depth story, I also spent a Saturday with Wilcher at her 103-acre farm near Bowling Green.

• On June 23, 2010, a group of 15 had gathered at the top of the tower to witness the banding ritual of two, young Peregrine falcons. But the two chicks – the first born in the manmade nest box on the balcony of the 24th floor – chose not to cooperate.

I love living near downtown Frankfort. I could see the top third of the tower from my front yard, and at the opposite end of the street, there’s a splendid view of the tower and the historic buildings of downtown.

I gathered with neighbors, family and friends Sunday to watch the tower crumble. I’m sad but also hopeful that downtown Frankfort’s best days are ahead. I plan to witness it happening.

Charles Pearl is a contributing writer for The State Journal. Email him at charleswpearl@gmail.com.

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