Every time it snows in Louisville, even when it just gets cold and doesn’t snow, everyone talks about how unusual it is, how amazing, how odd. But it really isn’t.
I have spent the last 63 winters, here, or nearby, and most of those have had plenty of wintry weather. What is different about Louisville is that nobody here ever expects there to be ice, or snow, or sub-zero temperatures. We always have this myth that we are in Natchez or Tallahassee, which is —shall I say?—idiotic.
Of course, it is totally consistent with Louisville’s schizophrenic history and geography. Perched right on the border between the North and the South, we are neither. Financially we are much more attuned to the Midwest and the East. Culturally, we are definitely Eastern, as Martha R. Heyburn, grandmother of the federal judge, reminded me in a very stern lecture the week I became the opinion editor of The Courier-Journal in 1986. She was quite right, I think, although the passage of time seems to have weakened that bond somewhat.
But Louisville has had a sentimental and generally foolish dream to also be part of the Old South, for all of its strengths and with none of its weaknesses. It’s strengths? A kind of gentility and warmth, much of which has been perpetuated by the antebellum charm in the early reels of “Gone With the Wind”—which was made some 75 years ago. What bears more resemblance to Louisville are the later reels, the scenes where Scarlett and Rhett rebuild their lives in post-war Atlanta. They don’t care whether they do business with former Confederates or with carpetbagging Yankees. They’re out to survive, and to make money.
That was the story of Louisville in the late 19th Century, and indeed, it’s been our history since the first settlers braved floods, cholera and smallpox, not to mention starvation. This has been a city of merchants, a city of commerce, and so it remains despite the ups and downs of the last 40 years or so.
Now, back to the weather. I remember back in the 1960s, the late publisher of The Courier-Journal, Barry Bingham Sr., wrote an evocative Editorial Notebook with the headline, “Where Are the Snows of Yesterday?” In it, he recalled the bitter winter of 1918, when snow after snow accumulated and turned the city into a winter wonderland. In those days, when people relied upon streetcars and coal furnaces, things seemed to purr along even with the accumulation of snow. There’s a warm and cozy feeling about his memories of Old Louisville that winter.
In my own life there have been several winters of great note. Jack Welch of Louisville Magazine has done a splendid remembrance of three of these in the January issue. This is the 20th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’94, which was one of those surprises that seem to happen from time to time in the Ohio Valley when a front just gets lodged here—and stops—dumping rain or snow or wind or what have you on Metro Louisville.
On the night of Jan. 16, 1994, we all went to bed aware that a substantial snowstorm was coming. My two children—then barely six and the other 11, woke to see snow so deep you couldn’t determine where the bushes were out the front windows. That was Monday morning, Jan. 17, and for the next week virtually everything in Louisville came to a standstill. But not for me. As an editor of The Courier-Journal, I was an essential employee. And since these were still the days before electronic delivery, iPads and the like, it was all-on-deck.
My own car was snugly in the garage, so snugly that I could not even open the door to get it out. What to do? I called David Hawpe, the executive editor, who said he would stop for me—he lived in Anchorage and had a truck. Well, there was a lot on all of our minds and, guess what? David drove merrily downtown behind the snowplows but forgot to pick me up. Shortly after, Nick Anderson, our young cartoonist, was dispatched from town in his Jeep to get me. I walked to the corner of Wolf Pen Branch Road where he picked me up. From then on, it was one adventure after another. Like the next day, when the hotels in Louisville—filled with folks who couldn’t drive home because of the snow—began to run out of food. You see, the interstates had closed by order of the governor and to make matters worse, Standiford Field (as Louisville International Airport was known at the time) was also closed, meaning UPS planes were grounded.
Things got really grim later in the week when the milk supply ran short. With two children at home (as well as the daughter of dear friends who had come to spend the night the day the storm began) it was a sobering experience. After the first morning, I got into a carpool arrangement with our senior cartoonist, Hugh Haynie, a genteel Virginian who would make stops every evening at the liquor store for Old Forester and at the Convenient Food Mart for whatever I could scrounge up for our family.
