Lillian Press, education innovator and KET’s ‘first lady,’ dies at 95 from COVID-19
BY JACK BRAMMER, Lexington Herald-Leader, APRIL 28, 2020 10:23 AM
Lillian Press, who gave a lifetime of public service to her adopted state of Kentucky in the areas of mental health, public education and women in politics, died Sunday night at a hospital in Bellevue, Wash. She was 95.
Her son, Lowell Press, said his mother died of complications from COVID-19. He said she had been quarantined in her room in an assisted living facility for more than a month with the help of caregivers.
Lillian Press moved to Washington state last November to be closer to her son and his family after her husband, O. Leonard Press, founder of the Kentucky Educational Television network, died in Lexington last July at 97.
“Lil Press enriched the lives of so many through her dedicated service to the people of the commonwealth,” said Shae Hopkins, who was hired by Leonard Press in 1986 and became KET’s fourth executive director in 2000. “She worked tirelessly alongside her husband, Len, to establish the state’s public television network, and to us she will always be the first lady of KET.”
Veteran Kentucky journalist Al Smith, whom Len Press tapped to be the first host of KET’s popular public-affairs show “Comment on Kentucky,” was a longtime friend of the couple.
“She was an exceptionally compassionate person who came to Kentucky with her husband to stay for one year but stayed with him in the state and gave the rest of her life to it,” Smith said. “She was as innovative as he was in her mental health work and in the great education program, the Governor’s Scholars.”
The Kentucky Commission on Women’s website said “her achievements have had, and continue to have, lasting impact on the citizens of Kentucky.”
Lillian Henken Press was born in Everett, Mass., and moved with her husband to Kentucky in 1952, where he had accepted a job for one year at the University of Kentucky’s radio department. They had met in graduate school at Boston University and were married in 1947.
She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism, graduating Magna Cum Laude, from Boston University in 1946. She then earned her Master’s in communications from the university.
Lillian Press worked as a newspaper reporter in New England before the couple moved to Kentucky.
Shortly after moving to Lexington, she joined WVLK and was there until 1960, working her way up from copywriter to program director. The couple had their only child in 1961.
In 1964, as a volunteer for the Central Kentucky Mental Health Association, she directed a nine-county survey of Kentucky’s mental health needs and resources. The findings and recommendations were significant factors in the later development of Kentucky’s statewide mental health services.
She then organized and developed Kentucky’s first Regional Mental Health Board.
It and the first Comprehensive Care Centers became the prototypes for a state system of regional centers that was proclaimed “the best in the nation” by the National Institute of Mental Health.
She also was appointed executive assistant to state mental health commissioner Dale Farabee and held that position from 1967 to 1975.
In late 1982, after three years in Washington as special assistant to Appalachian Regional Commission Chairman Al Smith, she was recruited by Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. to organize and direct the new Governor’s Scholars Program.
It was a non-traditional, innovative summer program for Kentucky’s high school seniors who excelled in academics.
In only its second summer, it was heralded as an “Educational Utopia” by the education editor of the New York Times, said Milt Reigelman, a former dean of the program.
“More than just founding it, she created a system that favored the Appalachian and rural counties that most needed it and positioned it so that it could remain insulated from future political ups-and-downs in Frankfort,” said Reigelman, an English professor emeritus at Centre College.
“She was an absolute genius at those kinds of things.”
More than 27,000 have gone through the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars program, with about 1,000 enrolled last year at three college campuses in the state, said Reigelman.
Lillian Press also organized Governor’s schools in 28 states into the National Conference of Governor’s Schools and served as its president from 1987 to 1992, he said.
After 2000, in retirement, she focused on increasing the influence of women in politics. She created in 2003 the Women’s Network.
In 1992, Lillian Press was awarded an honorary degree from Centre College. She was appointed to the Centre College Board of Trustees in 1994 and served on it for 26 years.
In 2004, she received the Martha Layne Collins leadership award from Women Leading Kentucky. The Kentucky Commission on Women unveiled a portrait of Lillian Press in 2010 and hung it in the Capitol along with other historic women of Kentucky.
Lillian Press received an honorary degree from Centre College in 1992 and from the University of Kentucky in 2015. In 2018, she was inducted into the Junior Achievement Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
Longtime friend Smith said Len and Lillian Press were “two of the most valuable people I’ve ever known.
