By Stephen D. Bowling
February 1, 1954 – John Everett Bach broke many barriers. After Being exposed to gas during World War I, his eyesight slowly deteriorated until he was legally blind. That did not stop him. When the Kentucky General Assembly gaveled into session in January 1954, J. Everett Bach became the first blind Kentucky State Senator.
Born at Quicksand, Kentucky on June 18, 1900, John Everett Bach was the oldest child of Edward Price and Lenor “Lenor” (Combs) Bach. He was related to two of the most prominent families in Breathitt County. His maternal grandfather, William H. “Breck” Combs, served many years as Sheriff of Breathitt County. Miles Wilgus Back, his fraternal grandfather, owned hundreds of acres and was a prominent man in politics and influence at Quicksand.
When World War I came in 1918, Bach worked for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad as a brakeman. The eighteen-year-old registered for military service on September 12, 1918, while living in Fleming, Letcher County, Kentucky. He was identified as medium height, slender build with blue eyes, and light-colored hair. He completed basic training and was shipped to Europe. Back suffered a partial loss of his eyesight when a German shell loaded with mustard gas exploded near him. After the war, he spent several years going in and out of the hospital seeking treatment for his exposure.
After returning home, one of his first jobs was to manage a baseball team at Beattyville. He worked a position as a bookkeeper and claims agent for the Ohio and Kentucky Railroad, which operated between Jackson and Cannel City. It was in Cannel City that he met his future wife.
Bach married Nancy Josephine Wheeler on June 4, 1924, at Cannel City in Morgan County, Kentucky. They later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he took a job as an accountant in the claims department of the Pere Marquette Railway Company. While working in Michigan, his eyesight failed, and Bach lost all ability to see about 1930. He worked briefly as a labor recruiter for a large canning company and enrolled more than 15,000 employees for the operation.
Bach moved back to Jackson in 1935 and became interested in local politics. He served many years in the Kentucky House of Representatives, including terms in 1938, 1940, and represented the 76th District in 1952. Sponsored the Bach-Scheben Act in 1940 to benefit needy blind people in Kentucky. The bill gave direct relief to the visually challenged people of Kentucky.
On March 27, 1953, Bach filed to run for the office of State Senator from the 34th District to represent Breathitt, Lee, Magoffin, and Morgan Counties. State Senator in December 1953 and defeated two other candidates. He was unopposed in the 1953 election and easily won the election to the Senate.
His major accomplishment as a Senator resulted from the awareness and debate created by the committee passage of Senate Bill 100 to move the date of Kentucky’s primary from the first Saturday in August to the second Tuesday in June. The bill was “laid on the table” in its first attempt at passage in the Senate but passed without opposition on February 6, 1956. He noted that he was open to amendments, and the first or last Tuesday in May was floated as possible dates to avoid tobacco planting and harvest season. The move to a Tuesday would permit the counting of the ballots to continue and not be stopped on Sunday to observe Kentucky’s Blue Laws.
Evertt Bach and Josephine had two children, Mary Eleanor Bach, who married Frederick Wilhelm Strohmeier, and William Pryce Bach, who married Mary Lee Miller.
The Bach-Back Family Reunion was the longest-running annual family reunion in Kentucky until its 80-plus year streak was broken during the outbreak of COVID-19. Bach was an ardent supporter and served in numerous posts, including the organization’s president, to ensure that her reunion continued.
Despite all of the accomplishments he achieved, the greatest in his opinion was the creation of the Kentucky Talking Books program. “It’s the greatest thing that ever happened for the benefit of the blind,” Bach told The Danville Messenger-Advocate in 1975 as he showed off the oldest talking book machine in Kentucky.
In 1933, while he was a patient at the Mt. Alto Hospital Diagnostic Center in Washington, D.C., he saw the device for the first time that allowed blind patients to listen to recorded materials, including books and newspapers. With his eyesight fading quickly, he became interested in the program.
Bach worked with Robert B. Irwin, Secretary of the American Federation of the Blind, who developed the concept. Kentucky Senator Alben W. Barkley supported the program, and J. Everett Bach accompanied Barkley to the White House to demonstrate the machine to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
After the demonstration, Roosevelt and members of his cabinet personally purchased several of the machines and donated them to sight-impaired listeners to get the program started. Over the next few years, Bach hauled the large, black machine from office to office, providing information about the program. He visited 12 states with the black box and is spread awareness of the effort to assist those without eyesight.
Everett Back died on January 30, 1982, at the Veterans Administration Hospital on Cooper Drive in Lexington. He was buried in the Miles Bach Cemetery at Quicksand.
Today, J. Everett Bach is remembered as the “Father of the Talking Books” program in Kentucky and several surrounding states. He continued to use his talking machine to read more than 100 books a year and every month listened to Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, and Reader’s Digest until his passing. He worked to make sure that they were also available to others.
The introduction of the iPod and other digital readers, including the Radio Eye project, have made this process much simpler. The Talking Books Library continues to serve thousands across the state. While it was a personal mission for him, millions of visually impaired readers in Kentucky and worldwide continue to enjoy books because of J. Everett Bach’s efforts. He truly is the “Father of the Talking Books,” and many in our state thank him.
© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling
Outstanding article. Mr. Bach was a personal and family friend. He is truly a great Kentuckian and deserves to be recognized for all his contributions to our state. He had a rich and diverse life.