It had been almost three decades since Zeb Blankenship retired from the Jessamine County school district when he died Friday. But as word of his death spread, the memories and stories of his leadership and kindness rose fresh throughout a school district that he epitomized as principal of the high school for 14 years.
Blankenship came to Jessamine County High School in 1967. Anna Wilson began teaching at the high school the following year and became good friends with Zeb and his wife, Nel, throughout her career in education.
“I would say there wasn’t anyone on the staff who didn’t feel like they could go to him to talk about any situation that existed within our school or in the system,” Wilson said. “He never failed to listen completely — he was a really good listener. He might not totally agree with you, but he always listened.”
Terry Leitch graduated just before Blankenship arrived, but he made a fast impression when she returned to the high school to teach in 1976.
“I immediately found out what a wonderful person he was, just a great boss and was sometimes too kind and probably should have buckled down on some of us a little bit more than he did,” Leitch said.
Blankenship’s compassion was evident to Leitch in his treatment of teachers like Evelyn Young.
“When the weather was bad, (Young) would call him, and if there was going to be school, he would go pick her up,” Leitch said. “And after she retired, he went over and took care of her and painted whenever she needed painting done. He and his wife, Nel, took care of her. That’s not what a principal has to do, but he was just that kind of a person.”
As leader of the county’s only high school for more than a dozen years, Blankenship was not just a principal but the principal for an entire generation of Jessamine Countians. Many current leaders in the school district were students of Blankenship’s, including superintendent Lu Young, who graduated in 1977.
“That was a time when the high school was the center of our social life — everybody was at the
Friday-night ball games; the dances were a big deal,” Young said. “It was just a real hub of the community, and Zeb was a big part of that.”
Dexter Knight, a 1981 graduate of Jessamine County High School who is now principal at Jessamine Career and Technology Center, said Blankenship “epitomized” the high school and considered “people business” part of his daily business.
“He never forgot how to make you feel,” Knight said. “Zeb was always glad to see you and just made you feel better when you left ... you felt like you were important to him. Not everybody has that gift.”
Blankenship left the high school in 1981 and spent two years working as Title I coordinator in the district office before retiring in 1983. His influence in education continued as his children and grandchildren went through the schools and as he came to reunions and retiree events.
Even at home as a widower late in his life, Blankenship was influencing children and families. When the Dale family moved next door to him in Nicholasville two and a half years ago, the two boys of the family — now ages 6 and 3 — took to him immediately, especially the younger one, Land Dale said.
“When we moved there, they kind of hit it off right off the bat and were best buddies ever since,” Dale said. “That’s how we got to know him, through our little boy. He kind of adopted us a next-door-neighbor family.”
Dale said Blankenship was quiet but did not blush about his service in education, his career in the U.S. Army or his one year playing basketball at the University of Kentucky under Adolph Rupp.
“He was a very humble man, and he didn’t say a whole lot, but you could tell he was proud of certain things, and he was very proud of being an educator for so long, and he was very proud of the fact that he got to serve his country in the military,” Dale said.
Young said Blankenship was remembered so well 30 years after leaving the high school because of his attitude toward people.
“The job of high-school principal is not an easy job, and it wasn’t back then either, but I just think he’s so endeared in people’s hearts because he handled it with such likability and kindness, and he was encouraging,” she said.
Visitation and a funeral service for Blankenship were held at Betts & West Funeral Home on Monday and Tuesday. Zeb Blankenship was 85.