Saturday, June 4, 2016


The exemplary life’s work of each of this year’s four Crittenden County Distinguished Alumni inducted last month involves careers in justice, technology research, broadcasting and business. This year’s inductees Judge Jerry Brown and Dr. Andrew Mason exemplify the very best of ambition, drive and hard work. Posthumous inductees Bob Swisher and Juanita Burks each shared a lifetime of contributions already recorded in history. All were recognized at a private luncheon May 27 and again at commencement ceremonies at Rocket Arena.

Burks blazed trail for minority women in business

Juanita Burks embodied all the traits that made her generation the greatest of all American generations – hard work, dedication, perseverance and self-sacrifice. For that, and her success as a pioneering Louisville businesswoman, the Marion native is being honored posthumously Friday as the first minority inductee as a Crittenden County Distinguished Alumnus.

Born on July 2, 1920, she entered into a segregated Southern society still influenced by Jim Crow laws, even in Crittenden County, where racial tensions were virtually non-existant. As an African-American, she was not allowed to attend high school locally. Instead, she was forced to find transporation out of town each day on a farm truck in order to complete her secondary education at Dotson High School, a school for blacks in Princeton.

“She had to catch a ride on a slop truck,” said her son Ish Burks, a retired Army colonel, former Kentucky State Police Commissioner and current academic coordinator for the criminal justice department at Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville.

Marion High School was not integrated until 1955, long after Juanita had started a new life and family in Louisville. But she never let the separate and unequal opportunities for blacks in that era become a barrier to success later in life. And her son said the family was never allowed to dwell on issues of discrimination.

“They understood,” Ish said of his mother and father, for whom he was named. “Those were the times we lived in. They never showed any sense of bitterness.”

Ish said his mom enjoyed her life growing up in Crittenden County. Though he was born in Louisville, Ish, 71, would spend his summers as a youth in Marion with his grandparents, Allen and Donna Farley. He, too, has only fond recollections of Marion.

After graduating high school, Juanita attended the historically black Kentucky State University in Frankfort, but things did not work out. She married and moved to Louisville, and like so many other women during World War II, she went to work in a munitions factory. For a period, she worked as a domestic and even an elevator operator to help put all three of her children through college.

That’s just what good parents do, said Ish, who plans to attend Friday’s Distinguished Alumni luncheon at Rocket Arena.

“They always wanted more for their family,” he said of his parents. “They always made sure we had good things.”

After putting her last child through college, Juanita herself returned to the halls of higher education, taking business courses at the University of Louisville, where she would later serve on the board of trustees. She parlayed that education into a series of successful ventures around Louisville. Most notably, at the age of 60, she founded J.P. Burks Construction, which won contracts for work at iconic Louisville sites.

“Over 20 years later, she continued to work 12-hour days. Her company supplied glass for the expansion of the south wing of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center and was awarded a $193,000 contract to supply sprinklers for the renovation of Churchill Downs,” her entry in “The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia” reads.

Six years before establishing her construction company, Juanita and Ishmon Sr. mortgaged their home and took out a federal small business loan in order to open a personnel recruitment service that paired minority workers with Fortune 500 companies. “Her later business ventures included a nursing business, an alcoholic beverage distributorship, a stop-smoking center and a shoe store," her encyclopedia entry continues.

She even sold insurance door-to-door.

“It takes a certain knack to do that,” Ish said with a chuckle.

Juanita was appointed by Gov. Julian Carroll in the late 1970s to President Jimmy Carter’s energy board. She earned the Woman of Achievement award from the Business and Professional Women of River City in 1983, became a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, raised diabetes awareness and at 76, was named the 1996 Kentucky Entrepreneur of the Year.

In her mid-80s, her Encyclopedia entry tells, Juanita claimed, “As long as I got breath in my body I’m going to be doing something.”

“We had to literally pull her out of her office (to get her to retire),” Ish added.

The son said he is most proud of the work ethic his mother exhibited and instilled in her three children.

“I’m 71 and still working full time,” he added. “I’m only doing what I saw. I’m very thankful for those values.”

Ish said his mother’s impact lives on today, two years after her death.

“I cannot walk down the street that somebody doesn’t stop me – primarily black people – and ask if I’m her son,” he explained. “They’ll tell me, ‘Your mother helped me so much. She was such an inspiration.’ I get it all the time.”

What is the Distinguished Alumni honor?
The Crittenden County Distinguished Alumni honor was created in 2010 as a means to recognize accomplished men and women who earned their public education in Crittenden County schools. Recipients of the award must have completed their education at Crittenden County High School or one of the other secondary schools that once existed in the county. Special consideration is given to individuals for whom a high school education was not available here at the time. Selections for the Distinguished Alumni honor are determined by educational, professional and community service accomplishments.

Previous winners are:

  • Kenneth Winters
  • Albert Michael Crider
  • Forrest Carlisle Pogue*
  • F. Julius Fohs*
  • Ollie M. James*
  • Scott Campbell
  • Trish Milburn
  • Jim Hatfield*
  • Johnny Rushing
  • Jeff McKenney
  • David Newcom
  • Helen Moore
  • C.S. "Clem" Nunn*
  • W.A. Franklin
  • Stephanie Kelly