Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

The Velvet Hammer: Decades after Fighting Her First Political Battle, Disability Advocate Louise Underwood Is Still an Unstoppable Force

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

The Velvet Hammer: Decades after Fighting Her First Political Battle, Disability Advocate Louise Underwood Is Still an Unstoppable Force

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Midway through a harrowing tale from her days as a young advocate, Louise Underwood is suddenly interrupted by her cell phone. "Every time that rings, it's because there's a problem," she says. She's right, of course; on the other end of the line is a panicked contact on the brink of losing funding for an important project. She listens, then patiently guides him through the crisis with the fearless, nononsense attitude that long ago earned her the nickname "The Velvet Hammer."

Such calls from Kentucky lawmakers and the governor's office are not uncommon. "They want to know what I think of this particular idea, or that one, or how I think a bill should go, if I think they should make any changes," says Underwood, 72. "They help me. I help them, any time."

With her grandmotherly appearance, slight handshake, and lack of formal credentials (she didn't major in political science, study law, or even finish her accounting degree), it would be easy to underestimate Underwood and the power she holds. Over the years she has worked closely with five governors and earned the respect of newly elected officials. Many times she has pulled strings to halt legislation that would have undermined quality of life for people with disabilities. As special projects director and "the voice" of Hazelwood Center, a state-run residential care facility for people with developmental disabilities in Louisville, KY, she has advocated for thousands of individuals and their families. And she has helped transform Kentucky into a national leader in mental retardation services.

"I have never in my life met anyone that holds a candle to Louise Underwood," says Dr. Henry Hood, director of the Underwood and Lee Clinic and co-founder of the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD). "She's got an incredible amount of power, but she uses it all for the good. There is nobody else like her. She is a steamroller for people with developmental disabilities."

For Underwood, who'd rather draw attention to the issues than to herself, it's simply a matter of doing what she was meant to do. "I'm not a college graduate. I was maybe a little above average in school," she says. "But I have a heart as big as the ocean for anybody that needs help."

Role models

The daughter of a compassionate general store owner named Chester Gayheart, Underwood grew up in the Appalachian coal-mining town of Dwarf, KY. At an early age, she delivered groceries to farmers who'd emerge from the "holler" when she honked the bullhorn on her father's Jeep. "They'd always ask about my daddy and say, 'That's the finest man that ever walked the face of the earth.' And he was." She loved to eavesdrop when "Big Ches," who chaired the local Democratic party, sat on the front porch and talked politics with Albert "Happy" Chandler, one of the state's most colorful governors and later a U.S. Senator.

She was 12 when the miners went on strike. After compiling a list of people who needed food, Big Ches instructed Underwood, her sister, and two brothers to fill baskets with goods from the family store. "No miner that was off on strike ever went hungry, and it almost broke my father," she recalls. "One night we were sitting at the table and Daddy said, 'You know, we've come to the time where we have to make some decisions. We don't have enough groceries left in the store to help a lot of people, so we've got to do one of two things: We've either got to close it, or we're going to have to mortgage the house to buy more groceries.' And all of a sudden [the coal miners] all came back and every single man that owed Daddy money, except for one, paid him every dime they owed him."

After a brief marriage to her childhood sweetheart, she wed Samuel Underwood and moved to Louisville, where she worked in the human resources department of a furniture store. "And that," she says, "was the first time that I ever saw someone that was mentally retarded. …

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