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“Things and folks ain’t always what they seem,” my Grandma Maudie often said.  In small towns like Jeffersonville, Indiana, on the Ohio River, everyone seems to thrive on knowing everyone else’s business.  One of the best gossip survival techniques of living in towns like that is pretending you are someone else.  You try to keep your secrets to yourself – but with small town gossips as your neighbors, that can be hard.  Without trustworthy eyewitness accounts, we don’t really know if the version of the past we hear from someone like Grandma Maudie is true, or false, or something in-between, a memory embroidered and elaborated until it’s hard to know what to believe.   

In the Kentuckiana region where I grew up, where Indiana merges with the metropolitan area around Louisville, Kentucky, it was customary to go to church on Sunday morning and race home for a family sit-down Sunday Dinner.  While Mama would spend hours fussing over beef roast with carrots and spuds, Maudie preferred to pick up a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with fixins.  We all thought it was good chicken back then, not just fast-food.

One day in the Sixties, when she and I were alone in the kitchen setting the table before the gang arrived to devour the chicken, slaw, biscuits and gravy, I had an opportunity to tell grandma my big news:  “I met the Colonel the other day!”

I was barely a teenager and had gone with my dad, Richard Vissing, who was Mayor of Jeffersonville, Indiana, on the “sunny side of Louisville”, to pick up someone up at Louisville’s Standiford Field Airport. “We were walking down to the gate,” I told her, “and I saw what looked like one of those big cardboard pictures of Colonel Sanders by the wall, wearing his white suit and leaning on his cane. But all of a sudden the man in the white suit says, ‘Hiya there, Rich.  How ya doing?’”

My dad knew everyone, so wasn’t completely surprised – but it’s not every day that somebody famous like the Colonel starts speaking to your father like they’re best buddies. 

“Daddy introduced me to him!”

“So what did you say?” Maudie asked.

 “Something dumb.  I said ‘I think ‘your chicken really is finger-lickin’ good.’” 

Grandma laughed. “He’s just a normal person,” Maudie reflected.  “Your dad and I know him well.”

My grandmother proceeded to tell me quite a story about the Colonel. It’s one that never made it into the various books that Harland Sanders wrote about himself, or any of the biographies that historians have written about him.

According to Grandma Maud, Harland Sanders was once her meter-man and he and his wife, Josephine, once lived next to her and Grandpa Johnny.  

It was a hot summer night, sometime in the Twenties she reckoned, and she had just put her babies to sleep. Suddenly, she and grandpa heard a racket coming from next door.  Grandpa went out to see what the ruckus was about. He discovered Harland furiously sawing wood.  His wife Josephine had just delivered a stillborn baby; struggling financially,  Harland was making a tiny coffin to bury the dead infant. 

Grandpa came home and told Maud. She said she felt so sad that she went to the drawer and gave grandpa her silky fancy nighty, to give to Harland, to wrap around the before he put its body in the coffin.  The next day Harland took a trolley car up to neighboring Henryville, Indiana, carrying the coffin and a shovel, in order to bury the baby in a pauper’s grave.

This story shocked me.  How could someone so rich have been that poor?  It was hard to fathom that my grandma knew such intimate details about someone so famous.  But she did. 

Fascinated, I begged her to tell me more.

Josephine, she said, “was an odd duck” – and Harland eventually divorced her.  But on his own, Harland floundered. Trying to make ends meet, he kept moving from place to place, from job to job, and he wasn’t very good at any of them.

She talked about how Grandpa and Harland kept in touch as the years went by.  Johnny started a car auto repair and sales business in Indiana.  Harland moved across the river to Kentucky and started a motel, gas station, and soon realized that travelers wanted someplace to get something to eat.  He remarried. And he started selling food to hungry patrons at the gas station.

Harland was a proud man, but he didn’t forget what it was like to be poor and hungry.  When people came to his new food stand and couldn’t afford to pay the bill, Grandma recalled, he didn’t have the heart to turn them away. He knew that sometimes keeping your dignity is the only thing you have.

Harland eventually became a Kentucky Colonel – an honorary award that just about anyone with some connections can get.  Both my mom and dad were Kentucky Colonels.  So was Maudie.  I bet if I had stuck around the area that I could have been a Kentucky Colonel too. 

Few people still alive can confirm the story I recall Grandma telling me about Harland and Josephine’s stillborn child.  It was not a story that Harland or Josephine would likely have shared with lots of people.  My brother, who is a bit older than me, remembered the gist of the same story, though with different details.  

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this young man who buried his baby in a pauper’s cemetery.  I remember feeling intimidated by meeting a famous personality like Colonel Sanders, only to later learn that he was just like everyone else who struggles to get by.

Historical accounts confirm that Harland Sanders had difficulty holding a job before his chicken business took off.  It is well-documented that he was poor for most of his life and that he had challenging early years. He bounced from place to place and job to job trying the best he could to make sense out of life, earn a living and help others. 

Haunted by my family’s lore about Harland Sanders, I decided to try to pay respects to the stillborn child. But tracking down where it might be buried was harder than I expected.  

I did an online search and found nothing about the dead baby, or about a pauper’s cemetery in Henryville. I read everything I could find about the Colonel’s early life. I called a local funeral parlor owner who I thought might know, but he didn’t. 

I phoned Henryville town officials and some recalled rumors of a pauper’s cemetery. But the town had no record of it – and certainly no account of the nameless people who were buried there by loved ones too poor to do otherwise.  I’ve searched all the records of Harland’s family I can find, and there is never any mention of that little baby.

When I think of my old Kentuckiana home along the mighty O-hi-o River, I remember those Kentucky Fried Chicken dinners, sewing with Maudie, catching fireflies at twilight to put into Ball Glass jars with holes poked in the lid, and thinking Queen Anne’s Lace is the most delicate flower in the world. And now I think about secrets –  those kept, those whispered, those forgotten, and those revealed over time.

The world of my Grandmother and Harland Sanders was one where neighbors helped neighbors, celebrating life, and grieving death together.  Doing what you can to make the world a better place, as you struggle to figure out your place in it.

I find I’m curiously protective of this dapper gentleman who struggled to find his way in the world. Over time, as the local demand for his fried chicken grew, Harland Sanders shrewdly recognized the potential to franchise his recipes. In 1952, he opened a second Col. Sanders Fried Chicken outlet in Utah. When his original restaurant closed, he devoted himself to expanding his chain of franchise restaurants by traveling around the country, looking for suitable locations. By 1964, when he sold the business, he had had become a wealthy man.

Today’s KFC only vaguely resembles Harland’s Original Recipe.  Although Sanders remained a “brand ambassador” for KFC, he came to loath the product being sold, feeling the new owners were cutting costs and letting quality slip.  He died at the age of 90 in 1980, but KFC ads keep his image alive – a Southern gentleman in a white suit who speaks with a friendly twang.  

But my Grandma knew Harland Sanders before he became the face of a fast-food franchise. And she knew how profoundly he understood the value of hard work, and the dignity of all human beings. 

Maudie knew.  And now you do, too.

Public Seminar tried to contact the KFC Foundation for corroboration by telephone and email but was not able to get a response.

Yvonne M. Vissing is the Founding Director of the Center of Childhood and Youth Studies and Professor of Health Studies at Salem State University.