Marion County's Most Interesting People: Lifelong Learner

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Love of learning spurred Graves to help her community

By Stephen Lega

Rose Graves remembers standing outside the Marion County Public Library as a child wishing she could go inside. She said she doesn't really know why she couldn't go, only that she wasn't supposed to go there.
“They always said, don’t you go to that library,” Graves said.
Today, no one can keep Graves, 63, out of it. She visits at least four times a week to work on community projects or to research her own family history.
“It seems like something’s missing if I don’t. And they miss me," Graves said, referring to the library staff.
And she has plenty of reasons to visit, too. She is a member of the Marion County chapter of the NAACP, the Marion County Historical Society, the Marion County Arts and Humanities Council, and, of course, the Friends of the Library. If she isn't working on a project for one of those groups, she's looking for information about her own family.
Graves was born in Lebanon in 1950, and she was the youngest of Joseph and Lydia Porter's 12 children (seven boys and five girls).
"I was spoiled by my brothers. I was daddy’s girl,” Graves said.
She attended St. Monica School, where she was taught by nuns.
“They always emphasized reading,” Graves said.
By her own admission, she didn't necessarily heed that advice when she was younger, yet it is one of the reasons she wanted to go to the library.
"I just thought if I could find a book I liked that I could read, then I could learn on my own" she said.
In high school, she attended Lebanon High School, where she met a teacher who would inspire her throughout her life.
“I was fascinated with Terry Ward. He taught English, but he was the one that got me interested in books,” Graves said.
Nevertheless, she dropped out of high school during her junior year. She got her first job working in a sewing factory in Springfield when she was 18 years old.
She later moved to Louisville. While trying to raise her own children, she realized not having a high school diploma was holding her back. Every time she applied for a job she really wanted, they would ask if she had her diploma. In the early 1970s, she completed her GED at Jefferson Tech.
Graves moved back to Lebanon in 1983 after her mother died so she could help take care of her father. She also got a job at Cedars of Lebanon.
And she reconnected with Ward.
“He was one those teachers that I really admired,” Graves said. “He said, ‘Rose, why don’t you start looking up your family.’”
So, she did. She learned that her great-great-grandfather had been a shoemaker in Loretto. She learned one of her uncles had died after he got hit by a train that he was trying to catch to go to Cincinnati. And she learned that her ancestors had been active in churches all over Marion and Washington counties.
“They always kept faith,” Graves said.
Her interest in genealogy also influenced other interests in her life, such as making quilts inspired by her own family's history and writing poetry.
When her grandchildren were younger, she often brought them with her to the library. She said she'd tell them stories about their own family history or about significant historical events involving African-Americans.
When her grandchildren started school they remembered those lessons, and when they were in middle school, they told their principal about their grandmother. That turned into an invitation to Graves to speak to students during black history month.
“That’s when I first started doing my displays,” she said.
Since then she’s also spoken to groups at West Marion Elementary and Marion County High School. The late Henry Lee Bell, founder of the United Concerned Citizens Organization, asked her to help with some programs. So did the late Verda Calhoun, the former Marion County NAACP president.
“I’m not a speaker. I’m shy. I don’t like to be in the spotlight,’” Graves said. “I just like to be here for anybody. I like to make people happy.”
That may be so, but she also said she learned that people can recognize your talents even if you might try to hide them. After her old church, Miles Chapel CME, closed, she joined Sherman Chapel AME in Lebanon. At Sherman Chapel, she met Mary Lewis, who encouraged her to do public presentations.
“She really told me, ‘You get up there and do what you got to do,” Graves said. “I call it my bold blessing from God.”
Today, Graves has more than 50 displays that she can use for different types of events, and she tries to use her talents to help various organizations, including helping with the black history exhibit that opens at the Marion County Heritage Center on Feb. 23.
Plus, she wants to be a good example for her own children and grandchildren by being willing to try new things.
“If I’m going to tell my kids that, then I need to do it, too,” Graves said.
Graves retired from Cedars of Lebanon in the early 2000s, but she's remained active through her involvement in several community and church groups.
If nothing else, that's given her more reasons to spend time with her "second family" at the public library.
“I’m just so glad that I can come in and work in here," Graves said. 'It just seems that it’s open to me, that I can find whatever I want here."