“Where Do We Go from Here?” ... Leading for Change.”
It was the theme for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Banquet at EKU and the question that keynote speaker Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton posed to the capacity audience in the Keen Johnson Ballroom.
To answer that forward-looking question, Hampton, the first African-American to hold statewide office in Kentucky, took her listeners on a journey through her own life, one that took shape in the turbulent 1960s in Detroit, Michigan.
For much of her youth, Hampton grew up in a single-parent household headed by her mother. She vividly recalled the words and example of King, especially the civil rights leader’s wish that he would someday see his children judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
“I took that to heart,” she said. “It meant that I couldn’t judge anybody by their skin color, either. My life has been enriched by that philosophy.”
She also cited the courageous example of the Montgomery, Alabama, residents who refused to sit in the back of the bus. “They loved freedom and equality so much they were willing to sacrifice for themselves and their kids.”
Hampton recalled that, in her youth, she was often mocked and teased – about her good grades, her passion for reading, even her eclectic tastes in music. She often wondered, “At what point in my life do I get to just be Jenean? I knew I had a right to chart my own path. I decided to tune out the negative voices.”
After high school, she worked in the automotive industry for five years to help pay for college. She earned a degree in industrial engineering from Wayne State University in 1985 and joined the U.S. Air Force as a computer systems officer, writing code and testing software. Her seven years with the USAF included a tour of duty in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm.
After her military service, Hampton began a 19-year career in the corrugated packaging industry, beginning as a crew supervisor on the production floor and eventually rising to plant manager. While working full time, she also found time to earn an MBA degree from the University of Rochester. “I’m going to take advantage of every educational opportunity I have,” she said, urging the audience, composed largely of EKU students, to do the same.
She first ran (unsuccessfully) for public office in 2014, explaining her entry into political life: “Sometimes you’re screaming at the TV, you see things that need to be improved, and you’re screaming that someone needs to do something. Well, sometimes that someone is you.
“All of you have the power to form your own government, to influence your government, or even become the government,” said Hampton, elected on the Republican ticket this past fall along with Gov. Matt Bevin. “I just have a passion to improve things.”
She also urged the audience to remember the sacrifices of King and others on behalf of future generations.
“I stand on their shoulders,” Hampton said. “I want to make them proud. I have to take advantage of every opportunity.”
That, she said, means maximizing talents – and another gift that all share.
“The most valuable asset you have is your time,” she declared. “How will you spend yours? What will you do with your time?
“The gate to freedom is open,” Hampton concluded. “It’s open to us to walk through it. Where do we go from here? Anywhere you want.”
Two EKU students were honored at the event for their selfless contributions to campus and community. Dylan Bogard received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Student Community Service Award, and Ivonne Gonzalez received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Student Leadership Award.
Also, EKos, a new a capella group at Eastern, performed several musical selections.