Small-town Values With A High-tech Twist
Hilda Gay Legg tells a story from this past summer
about her then-16-month-old son that’s also a story about herself:
Toddling in the garden of her family’s Adair County
farm, Dane grabs a tomato and starts eating, smearing dirt on his face and dribbling
juice onto his new wooden-soldier outfit.
But Legg didn’t worry about the dirt or the clothes.
"I want him to know what it’s like to pick a tomato
while it’s still warm and still got dirt on it," says the Kentuckian, confirmed
this fall to head the federal government’s Rural Utilities Service in Washington,
D.C. "I want him to know that sweet, summer, heavy smell we get in our part
of the country from the plowed fields and cut hay."
Legg’s reaction to her messy boy shows the importance
she places on her rural roots and the values you learn growing up in the country.
And Legg’s background adds a high-tech twist to those
small-town values. For the past seven years, as founding executive director and
CEO of The Center for Rural Development in Somerset, she’s brought computer training,
Internet connections, and video conferencing, as well as concerts and plays, to
40 southeastern Kentucky counties.
At a confirmation hearing for her new federal job,
she brought together her background for technology, rural values, and children,
telling a Senate committee she wants her son "to be able to access the world,
and to have the opportunity to develop his talents in that (rural) environment."
Looking back on her life, it seems logical Legg would
wind up heading a federal agency overseeing billions of dollars in loans for rural
electric, telecommunications, and water projects. But the path of her life zigzags
in some unlikely ways from farm girl to administrator of the Agriculture Department’s
Rural Utilities Service.
She grew up on a farm, watching agriculture and politics
work together in a family where her father served on the school board. She says
the farming community lifestyle taught her about the forces of nature and the
miracle and fragility of life, the dependence on neighbors and self-sufficiency
of producing food, and the teamwork required to grow and harvest a crop. And she
learned about not putting in a day’s work, but rather working until the job is
While Legg worked toward a degree from Campbellsville
College, now Campbellsville University, her awareness of rural issues took a large
leap. On a social sciences study trip to Appalachia, she learned about the importance
of seemingly everyday conveniences like indoor plumbing-and what it can mean when
you don’t have them.
For seven years Legg focused on children and education,
teaching social sciences at the Adair County middle and high schools, and as a
student earning a master’s degree in education from Western Kentucky University.
During her teaching years she married and moved to a farm. But another large leap
lay just ahead.
"I loved teaching," Legg says, "but
there was a hunger to do something else."
On a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1981 she applied
for a job with the National Council on the Handicapped in the Department of Education.
They hired her. She says she was like Alice in Wonderland
"I was 29 and wide-eyed," she says. "I
packed up my two-seater car and rented an efficiency apartment in Washington.
I learned so much. It changed my life enormously." In three years she moved
from staff assistant to acting director.
Despite the difficulties of commuting between her job
in Washington and her farm home in Adair County, she’d been bitten hard by the
public policy bug. From now on her rural and education background, her energetic
personality, and her ability to envision large and long-range goals would be used
in politics and public service.
In 1985 Legg coordinated the Reagan/Bush get-out-the-vote
campaign for Kentucky’s 5th congressional district. From 1985 to 1987 she managed
Senator Mitch McConnell’s field office in Bowling Green. She worked as director
of admissions for Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, and from 1990 to 1993 she
held another job in Washington after being appointed by President Bush as alternate
federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
In 1994 John Chowning served on the board looking for
someone to head The Center for Rural Development, which had been funded but was
still two years away from completing construction on its stylish building south
Chowning, who now chairs the board and works full time
at Campbellsville University as vice president for church and external affairs
and executive assistant to the president, says the more time the board spent with
Legg in 1994, the more impressed they became with her passion.
"She has a deep love and affection for Kentucky
and rural America," says Chowning. "She has an enthusiasm that people
get caught up in. And it’s an enthusiasm based on substance." He praises
Legg with phrases like "motivator, team builder, visionary."