“She was so sweet and dearly loved Kentucky. When she went to Washington state last year, I saw her before she left Kentucky. She was crying. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. She had a sense of finality of what Len and she had done in and for Kentucky.”
Her son, Lowell, said he would read to her four-page, hand-written letters that Smith would write to her every week.
“She so enjoyed them,” he said. “I would sit with her and read them at first, and after quarantine I started reading them to her over the phone.”
Besides her son, Lillian Press is survived by her daughter-in-law Sasha Stoneman Press and two grandsons, Logan Press and Hayden Press, all of Bellevue, Wash.
A memorial service for her will be held later.
Tributes from members and friends of The Women’s Network:
Governor Andy Beshear: The Governor noted with grief that Lillian Press, who died out of state on Sunday night, was a personal friend of his who had a great, positive influence on his life.
“She was 95 years old, but let me tell you: she was healthy, she was sharp,” the Governor said. “She’s really special and she had more years that she should have been able to give to us.”
He noted that Lillian Press organized and directed the Governor’s Scholarship Program.
“More than a decade after she made it happen, it was something that changed my life, that changed the course of how I felt about myself and how I interacted with others,” Gov. Beshear said. “She did get to see the first person who graduated from the Governor’s Scholar Program become a governor. I’m very proud of that, and I know she was too, because I had an opportunity to talk to her after the election.”
Donna Moore Campbell: We are so fortunate to have had Len and Lil Press make Kentucky their home. She stood beside him as he established and nurtured KET all the while she was improving lives through the creation of the Comprehensive Care Centers, the Governor’s Scholars Program and The Women’s Network – Advocates for Democratic Principles. We will miss her.
Virginia Woodward: Kentucky is the better for having had Lil and Len Press in our midst all these years
Lois Combs Weinberg: Lil was a giant in a small body. Our final visit was priceless and one to cherish. She soon will be with Len.
Jane E. Graham: I’m without words.
Barbara Hadley Smith: Precious people, both Lil and Len! I am grateful to have known them and worked with them. They are irreplaceable! All of us benefited from their presence here!
Virginia Johnson: A sad day for Kentucky. Lil was a jewel and a blessing for all of us.
Joan Gregory: I shall miss a world without Lil. Having been amongst the first teacher group (yes, they used to have a GSP program for teachers along with the students), I knew when Lil addressed the teachers in 1985, that she was an extraordinary person. Being able to personally know her 20 years later has been one of the highlights of my life. She always made you feel important and I loved her. She and Len certainly made our commonwealth wealthier is so many ways.
Nancy Hoffman: Lil was one of a kind and will be missed.
Tracy Harkins: Lil made a huge difference in our Commonwealth.
Brenda McClanahan: I am heartbroken. Lil was one of those special people who, like Len, touched so many lives. We are all better for having known both of them.
Patty Collins: Len and Lil impacted our world with wisdom, knowledge and grace. I loved them dearly. Rest In Peace.
Ann Garrity: I first met Lil Press through the new Governors Scholars Program when I worked for the UK Chancellor and served as his liaison to her to ensure the students and faculty got what they needed from the University. Lil Press had high standards, as we all know, and I worked with admiration and a little awe to facilitate her requests.
Some years later, we became further acquainted while working on FLOW, Lexington’s citizen campaign to buy the water company. Both she and Len were passionate about the issue.
Then, while railing to Ruth Straus one night about President Bush II, she told me I should look into this new group that Lil Press was forming called The Women’s Network. Being newly retired, I sent Lil an email saying I wanted to join and I could devote as much as 10 hours a week to campaign to beat Bush. And the rest is history…
Lil was a guiding light and role model to me. I will remain fond of her forever and am so grateful our life-paths intersecting.
It is appropriate and just that her portrait is in the Kentucky Women Remembered Collection of the KY Commission on Women. Yes, a giant of a woman in a small body.
Josh Monroe: Lil and Len kept going no matter their age or condition. I remember being shocked when she said she Ubered to an event a couple years ago. I had been wondering about her for some time. This is sad news, but at least I know they’re together again.
Transportation Secretary Jim Gray: Lillian Press gave so much to the people of Kentucky. Among other great things, she was known for her groundbreaking work establishing the Governor’s Scholars Program and developing the state’s first Regional Mental Health Board. But she was mostly known for her extraordinary compassion.
Col Owens: I met Lil and Len Press while serving on the Prichard Committee many years ago. They were both legends, and Milly and I adored them. Discovering we were fellow Boston University graduates was fun. They left BU to come to Kentucky, where Len eventually founded Kentucky Educational Television and led it for many years.
