Some people can be defined by what they care about. What Barbara Hulette cares very much about might be described as those people, places and experiences that have tremendous value — once appreciated.
Hulette, 73, came to Danville six years ago from Lexington where she had moved from Nashville as a young woman to earn a degree in education from the University of Kentucky. There she met her husband, Richard, who was also a student. They married and became parents of Libby and Ben.
Richard Hulette died in 2009, 50 years into the marriage. He had suffered a long-term illness in which his wife was his primary caregiver. Acceptance of the course of his illness, and the quality of life Danville would offer to the ones he left behind, brought them to town. The decision was important because one of the those left behind is Libby, who is a special needs woman.
“When she was born, the first year or so, she was developing normally but then she came down with something they ended up calling encephalitis,” Hulette said. “They said she wouldn’t live and then, when she did, they advised us to put her in an institution. We said, ‘No, we will see her through this.’ All of her life had been a product of making a way for her. We created opportunities for Libby to be a part of the world. It has not been easy, but it has been doable.”
There were no camping programs for special needs kids so they created one that helped not only Libby but others like her. Same thing for Brownie troops and now a job and for any other experiences Hulette wants for her daughter.
Hulette takes existing structures — social and otherwise — and modifies them, giving them a new purpose.
Unwilling to let her daughter’s innate potential go to waste, she went back to school and got a degree in special education that has served her, she said, in more than the ways intended.
“I had an instructor there who used to say that all education is special education — or should be,” she said.
Once she began teaching, her special-needs class was filled with kids bussed in from the inner-city, some whose only “special need” was somebody to teach them to read.
“Some of the kids they sent me had no other handicap except they had never learned to read,” she said.
“I told them they didn’t have to like me but I was there to help, and I did. Some of them were so smart! They learned to trust my motives, and we ended up getting along just fine.”
It is this same passionate and stubborn love she brings to her campaign to advocate for old structures.
Hulette was a longtime member of Lexington’s Bluegrass Trust and is still the chairwoman of its advisory committee. In Danville, she was wooed to join preservation efforts right away but declined while caring for her husband. Boyle Landmark Trust and old buildings at risk now receive her devoted attention.
“How I really feel is that some places and things are worth preserving, not just because they are old but because they represent the stories that have framed lives,” she said.
The recent open house at the Willis-Russel House was rewarding, she said. Period photos on the wall reflected a different time in the lives of African-American families who had lived and worked in a part of town gone forever.
“There was a barber shop, the Either-Or Barber Shop there, and the grandson of the man who ended up going by that name came in and saw the photos and, ‘oh!’ He was simply thrilled. This is his heritage, and I was part of seeing him discover that. This is why it is so grievous to see these places torn down. It is not just a building. It is a story.”
“See, I don’t have an agenda,” she said. “Except I am a teacher, and a teacher wants to teach what she knows. I know the importance of saving something that has so much value.”
Hulette has cancer. She has had radiation treatments and will continue a three-year program plan.
“I have a lot left to do, so I’m not planning on going anywhere just yet,” she said.
Libby has a job in town and “knows everybody.” The gift to Libby of a safe and negotiable community for their daughter is why she and her late husband moved to Danville.
“I want to give back to the town I love so much for what it has given us,” she said.
“You can’t save everything, but you have to try.”