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Former Kentucky Governor Paul E. Patton has teamed up with UK Libraries Oral Historian Jeffrey Suchanek to co-author Patton’s memoir, The Coal Miner Who Became Governor, released Nov. 7 by the University Press of Kentucky (UPK). 

Detailing his personal, professional, and political life in Kentucky, the book begins with Patton’s birth in a tenant house in Fallsburg, Kentucky and follows him through his career in the coal industry and his several decades in public office, including two terms as governor (1995–2003).

An oral historian with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, Suchanek has worked for UK Libraries for 35 years, during which time he has carried on the Nunn Center’s long tradition of interviewing Kentucky governors following their time in office. The Nunn Center has conducted oral history projects on the lives and careers of every governor from A. B. “Happy” Chandler to Steven L. Beshear, excepting only Martha Layne Collins, Wallace Wilkinson, Ernie Fletcher, and Matt Bevin. 

Suchanek conducted 52 interviews with Patton over a period of four years, from Sept. 2014 to Sept. 2018. Interview days were long, with a three hour drive to Patton’s home in Pikeville, a three hour interview, and a three hour drive back home. “I know every pothole on the Mountain Parkway,” said Suchanek. “And everyone at my pit stops in Stanton knows me by name.”

“At times over the course of the project, Governor Patton would sort of muse, ‘You know, this could be the foundation of a book,’” said Suchanek. “One day my phone rang and he said, ‘Jeffrey, let’s do that book.’” 

The first order of business was transcribing the 125 hours of interviews recorded over the course of the project, a costly undertaking. “Governor Patton called me up and said, ‘Just tell me how much you need.’ He made a lot of money in the coal business and I thought he was going to fund it himself. I gave him the estimate and he said, ‘All right, I’ll have Skipper Martin raise it,’” Suchanek laughed. Martin is Patton’s former chief of staff. 

The interview transcripts ran to an incredible 3,000 pages. “Governor Patton asked me, ‘How long can this book be?’” Suchanek recalled. “I told him 200-250 pages. He said, ‘Hell, that won’t even get me out of childhood!’”

The task of whittling down the transcript into a first-person narrative fell to Suchanek, who spent three years cutting, trimming, organizing, and polishing the text. “All my weekends, holidays, and vacations went into this book,” he said. “I would send drafted sections to Governor Patton, and he would add additional details where they were needed and run everything by his former staff members and cabinet secretaries for accuracy. It is a really complete and accurate account of his entire administration.” 

As governor, Patton piloted substantial educational reforms, including the creation of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and the establishment of the Bucks for Brains program, a fund that universities use to recruit top researchers and educators. His tenure was also marked by worker’s compensation reform and a reformation of Kentucky's juvenile justice system. 

Patton’s second term ended in controversy, as an extramarital affair and patronage accusations began to dominate the headlines. In the book, Patton addresses the effects of these scandals on his personal and professional life. “This was a much-needed opportunity for Governor Patton to tell his own story his own way,” said Suchanek. 

A first complete draft, totalling 214,000 words, was presented to UPK, who asked that the book be cut down to 150,000. “That was excruciating,” said Suchanek. “We had to leave a lot of great detail on the cutting room floor. But the oral history interviews in the Nunn Center Oral History Collection are the primary and original source.” 

The Coal Miner Who Became Governor also details Patton’s work in the coal industry, his tenure as the chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party, his entrance into public office in 1981 as Pike County judge/executive, and a term as lieutenant governor (1991–1995). Following his political career, Patton served as the University of Pikeville's president and chancellor.

An oral historian by training, Suchanek has conducted over 2,000 oral history interviews over his 35 years at UK Libraries. He specializes in projects that touch on politics, public policy, veterans, and UK history, but has talked to people of all stripes, from every corner of the state. 

“I wish I could talk to everyone,” he said. “What is so magical to me about oral histories is that they are opportunities for people to tell future generations they were here: to say what they did and to show that they mattered. Every time someone dies a whole library burns down. ”

Preparing for each interview takes 6-8 hours, and Suchanek goes into his interviews with 12 pages of questions. Suchanek’s oral history projects have led to two other books, Star-Spangled Hearts: American Women Veterans of World War II, co-authored with his wife Jeanne Ontko Suchanek and published by Broadstone Books in 2011, and Time on Target: The World War II Memoir of William R. Buster, co-edited with William J. Marshall and published by the Kentucky Historical Society in 1999. 

“This is a research institution, and it’s incumbent on me to add to the scholarship of the university when I have an opportunity,” said Suchanek.

As for his favorite out of those 2,000 interviews? “My next one,” he answered with a smile.