Among the many wonderful things Lil was to found and administer was the Governor’s Scholars program for high school students, to help prepare them for citizenship and leadership. Both of my kids participated in it, and greatly benefited from it.
Lil also founded the Women’s Network, an organization that works to elect progressive candidates to public office. The Network established the Commonwealth Institute for Policy Studies and Civic Engagement, a think tank which develops white papers about issues before the Kentucky General Assembly. I was privileged to serve on the Board of Fellows for a number of years, and got to know both of them even better in that work.
Lil and Len were the embodiment of good citizens and good people. That she has now joined Len in the company of saints is both a sad and joyous occasion. Their example will always be before us, about how to live a fulfilled life for others.
Mayor Linda Gorton: I’m so saddened to hear of the recent death of Lil Press. Lil and her late husband, Len, were critical to the formation of KET – Kentucky Educational Television. She also committed her life to serving others, supporting organizations focused on mental health, education, and the success of women. We have her family and friends in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.
Paula Lewis: Lil was a pioneer and the epitome of a true public servant. She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her. Like so many others, I will be forever grateful to have know know Lil. She is now with her beloved Len.
Marty Lanus: Can you imagine she and Len married to anyone else? Ever?
Rep. Kelly Flood: Legendary lady of class, caring, courage, Lil Press dies of COVID-19. Our hearts weigh heavy from this loss, from all the loss. Be brave, she would tell us. And, care.
Chris Kellogg: A bright light of a human being. May her spirit shine as brightly! Such charm and determination.
Brandy Bailey: This is truly heartbreaking news. Lillian Press was an incredible woman. She will be sorely missed.
Kathy W. Stein: Lil Press was a remarkable person. She and Len contributed immeasurably to our Commonwealth and their gifts will continue to enrich our lives each day. I will cherish the many happy hours I was lucky to spend with them. Lil’s intellectual and moral strength are unmatched by anyone I have known. Rest In Peace Lil with your beloved Len. Your memory will be for a blessing.
Nancy Jo Kemper: Amen. What an incredible woman, and what a wonderful pair she and Len were. We are all better for having known them. As I have gotten older, she has been an inspiration to me to continue to look for ways to be of service no matter how old I get to be. She never stopped. I hope never to stop. Thank you, Lillian (and Len!).
Janet Holloway: Lil took me under her wing when I moved here in 1990. So blessed for the time I had with her and Len.
Jane Sparks Tatum: Sad – a great Kentuckian.
David ONeill: Lil Press was an absolute treasure. My deepest condolences to her family. I hope her passing was as comfortable and peaceful as possible.
Fayette County Democratic Party Chair Clint Morris: Lil Press was a champion for Democracy. She worked tirelessly to educate, engage and activate her fellow Kentuckians. Lil had this amazing gift to inspire others to find their own voices and agency – and to make a difference. She believed deeply in our Democratic Party values of equality, fairness, and opportunity and she lived each day striving to bring those values to fruition for people everywhere. We are a better Commonwealth because of the life she lived. She will be missed.
Tom Eblen: Lil Press was a wonderful lady and a great Kentuckian. She and her husband, Len, did so much for their adopted state. They are greatly missed.
Bill Garmer Lillian was a great lady and a great Kentuckian . The world is a sadder place without Lillian’s presence among us. She was a dear friend of Kim and mine.
Beth Lowe What a life well-lived. It was a great privilege to have known her through my teaching in Kentucky’s Governor’s Scholar Program.
Tom Martin A great lady. She was brilliant, very determined and a joy to be around.
Richard Dawahare Love Lil and Len, always so positive and encouraging. A heavenly reunion awaits, but until then let us continue their quest for justice and peace for ALL.
Bobbie Ann Mason This is sad news. When I lived in Pennsylvania in the 1980s, Lil and Len welcomed me back to Kentucky through the Governor’s School for the Arts and on other occasions. They were such vibrant presences, so engaged with arts and education.
Andrea Ewen: Lil was such a wonderful lady. I always enjoyed the times we got to chat. She created a great organization, The Women’s Network – Kentucky, was an amazing leader, and someone who truly cared about her community and state. She always donated funds for our Christmas families that we sponsored, and was such an inspiration. Lil will be greatly missed!
Mary Helen Huddleston Miller: A truly remarkable person!