Showcasing the Arts

Milner Award

James M. Gifford

Boyd County

Dr. James M. Gifford is the CEO and senior editor of the Jesse Stuart Foundation, a nonprofit publishing organization established in 1979 to manage Stuart’s literary estate and to promote educational and cultural programs relevant to the late author’s life and works. Gifford received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Maryville College, a Master of Arts degree from Middle Tennessee State University, and a doctorate in history from the University of Georgia. He has won professional awards as a teacher, author, editor and publisher. Gifford and his small staff have published more than 155 books, including Appalachian classics from Allan W. Eckert, Billy C. Clark, Harry M. Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Loyal Jones, Edwina Pendarvis and, of course, Jesse Stuart. Gifford has made more than 500 public presentations and published more than 50 magazine and journal articles, along with hundreds of newspaper articles. In the last decade, Gifford has authored or edited eight books, including biographies of Jesse Stuart and a biography of Sgt. Willie Sandlin, the only Kentuckian to receive the Medal of Honor during World War I. For more than four decades, Gifford has played a leadership role in promoting the history, literature and culture of Appalachia. In the late 1970s, Gifford declined an editorial appointment at Yale University because of his commitment to the people and institutions of Appalachia. In a recent article, he reflected on his life’s work: “The Jesse Stuart Foundation has become a sensitive interpreter of the hopes, dreams, and accomplishments of a great regional people. We have become your voice, too, speaking your unspoken thoughts, dreaming with you about things you had never hoped to realize, and stirring ambitions within you that had long been dormant in your soul. That’s what books do.”

What do you see as your role in promoting Kentucky art and creativity?

I have been promoting Kentucky and Appalachian literary arts for more than 40 years. When I accepted the leadership role of the Jesse Stuart foundation, many Appalachian books were out of print. On my watch, we have edited and republished many of the classics, including “The Thread That Runs So True” by Jesse Stuart; “A Long Row to Hoe” by Billy C. Clark; “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” by Harry M. Caudill; “The Frontiersmen” by Allan W. Eckert; “Simon Kenton, Kentucky Scout” by Thomas D. Clark; and many more books that provide Kentucky and Appalachian children and adults with a more prideful sense of their history and heritage.

Why do you believe the arts are important?

Arts engage hearts. Much of the information provided to the public comes at an intellectual level, but the arts allow us to reach people at a more personal and more human level. As a historian, I know from firsthand experience that poetry, music, visual arts, crafts, dramas and videos provide lessons that are every bit as important as the lessons we learn from books and lectures. People learn by doing rather than observing. The arts allow us to engage the general public at a more active and involved level.