Bell County School District children, grades 3-12, are invited to participate in the first ever Cleudis Robbins Memorial Storytelling Contest, culminating Oct. 4.
The contest has been established by the family of Cleudis Robbins, an honored and beloved son of Bell County who recently passed away, to celebrate both his life and the Appalachian storytelling tradition.
Robbins, a Bell County High School 1955 alumnus, was an award-winning storyteller who amused and delighted audiences for over 50 years, drawing upon his experience growing up in the coal mining camps of southeastern Kentucky.
His storytelling career began when he was about 11 and attending the, now defunct, Beans Fork School. He was a bright student who struggled to stay in school at a time when his family was impoverished and school was not a priority. Despite his many disadvantages, Robbins recognized the importance of education as a means to a better life.
That year the Bell County schools were holding a storytelling contest. He was selected to represent Beans Fork School. Here is his story in his own words from his autobiography:
“One year the Bell County schools were holding a countywide storytelling contest. I was picked to represent Beans Fork Grade School. The story I was to tell in the competition was Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving. Every Friday afternoon leading up to the contest, I had to stand before the student body and tell the story. I told that story so many times I could recite it word for word. I soon grew tired of the telling and one Friday I refused. A big fuss was made of it. I received a whipping, and got so mad I left school. My teacher, Mr. Ridings, sent word to my grandma that the only way I would be allowed back in school was if I wrote out Rip Van Winkle in longhand and turned it in on Monday.
We were poor and I had no paper to write on, so I sweet-talked the owner of the little store at the mouth of the holler to give me 14 feet of butcher paper on which I wrote the story out on both sides. I rolled it up and tied it with a dirty old shoestring from a shoe I found in the yard. Come Monday morning, I was standing there waiting for Mr. Ridings. I handed him the rolled-up paper and he simply said, “Have a seat.”
The countywide storytelling contest rolled around and, to my amazement, I walked away with the grand prize! And that was the beginning of everything.”
Robbins went on to obtain a master’s degree in education and human development. He was an officer in the United States Air Force, a newspaper columnist, photographer and record-breaking salesman. He was also the co-author of the recently published novel The Burying Man which Robbins called his “love song to Appalachia.”
Despite his success in life, he never forgot his roots. He had a strong sense of place and visited the Cumberland region as often as he could, giving generously to those in need.
“My dad had two great loves in life, Kentucky and children everywhere. There is no better way to honor his memory than to encourage children in circumstances similar to his own youth to dream big and know that anything is possible through hard work and perseverance,” said daughter and The Burying Man co-author Janene Nielsen.
The Cleudis Robbins Memorial Storytelling Contest has two components, composition and performance. Participants are required to write an original story reflecting an understanding and appreciation of the Appalachian experience. Authors are encouraged, but not required, to write stories handed down through their families. Stories may be written from serious, inspirational or humorous points of view and should be well-crafted, flow smoothly, and be easy to read and listen to.
Finalists will be selected from their written entries and will then be required to tell their stories during the second phase of the contest on Oct. 4. Authors should present the material in a convincing and enthusiastic manner. The children will compete in two age divisions, junior and senior, with first place winners receiving $500 cash prizes.
Rules and guidelines for the contest may be obtained through Bell County School District teachers or through Jennifer Yankey at the Bell County School District Administration Office in Pineville.