A Visit With Fred Rigsby, One
Of Kentucky's Few Centenarians
Boyd Countian Has 100 Years Chocked Full Of
Wonderful Memories And A Pride That Has Not Diminished
By Thomas Heaberlin - 2005
Fred Rigsby is a resident of the Kings Daughters and Sons Home For Aged Men and Women in Ashland, Boyd County, Kentucky. Residents of these homes are usually less than 100 years old, and we are not privileged to meet many at the age of 100 or over in a lifetime, but my visit to see Mr. Rigsby was one of those rare privileges.
I was taken to his room by one of the staff. She opened his door and gently awakened him. Slowly he sat up. The lady announced to him that he had a visitor. He looked at me for a moment and then with a familiar smile reached out his hand. He greeted me with one word, "Tom," then motioned me to a chair. It was January 18, 2005, Fred was 100 years old that day.
Fred is a retiree of the Ashland, Kentucky, school system. During his retirement he taught oil painting in his home, and I am one of his former art students; so we reminisced for a while. I remembered a story he once told me. When I mentioned it to him his face lit up. It was a story of an experience he had when he was a small boy. For the next ten minutes he related the story again. It was like looking into a window of the childhood of a centenarian.
Fred's mother had told him many times that he must not go to the river. Ashland is on the Ohio River, and it was a great temptation for the boys of Ashland to swim there. It was a challenge for the older boys to swim across to the Ohio shore and back. It gave them bragging rights if they accomplished the feat. Many old men living today made that dangerous swim when they were boys.
The river is treacherous. The heavy tugboat traffic, sand bars, and swirling drifts gave mothers plenty reason to be concerned. Many narrow escapes and several drownings occurred along the Ashland shore.
Fred had a great desire to just one time take a dip in the forbidden river, but he was an obedient son; that is, until one day three of his friends came by on their way for a swim. They persuaded him to go along. Fred's conscience was troubling him, but when they came to the river and his three friends dived into the water Fred could resist no longer, so he stepped in. Fred said, "As quick as I stepped in I thought of my mother's warning and my Sunday School class. I made a weak defense of my actions. I said, 'Lord, I want to play around a while.' So I waded on.
"There was a raft of logs ahead of me. I could not swim well, but I thought I could dive out to the logs then I would be safe, so into the deep water I dived. When I came up I had gone too far and my head bumped the bottom of a log. I came up again and bumped another log, then again. By this time I was scared and out of oxygen. I said, 'Oh Lord, I know I am going to die. My mother told me to not come here. I'm sorry, Lord. This is not your fault.' At that instant my head came up between two logs. That little space saved my life. The Lord had provided a way for me to live.
"I held onto a log and paddled to shore, but I was so weak I could not walk. I had to lie down and rest a while. When I was strong enough I ran all the way home and went to my room. I was afraid to tell my mother at that time. That experience has stayed with me all of my life, and it is still so clear to me."
As a teenager in the Rigsby home money was a scarce item. Being an older sibling in a large family Fred's father told him it would be best if he would get a job to help support the others.
Fred was hired at a local mill. His job paid 20 cents per hour. This helped, but allowed for nothing extra. The job took Fred out of school part-time, resulting in a need for five years to complete high school.
Upon graduation in 1926 Fred was presented the annual Pollock Award. The award was for being chosen the most well-rounded male student in the Ashland school system.
Fred entered Union College at Barbourville, Knox County, Kentucky, on a football scholarship, having excelled in football and basketball in the Ashland school athletic program. He played four years for the Union Bulldogs; one year as halfback and three years as quarterback. He was described by the college as one of the best tacklers that Union College ever had. His sportsmanship and skill were of such an excellent blend that even opponents held him in high esteem. He missed only one game in the four years. To help with his depleted finances he refereed a basketball game at Corbin, Kentucky. His coach didn't understand and kept him out of one game as disciplinary action.
Fred graduated from Union College in 1930 with a major in chemistry and a minor in English. In 1937 he earned a masters degree at the University of Kentucky.
Coming home to Ashland to his alma mater he began a career in education, teaching, and coaching at Coles Junior High. Later he became principal of Condit Elementary and Putman Junior High.
As Fred and I continued our visit he said, "One evening at a teachers meeting I saw this pretty young lady." His eyes brightened and he continued, "Students catch onto everything and they noticed my interest in Mildred, and they didn't let anything pass without announcing it to everyone." Soon Fred and Mildred were married. It was a long and happy union, but Fred is alone now, except for a daughter and three grandchildren who live out of state.
Fred's philosophy of life is, "Keep busy doing something constructive and never quit." He looked at me and said, "Don't ever quit driving." He misses driving.
After retirement he turned his basement into an oil painting studio, and for the next 20-some years he taught the young and the old how to use a paint brush. Even into his 90s he was still the master.
When one of the would-be artists painted themselves into a problem Fred would take their brush and in a moment another ruined canvas was salvaged.
Fred's energy and positive attitude amazed us. One day he told us his secret. He said, "When I have a birthday I just take off 20 years."
Once when we were painting a wasp was buzzing overhead. Someone said, "Kill it," but Fred said, "I will take it outside. Who knows he may be the last of his kind." He had respect for all life.
Fred's love for Union College prompted him to give the school an unusual gift. In 1981 he started saving pennies. He said he thought he would start picking up pennies here and there until he had 50,000, but after 22 years his collection had grown to 67,000. In 1993 he donated them all to the college.
Fred was inducted into two halls of fame: the Ashland High School "Tomcat" Hall of Fame and the Union "Bulldog" Hall of Fame.
The former athlete now moves very slowly and with caution, but his stature is still that of a football quarterback
The "Golden Years" are nothing new to Mr. Rigsby. He has had 100 of them, all chocked full of wonderful memories.
When it was time to leave, I asked Fred if I could take a picture. He said, "Yes, but let me get in a better position." I placed a pillow behind him, and he straightened his shirt; still mindful of his appearance. He has a pride that one hundred years can not diminish; or is it 120?
Thomas W. Heaberlin, 503 Virginia Street, Wurtland, KY 41144, shares this article with our readers.