The federally funded Center for Rural Development opened
in 1996 to improve the quality of life in 40 southeast Kentucky counties, by promoting
agriculture, economic development, and tourism. The Center’s building houses state-of-the-art
equipment and rooms for conferences, theater, and computer and Internet work.
Chowning says the board knew from the start that improving
the technological abilities of the region had to be a priority of The Center in
order to help the area compete in the global economy. He says Legg picked up on
that mission and "brought it forward faster than any of us could ever have
Legg describes the process that led The Center to focus
on telecommunications as "one of necessity to achieve our mission. It wasn’t
about technology but about how people use it." She says, "We had to
in some way make The Center important to the folks who lived in those other counties
in order to make The Center relevant. We had to be able to connect them without
people having to spend a lot of time on the road."
High-speed Internet lines now connect The Center with
sites in 39 counties. High-tech retraining has focused on medical workers and
coal miners. U. S. Congressman Hal Rogers, who was instrumental in creating and
finding the funding for The Center, said at Legg’s confirmation hearing that The
Center was "created to be a national model for rural economic development
and in fact it has become just that under her leadership."
Legg took a different kind of leap in March 2000 when
she adopted Dane as a newborn. By then she had gone through a divorce, but she
says, "I didn’t want to live my life without experiencing the joy and wonderment
of being a parent."
After a lot of thought about the difficulties of being
a single parent and facing the bureaucracy involved in adoption, she says, "I
decided to stay with my dream. I had to either give up or be very aggressive,
and I can be pretty tenacious when I want to do something."
She calls parenting "the most exhausting thing
I’ve ever tried to do, but so fulfilling beyond words."
In her latest leap Legg and Dane moved to Washington,
where she administers nearly 400 employees in a 66-year-old agency, originally
created as the Rural Electrification Administration to bring electricity to the
countryside when no one else would. In the 1950s the REA added telephone service
to its mission. By the 1990s the agency combined with other rural development
programs, including water and sewer, and telecommunications initiatives. That
combination brought about the name change to the Rural Utilities Service. Today,
the RUS monitors loans to more than 1,800 electric cooperatives and telecommunications
Legg is the first Kentuckian and the first woman to
head the agency.
Attention to the employees of RUS will be among the
priorities Legg will bring to her new job, predicts Allen Anderson, CEO of South
Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative in Somerset, just about a mile up the road
from where Legg worked at The Rural Development Center.
"She has a concern for all employees," says
Anderson, who worked with Legg on local projects. "She makes certain through
the day to notice employees and to encourage and compliment them."
Anderson sees Legg as well-suited to the variety of RUS programs.
"She has a drive to get communication links in rural areas, and she supports
electricity being there," says Anderson. "She believes there’s no reason
for people in rural areas not to have the same opportunities as folks in town."
For her part, Legg finds telecommunications the most
exciting part of the RUS mission, but stresses that electricity and water provide
pieces of the infrastructure essential to a rural quality of life.
"You can’t run computers without electricity,"
she is fond of saying.
Legg concedes that most Kentuckians won’t feel affected
by activities at the RUS, and she says that’s OK.
"What the RUS can do is enable electric co-ops
to do what they want to do and let people go on with their daily lives,"
she says. "If we do our job, they don’t need to know about what RUS is doing."
Still, she sees the RUS mission, especially in potential
new telecommunications initiatives, as one that will make a difference in people’s
"You shouldn’t be disadvantaged because you choose
to live in a rural community," says Legg. "I’m proud of my rural heritage,
and someone has to be at the table with an aggressive, strong, assertive voice
when the decisions are made. I want to be a voice for communities that support
the family, the child, and the whole fabric of rural life."
Hilda Gay Legg
Rural Utilities Service
Born and raised: Adair County, Kentucky
College: B.S., Sociology, Campbellsville College
(now University), Campbellsville; Master’s of Arts in Education, Western Kentucky
University, Bowling Green
Proudest accomplishment: Adopting son Dane
Hobbies: Gardening, travel
Most recent book read/book most frequently read:
Cuba by Stephen Coonts/Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and
Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach
Favorite quotation: "What lies behind us and
what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."-Ralph