In many ways, however, an even worse winter occurred in 1978, when 15.7 inches of snow fell between Jan. 16 and 17. I was still a bachelor in those days, living in a high-rise apartment in the Cherokee Triangle and trying to balance daytime life as an editorial writer and night law school. Even when the weather was good, it was a challenge.
But the snow was amazing. It was just one of several big storms that winter, which began in mid-December (just as law school finals were getting underway) and continued well into March. In January we had the greatest snowfall for one month in Louisville’s history. Everyone else was getting holidays. In my apartment building, The Willow Terrace, an elegant retired teacher, Mrs. Madeleine Vaughn, invited all the neighbors in for cocktails the first night of the storm. I was by far the youngest, but there was an amazing old world quality about it as the guests told stories about the Blizzard of ’18 and kept warm with all of the fortifications Louisville is famous for. But the next morning, when they could all snuggle in their warm beds, I had to be up and out by 7:15 to get downtown to open all the offices on the Third Floor and deliver page proofs of the afternoon Louisville Times editorial page. My apartment building had an indoor, heated garage, which was wonderful. But my little Datsun 510 (1972 model) was so small it couldn’t get out the door. So I walked up the street to Bardstown Road and waited for a TARC bus, which arrived promptly and took me to the Xixth and Broadway office.
But the storm didn’t let up. By lunchtime, it was coming down harder than ever—and the temperatures were dropping approaching sub-zero levels. The mayor declared the city a disaster area and ordered all workers home. Some reporters would be put up at nearby hotels and others would sleep on cots, but while important in some ways, editorial writers were considered non-essential in this emergency. So I went down to Broadway, where the snow was coming down so hard you couldn’t see across the street, and waited, alone, in a bus shelter. There were no cars. In fact, I believe you could have been arrested for driving that afternoon.
I waited for a time, and then a TARC bus approached. The driver slowly came to a stop on the slippery pavement and opened the door. “Get in!” he ordered. I wasn’t balking. “Where do you live?” he asked me. I noticed the bus was empty but the heater was working as well as ever and it was almost toasty inside. I told him and he barked, “Come on. I’ll take you home.” And so I must have been one of the very few people who for 35 cents, the fare in those days, was chauffeured right to the entrance to my apartment building.
There have been other terrible winter storms. In 2009, we had the ice storm that devastated much of the city only weeks after Hurricane Ike roared through on a September afternoon. I spent a night or two downtown in a hotel but when I returned, my home looked like London after the Blitz. During Christmas 2004, there was a terrible ice storm and later deep snow.
And then, there was the winter of 1963. This one I remember for all sorts of reasons including the fact that I was miserable in school with a seventh grade Core teacher who was a cousin of the Wicked Witch of the West. Normally I loved to go to school, but that winter, any excuse to flee Mrs. Johnson’s clutches was welcome. So snow after snow came as great joys. Our family lived adjacent to the Bullitt Farm (now better known as Oxmoor) and we children took our sleds for long afternoons of fun on the slopes near that historic home. When we came home, my mother had steaming cups of cocoa for us to drink and in the evenings, suppers of pancakes, sausage and bacon. Not especially healthy, but very satisfying. Then there was one morning in January when the temperature dropped to -19. That was a record for the time (surpassed in 1994), but the newspapers made a great deal of it. However, do you think the schools closed that day? Ha! No, it was off to Mrs. Johnson after waiting for the school bus at the corner in my mother’s warm station wagon.
The following summer, when the temperatures were pushing the upper 90s, The Courier-Journal ran a story about a donkey born during that frigid morning. When it turned very, very warm, his tail dropped off!
Last weekend, we missed a big storm by a hair. Indianapolis got zapped. But I have no doubt that one day—perhaps very soon—Louisville will once again enjoy the unpredictable genius of its geography and see the ground covered with snow.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.
He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.
Read his past WFPL commentaries here.