August 20th, 2007 by The Lexington Herald-Leader

By Cheryl Truman / Photographs by David Perry

PIPPA PASSES -- June sometimes would ask her pupils, "What could your four-square selves do? What could be your goals? Just to create a better Pippa Passes? Doesn't Knott County need to be better, too? And what of the state of Kentucky? And the nation? The world?" The first thing to know about Pippa Passes is that this tiny town was named after the Robert Browning poem Pippa Passes.

You don't see Kentucky towns named after poems. Just as Waddy is not "The Path Not Taken" -- unless you're having a metaphysical crisis on I-64 -- Kentucky is not a state that lends itself to poetry in its place names.

So, about Pippa Passes: You can say that you don't care for poetry, or that Elizabeth Barrett was your favorite Browning. Or you can just call it Caney, or "up Caney," as many of the area's residents do.

But there's no getting around this: Living the Robert Browning poem is what they do around here. Pippa was an Italian waif, probably undernourished, certainly overworked. On her one day off from the silk mill she wanders about and, on her journey, improves the lives of all those with whom she comes into contact.

We'll pause here while you scowl at the overarching sweetness of that idea. Pippa was no Eric Cartman, no Ryan Seacrest, no People magazine-repentant celebutard. She wasn't good with a wink and a nudge and an alcohol-sensing ankle bracelet. She was simply confident that there was something better, and that's the driving theme around Pippa Passes, the poem, and Pippa Passes, the town.

Pippa Passes, the town, is pretty much the campus of Alice Lloyd College, with about 600 students, along with faculty and staff who tend to live pretty close in. Pippa Passes is also home to the K-12 June Buchanan School, which draws kids from the campus and its surrounding areas.

Alice Lloyd was a Northern do-gooder who believed in the politics of joy long before Hubert Humphrey wrestled a slogan out of it and nearly rode it right into the White House, pausing only for the dark and unstoppable obstacle called Richard Nixon.

Lloyd, who arrived in 1915, had a co-worker, one June Buchanan, who was the implementer where Lloyd was the visionary. Together the two saw this little space in the mountains and thought, we can do something with this. It will last, and it will teach the youth of this place about service to others and the life of the mind.

And so Pippa Passes the town grew on the banks of Caney Creek, which was trickling sluggishly last week through the center of campus.

Under an electrically bright sun, young women weeding impatiens along the college's main street still know the Lloyd philosophy. Virginia native Mary Horn, 20, wants to be a middle school math teacher: "Like Miss Lloyd said, give back to the community," she said, ripping at the leggy weeds.

Mary's dad was a coal miner who got laid off and now works for his local school board. Horn describes Pippa Passes as "a little bit bigger than where I'm from."

Says David Adams, who coaches women's basketball here: "You're working with people who want to become something, who want to make something out of themselves."

Working at the campus grill is Amanda Montgomery, 17, of Lee County. She came here at 15 and is now a junior majoring in social sciences.

Amanda is proud of her work ethic. She considers her school community an extended family. She makes a mean iced coffee. And she wants to be a juvenile justice case worker.

Some of Alice Lloyd's students didn't expect to get to college at all, and many of them didn't expect to get through college without crippling debt.

Lloyd herself may be unique among Kentucky heroes. Her most revered contributions to Kentucky started as her money ran out. But that turned out to be Lloyd's defining moment: She and Buchanan knew folks with deep pockets, and they were relentless.

It's a combination that tends to get folks remembered. Alice Lloyd College doesn't take on debt for its building campaigns, doesn't make its students pay tuition out of their own pockets. All its students work on campus. They're from Appalachia. And this is their town, not just their campus.

To go to Wal-Mart -- and nobody's arguing that Wal-Mart is an epitome of anything cultural, but it does sell shampoo and bedspreads -- you have to go to Hazard or Prestonsburg. To go anywhere, you have to negotiate s-curves with no guardrails.

These days, Stephanie Damron, Alice Lloyd's director of marketing and communications, sits in June Buchanan's old office, "The Eagle's Nest," halfway up a breezy hill. Damron grew up poor in a trailer nearby, shy and despairing that her life would never amount to anything. As a child, she cleaned the house of Joe Stepp, now the college's president.

To pay her tuition at the June Buchanan School, Stephanie's father worked Alice Lloyd security. After she graduated from Alice Lloyd, she got her master's degree at Morehead State University and worked in state government. Then she and her husband returned home.

They now have two children and describe themselves as lifers at Pippa Passes.

"This place saved my life, and gave me an opportunity I couldn't get anywhere else," Damron said. "... I think I've found what I could do best, help mountain kids like me find their place in life."

Alice Lloyd students are urged to don professional dress once a week. They're taught the leadership skills handed down by Lloyd and Buchanan. They're urged to contribute to improving their home region.

It's not that the college is a throwback. There's bubble tea and free trade coffee and wireless Internet.

But there are also streets that include Purpose Road, Integrity Lane and Faith Avenue. And in Pippa Passes, the Purpose Road is not just a place people walk and cars park. It's the way things work.

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