I didn’t really know my grandparents. My grandfather William W. Kirtley “Bill” died decades before I was born, he is pictured below, and my grandmother passed away just a little over 3 years after I entered this world.
What I knew of them most of my life was passed down through “family lore” as they say!
What I did know is I came from a good, loving family, but I only recently came to the humbling realization that BOTH my grandparents might be just a little more than that! You see, my grandfather was one of only 4 attorneys that sought to stop the LAST PUBLIC EXECUTION EVER held in the United States on August 14th, 1936-just 84 years ago!
On August 26th, 2020, the 100th anniversary of the legalization of the woman’s right to vote in the United States, a monument was dedicated in Owensboro honoring my grandmother, Louis Gasser Kirtley.
It’s the first monument or marker of any kind dedicated to a woman in the city of Owensboro, Kentucky I’d venture a guess that it’s one of only a handful of memorials dedicated to a woman anywhere in Kentucky.
Here below is my Mother, Elisabeth Anne Kirtley Jacobs, better known as “Lis”, speaking at the memorial dedication of her very own mother, some 48 years AFTER her mother’s passing.
That was a very surreal and most emotional moment for my Mother!
The memorial recognizes my grandmother’s many firsts as:
- Owensboro’s first female attorney
- Owensboro’s first female judge
- Owensboro’s first woman from Daviess Co. elected to the KY. General Assembly.
Not too shabby!!!!
Pictured below is my Grandmother’s statue up close dedicated on Wed., August 26th, 2020.
Below is one of her framed 1950s campaign posters when she ran for Owensboro’s City Commission.
Who knows maybe Moxie really is a genetic trait? Allow me to digress….
In 2012, her grandson Kirt Jacobs (me) ran for Louisville’s District 8 Metro Council seat. Although a valiant, and energetic race, we were defeated by a longtime incumbent. Yes, “the ol’ Kirtley political genes” of the Kirtley family (where I get my first name Kirt) are still hard at work, even in the 21st-century! My 2012 campaign poster below.
I don’t really have words to describe what it’s like to see your grandmother, a blood-relative you hardly know, recognized in the context of such a powerful and important history.
My grandmother had moxie. Here’s how:
Moxie blazes a trail
My grandmother Louise’s moxie was evident early on. She was valedictorian of her high school class and played on the basketball team. Here is her high school picture
No one knows why she chose to go all the way to the legendary Smith College in Massachusetts to continue her education. Only one of her siblings before her had gone to any college at all, much less such a prestigious institution so far from home. But off she went, returning briefly to attend the University of Kentucky with her only sister Elisabeth. She convinced Elisabeth to return to Smith with her, and both ended up graduating from there in 1926. My grandmother eventually went on to law school at the University of Louisville — one of just two women in her class — and was admitted to the bar in 1931.
Louise and Elisabeth’s adventurous ways continued throughout their lives. Elisabeth lived in France for a year after she graduated from college, and she returned home to become a French teacher. Louise and Elisabeth traveled extensively throughout their lives, even buying a car and driving the historic Route 66 all the way out to California and back with Louise’s children — my mother and her brothers — in tow. Their adventures with the kids over the years took them to Mexico, Canada, Florida, and many places in between. It takes moxie to travel with kids, and my grandmother and great aunt had it. In fact, here is an August, 15th, 2020, letter penned by my Uncle Bill Kirtley.
In the letter, he speaks to his many adventures as a child with two grown women toting around 3 young children-my Mother, his younger, and himself all over the globe in the 1950s! Think about it, no GPS, no fast-food restaurants, and NO air-conditioning in their car! Not only does that take a lot of moxie, but that also takes one helluva alot of patience!
Moxie carries on
The work of a lawyer is to advocate for justice on behalf of the party they represent. At their noblest, attorneys help society come to an agreement on what is right and acceptable. They prod us to have a conversation about how we want our community to work.
Below is a picture of an “infamous” piece of family jewelry-a butterfly broach my Grandmother wore when during her representative role in the KY. General Assembly.
Most days, the conversation is centered around the mundane. They file paperwork, write wills, draw up business agreements, usher adoption papers through the system. But even the most arcane work has a profound impact. The work they do represents the incremental accumulation of wealth, the start of a family, the birth of a dream; all of these actions reverberate down through the generations.
My grandmother’s own interest in the law was perhaps piqued by such a moment. Her parents owned a bakery on Main Street in Owensboro and raised their twelve children in an apartment above. Her father passed away when she was a young child, and her mother turned to an attorney to help her sort through affairs so she could figure out how to run the bakery along with her older sons.
But occasionally the work of the attorney rises above sorting out everyday complications, and the conversation is much larger. Such was the case of Rainey Bethea, the last man to be publicly executed in the United States. His trial took place in 1936.
My grandfather Bill Kirtley was one of the attorneys who represented Bethea. He was opposed to the death penalty and worked to see it abolished. His work did not end when he passed away in 1944. My grandmother, his law partner, carried on their fight as an attorney and as a legislator.
Moxie stands on shoulders and leans on them, too
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother to begin to practice law just twelve short years after women won the right to vote. Less than two decades before, women had no voice in the laws that were made that governed their lives. Now here she was, helping people navigate the law itself.
It was surely powerful to see a woman practicing law. I’m certain she must have faced some discrimination, and perhaps some people would have refused to have her as their attorney because of her gender. But I wonder if her presence made access to representation possible for others, who perhaps because of their circumstances may not have trusted their case in the hands of a man? I wonder, too, if other little girls looked at her and thought to themselves that perhaps they could one day be attorneys, or doctors, or scientists, or … ?
My grandmother was able to achieve all she did because of those before her who made a way. Women like Arabella Mansfield, the first female attorney in the United States (1846–1911), or Sophonisba Breckinridge, the first female attorney in Kentucky (1866–1948).
My grandmother was also able to achieve all she did because she had a strong network around her, too. After the death of my grandfather, she shared a home with her sister. My great aunt was surely a help to her as she raised her children.
Below is the Kirtley family crest
I’ve often observed that moxie has deep roots, and it’s nurtured by the love of friends, families, and encouragers. I’m deeply humbled that my own life is rooted in such moxie and that I’m surrounded by friends and family who encourage me. I hope my life honors each of them, and that I pass on the moxie to the next generation just as it was passed on to me.
Below is my grandmother’s Mary Louise Gasser Kirtley’s obituary:
Owensboro’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owensboro,_Kentucky
Nineteenth Amendment’s Wikipedia Page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution