Former US ambassador to UN highlights Kentuckians' resiliency during Henderson speech

The resiliency of the people of Eastern Kentucky in the face of catastrophic flooding as well as keys to leadership were two themes that Kentuckian Kelly Craft, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, struck when speaking to a Henderson audience recently.

Craft, a native of Lexington who grew up in Glasgow and was appointed by President Donald Trump as ambassador to the U.N. from 2019 to 2021, spoke to the Henderson Leadership Initiative class and invited guests at the Preston Arts Center on Aug. 19.

“This is the thing I’ve found in Eastern Kentucky — we try to go every week (since severe storms in late July turned streams and rivers into raging walls of destructive power) — is the resilience of the people,” Craft said while being interviewed on stage by Gibbs Die Casting Corp. CEO Greg Risch, a 2007 graduate of HLI. “Some of these people lost everything but are willing to help others.”

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She said there have been calls from some to have Eastern Kentucky residents abandon the mountain hollows and river valleys that people in Appalachia have occupied for centuries. But Craft — whose husband, coal magnate Joe Craft, is a native of Hazard in that region — opposes such suggestions.

“This is their generational land,” she declared.

Floodwaters demolished homes and businesses, washed away vehicles — even fire trucks — and killed 39 people. But, she said, “They didn’t want to let go of their history. Their great-grandmother gave them that land or their grandfather only lived in that house.”

The Crafts partnered with the University of Kentucky basketball program for a televised telethon from Rupp Arena on Aug. 2 to raise money for American Red Cross relief to the region. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the telethon raised $1.4 million in three hours, with the Crafts contributing $1 million, followed by a $350,000 pledged by former UK great Anthony Davis.

“Big Blue Nation, they came, they came out,” Kelly Craft said. “When we brought in young athletes (to man the phones), people would be motivated to call in.”

Risch later asked Craft when she became aware of the concept of leadership.

“I was always attracted to people who made a difference in others’ lives,” she said.

Craft recalled two people in particular: her childhood Sunday school teacher and her father, who she described as “a country veterinarian and farmer” who worked in Barren County.

“My dad was such a giving person,” she said.

Her father would often be called to treat a farmer’s livestock; sometimes, when the farmer was waiting for a test result or a treatment to take effect, Craft’s father would invite the farmer to his home for supper.

“My brother and I always had to give up our seats to our guests” at the dinner table, Craft said.

“I learned to do the right thing and look for the next right thing.”

She urged the HLI class members — mostly young adults who are emerging as community leaders — to be aspirational.

“Always remember, you haven’t lived up to your full potential,” Craft said. “None of us have. I know I haven’t.”

The key, she said, is to focus on what is important.

“Never compare yourself to your girlfriend,” she told the 2022 HLI class, which is mostly female. “Asked if you helped today more than yesterday. Leadership is about character.”

Craft became the first woman appointed as U.S. ambassador to Canada in 2017.

“When President Trump first called me, I said, ‘Are you sure you don’t mean my husband?’” she said.

Others had similar thoughts.

“The second or third week I was in Ottawa, I had dinner with a king and queen,” Craft said. “They kept referring to my husband as the ambassador. I’d just smile,” though she added: “I (wouldn’t) want my successor to have that same (experience).”

Still, she said her time in Ottawa as ambassador to Canada and then in the United Nations afforded her remarkable opportunities.

“I met warlords and kings,” Craft said. “I met women who walked six hours from their village to meet me.”

She described what she called her “bottom-up” approach to stepping into a leadership role.

“The first week (in Ottawa), I had the janitors (who worked in the U.S. embassy there) to lunch,” Craft said. “They thought they were going to be fired. I had a delightful talk with them, and (afterwards) I never had an office so clean in my life.

“I met with the Marines who protected me,” she continued. “I had pizza with them every week. People want to be led by a person who reached out to them.”

When she began her work with the United Nations, “(Former president) George W. Bush told me to meet with the little countries first,” Craft said. “I met with officials from Niger and Uganda and Kenya that had never had a call from the (U.S.) ambassador (to the U.N.).”

She said that paid dividends later when a U.S.-backed plan to resolve tensions on the Turkey-Syria border came before the U.N. Security Council and the plan receives crucial favorable votes from three non-permanent council members from Africa.

Craft spoke of the need to be supportive of women and set good examples.

“Show your sons and grandsons how to treat women,” she advised. “Teach boys how to treat girls on playgrounds. Set that example for your sons.”

As for emerging leaders, she advised, “Have empathy and sympathy, develop your listening skills and always be seeking out knowledge.”

“You want people around you who are smarter than you, but also people who will challenge you,” Craft said.

“Leadership is something that evolves in the tiniest things you do every day,” she said.

As for herself, Craft said, “I focus on being gracious but strong.”

This article originally appeared on Henderson Gleaner: Former UN ambassador praises Kentucky’s resiliency in Henderson speech