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Monday, May 25, 2020
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Grandfather's Radio


By Jene Hedden

    Does a radio or radio broadcast bring back any special memories for you? In my family, a radio and a maternal grandfather comprise a special memory for me and a cousin. 

     I don’t remember my maternal grandfather, Levi Mac Keltner, because I was less than five years old when he passed from a heart attack on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1950. He had just walked the mile from the Pleasant Ridge Methodist Church to his home when he slumped to the floor at the kitchen door. At least that is what I have been told down through the years. I never really knew this amazing gentleman and patriarch of the part of the Keltner clan. 

     “False memories”…that is what they are called.  Other people tell us their memories and remind us that we were present for the event. We are told that we also should recall these memories. We may come to believe the stories even though we likely would not have remembered them without the person telling the story. Memory requires verbal skills in order for us to retell stories and thereby hold on to our memories. Under the age of five, our verbal skills are somewhat limited.  So my memories of Grandfather Keltner are likely all “false memories”. But my cousin Pat Keltner Raymond has memories of our grandfather that are rooted in clear recollections. Three years older than I am, she lived next door to Grandfather Keltner in those formative years.  And almost every day, she walked from her own house across the corn field to the family home where Grandfather lived. 

     Not long ago, I asked Cousin Pat about memories she might hold of our grandfather.  That’s when she told me about Grandfather Keltner and his Philco radio. 

     The battery operated radio sat on a small table in the living room next to the pot bellied stove. It was battery operated because it was purchased before the REA (Rural Electrification Act) brought electricity to the hills and hollows of south and east Kentucky. In fact, the radio was much older than the electricity that illuminated the old home place. Since the radio was battery operated, grandfather didn’t allow children to use it. The expensive battery had to be preserved for important broadcasts, such as world news reports. 



     Grandfather Keltner had a special rocking chair in which he sat to listen to his radio…usually once or twice a day. Those were the days when “Edward R. Murrow and the News” would broadcast around noon and again in the evening. Cousin Pat recalled that Grandfather would allow her to sit in his lap during the news, but she had to be quiet. No talking or laughing! 

     Grandfather was poorly educated by today’s standards with perhaps a sixth to eighth grade formal education. But he was a man of great practical knowledge. He could sing hymns and play the fiddle at church, sounding out the old hymns by ear. He managed the family farm, keeping his family of ten step and naturally born kids fed during the great wars and intervening  years of the Great Depression. He was also the community expert on the production of sorghum molasses. His pay for cooking up sorghum molasses was a gallon of the precious gold liquid for every four gallons he made.  He would then take his portion to a community store and swap it for cane sugar, nails, corn meal, flour and maybe some fruit for his kids. 

     Grandpa’s old Philco did not pick up local radio stations.  According to my only surviving aunt, Vedus Keltner Hampton, he would find station WJJD out of Chicago. Some days the static would be so bad that one could only hear bits and pieces of the news, even with the antenna that was nailed to the stone fireplace nearby. However, the reception sometimes improved if someone placed their hand on the antenna wire. 

     Aunt Vedus tells me that Grandfather Keltner mellowed a bit in what the family could listen to in his later years. He liked gospel music, The Grand Ole Opry from Nashville and The Renfro Valley Barn Dance on Saturday nights live from near Mount Vernon, Kentucky. He also occasionally listened to “Lum and Abner” and “Jam up and Honey”… two radio comedy/music programs. 


     As the years go by and memories are lost with the passing of familial voices; I feel the urgency to hear and capture those stories before death silences them all. That’s why the simple story of my grandfather’s battery operated radio caught my interest.  He lived a life of self-sufficiency on a small family farm.  And yet the news of the wider world was important to him.  And now we are left with his story to cheer us, his descendants.



      I hope you too might seek out your family stories while they can still be told.  Some day that “radio” will be turned off forever.


Edited by Paula Moore Hurtt