I love genealogy, but I’m amused by the old joke: “How many genealogists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Four. One to change the bulb; three to talk about how great the old one was.”

A recent Kentucky trip connected me to my once-illustrious great-great-great-great-grandfather in a deeply personal way. Laurie and I visited three of his homes, plus his impressive burial site.

He was William Owsley, 1782-1862, a schoolteacher, lawyer, appeals court judge, Kentucky state senator, Kentucky secretary of state, and governor of Kentucky from 1844-48. Owsley County is named after him.

I came to know of him through my mother’s mother. Granny grew up in the house that still stands at 1616 N. Vermilion St. Her maternal grandmother lived next door.

That grandmother, Susan Goodloe Johnson, was the granddaughter of Gov. Owsley. She liked to recall her “coming out ball” at age 16, in 1845. It was held in the Governor’s Mansion in Frankfort.

I made sure we visited that house, now called the “Old Governor’s Mansion,” at 420 High St. Now it is the official residence of the lieutenant governor. In my mind’s eye, I could picture the young Miss Goodloe, dressed to the nines, welcoming friends to her debutante party there. Grandfather Owsley, the governor, surely enjoyed playing host.

A few blocks away, at 314 W. Main St., is the stately brick house where William Owsley lived from 1835 until being elected governor. It’s used for law offices now.

Next stop was Lancaster, a few miles south in Garrard County. On U.S. 27, a half-mile outside town, sits “Pleasant Retreat,” William Owsley’s home when he was a young, up-and-coming lawyer and the father of six. It’s brick, built in 1804 in the Georgian style, with a pillared front porch that once was the focal point of a 400-acre farm. My great-great-great-grandmother, Almira Owsley Goodloe, was born there in 1808. It was restored by a local historical society in the 1990s for museum use. It’s now a venue for weddings and parties.

The last stop on the Owsley tour took my ever-patient wife and me to Bellevue Cemetery in nearby Danville, Kentucky. Following directions provided by a city employee, we found the limestone obelisk, roughly 15 feet tall, that marks the graves of William Owsley and his wife, Elizabeth Gill. The two married in 1803 when William was 21 and Elizabeth, nearly 17, was his student in school.

A sculpture of Justice, her eyes blindfolded, adorns one side. The main inscription reads: “WILLIAM OWSLEY … Erected by the State. To The Learned Lawyer, The Upright Judge, The Enlightened Statesman, The Incorruptible Patriot, The Virtuous Citizen, The Honest Man.

“Kentucky cherishes his memory as one of her first born and most illustrious sons and bids her children imitate his noble example.”

Is it silly to be proud of a long-dead ancestor? Could be. But to me, William Owsley was one remarkable light bulb.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at irishhiker@aol.com.

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