June 29th, 2006 by The Lexington Herald-Leader
DPERRY@HERALD-LEADER.COM
CTRUMAN@HERALD-LEADER.COM

Paint Lick straddles the line between Madison and Garrard counties.
It also straddles the line between small town and oblivion.

Without its post office and branch bank, the locals fear their little town would wither away.

Paint Lick is not a population center, but neither is it simply a wide place in the road a few minutes from Richmond and around the bend from Happy Landing. Try 1,100 people scattered around rolling farms and smaller homesteads, with town dogs taken just as seriously as homeowners. Children dot the main street. This little town is not dead yet.

In fact, it is almost defiantly vibrant and picturesque.

Paint Lick is a place where barbecued ribs the size of your forearm are served at the recently reopened Sweet Peas Diner. Traffic is brisk on the two lanes through town, which can be leisurely driven in 20 seconds -- heavy on pickups, with mufflers in operation only sparingly. Volunteers staff the community center, which gives out clothing and appliances and operates a small library. A doctor who felt led to Paint Lick operates a clinic where he specializes in patients left out by high-cost basic care.

Although business is brisk, the town itself moves at a leisurely pace. The influence of the late Dean Cornett is still felt. The Paint Lick activist, who died in 2003, used to tool around in an old Chevy truck adorned with the slogan "Press On Regardless."

Paint Lick presses on.

In the tiny parking lot outside the bank, cattle farmer Roy Noe proudly displays his three dogs, who have come to town with him in his Nissan Frontier pickup, one in the cab, two in the truck bed. They are Smiley, Snoopy and the lushly furred Doodoo, which Noe calls a "coydog" -- a mix of coyote and purple-tongued chow chow. "I love the community I live in," says Noe, who went to Berea College and hasn't strayed far from his home area. "I don't like to travel very much."

On the hill above town lives Bill Deemer, who, although not a native, is painstakingly restoring his airy 19th-century house, where he thinks one of the town's forefathers lived for awhile.

Deemer's house is dubbed the "Big House" by the locals, as in: "I heard the dogs going on about something up at the Big House this morning."

Deemer is proud of his Greek Revival house, launching into an impromptu explanation of the Greek Revival architectural movement in America, "American bond" brick patterns, establishing your home's age via wallpaper discoveries and wolfhound breeding. Deemer might be the Renaissance man of Paint Lick.

These days, Deemer and his wife, Betty, populate the place with dogs -- wolfhounds, who turn out to be palm-licking gentle giants, and smaller but feistier King Charles spaniels. The spaniels' insistent barks can be heard in the town below.

Although the peaks of the town's low buildings are visible from the Big House, the house is not equally visible from the town. Coming up the hill driveway, the appearance of the Big House almost commands you to whistle the theme from Gone With the Wind. It's like seeing Tara unexpectedly rise straight up out of the dirt.

Depending on who's talking, Paint Lick is either (1) the little run of buildings along Ky. 52, which would be "Metro" Paint Lick; or (2) pretty much all the unincorporated land between Berea, Richmond and Lancaster, which would constitute "Greater Paint Lick." And at least one Paint Lick worker, with tongue firmly in cheek, maintains the town boundaries could be manipulated to stretch all the way to Crab Orchard in Lincoln County.

Paint Lick is not one of your high-turnover communities. Many of its residents grew up nearby, and many of them claim to have lived in the neighborhood for at least 20 years.

And some just came back from places where life moved more quickly.

Says librarian Linda Caldwell, who worked in Louisville for 27 years before returning: "I just never lost the connection with home."

Dr. John Belanger might be the most admired man in Paint Lick. If the current Bush president were still tallying nationwide "points of light," Belanger would certainly make the cut.

Belanger has pulled himself off the medical grid of insurance hassles and five-minute patient visits. He mans a small clinic in Paint Lick, charging people $25 for a first visit and $20 for follow-ups. The clinic has been in business for almost six years.

"He works outside the system," says Glenda McQuerry, who works in Belanger's clinic. "He'll see anybody."

Belanger's clientele consists of the impoverished near and far -- a world map in the clinic wall has pins stuck in countries from which patients have been seen. Many pins are stuck into Mexico -- Belanger said he enjoys treating migrant workers -- but there are also pins in Senegal, Colombia, India, Kenya and New Zealand. Out the back door of Belanger's clinic, the view is more prosaic: a water pump and a nearby trailer.

On this day, Belanger has spent a long time working with a young woman who has a crowd of children trailing behind her like vapor particles. She has an infected tooth and limited funds.

Belanger says he makes about $35,000 a year and is happy with that. He doesn't see himself as making a sacrifice just because he makes at least $100,000 less than his peers. He likes what he does, he says, and his material needs are modest.

"I had this vision of an old-timey doctor's office," he says.

When he came to Paint Lick he met Cornett, who had been looking for a town doctor just like Belanger. It was a serendipitous pairing.

So Belanger does at least four 10-hour days a week. He estimates that he gets 1,000 new patients a year and 5,000 patient visits a year. He spends time not only seeing his patients but helping direct them to other sources of medical help, including tests, dietary help and medicine -- doing the good for little money and even less attention.

"It's just been a pleasure for me," Belanger says. "It's what I wanted to do."

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