Annual contest adds color
to founder’s Irish heritage
By GLENN RUTHERFORD
Ken McKiernan looks every bit the part of an Irishman. Though his hair is now gray, the 78-year-old retired artist and advertising agency owner comes equipped with a ubiquitous smile, a quick-and-ready wit and the gift of story-telling that’s as much a part of Irish heritage as the wearing of the green on March 17.
McKiernan, who, with his late wife, Carol, created a family of ten children — “five of ‘em red-heads; five of them with black hair,” he’s quick to say — has also created another legacy that’s become a regular part of St. Patrick’s Day preparations for children throughout the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Back in 1972, Ken McKiernan launched the Ancient Order of Hibernians St. Patrick Coloring Contest for children in grades kindergarten through four. Since then, the contest has received a staggering number of entries — more than 400,000, McKiernan said.
“And in the past few years, we’ve received entries from Ireland and Canada, too,” he noted, with just a hint of pride.
This year, as in every year since the contest began, McKiernan spends hours at his kitchen table poring through the 5,000 to 10,000 entries the contest has received.
Three winners are chosen from each grade, and McKiernan says there is also a “grand prize winner” each year. The prizes are awarded, and the artists honored, at a noon Mass at St. Louis Bertrand Church on March 10.
In addition to that, all the winners and their families ride in a special unit in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade down Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue.
McKiernan had no idea the contest would take on a life of its own, he said last week in an interview at his home on Allison Way.
In fact, the contest sprang from a bit of disappointment that had its roots back in McKiernan’s childhood, part of which was spent growing up on Sixth Street in the shadow of St. Louis Bertrand Church.
“I was the youngest of five boys,” he recalled, pausing as he often does to chuckle at a memory or two that comes out of hiding. “And my older brothers competed in a Knights of Columbus coloring contest each year. It was a picture of Columbus discovering America; and there was another contest that involved a picture of Robin Hood. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to enter those contests.”
Turns out that time turned a cruel shoulder to young Ken McKiernan’s dream.
“By the time I grew old enough, the contest had gone away,” he chuckled.
But the memory of that childhood wish never vanished, and when the idea for a new contest popped into his head in the early 1970s, he was quick to act.
“I’ve always had great luck with getting people to help us out with the cost of paper and printing,” he explained.
This year, Jim King has been the contest’s main benefactor.
McKiernan is the contest’s main judge, though from time to time others in the family will lend a hand. The contest has few rules — the image of St. Patrick is provided and must be colored using wax crayons only. No markers.
“And the shamrock (held by St. Patrick) has to be green,” McKiernan adds with yet another chuckle. “Sometimes a few of the children will try to be different and make the shamrock a different color, but that’s a no-no. Anything else, you’re on your own.”
In the early days of the contest, Knights of Columbus and Ancient Order of Hibernian members would take the entry forms and St. Patrick images to each of the schools in the archdiocese. Now McKiernan distributes them to the Catholic Schools office, and they are sent to each of the area elementary schools from there.
And not a week goes by that McKiernan doesn’t encounter somebody who has taken part in the contest over the past four decades.
“I’ll run into people all the time who say ‘Hey, I won that contest back in the third grade,’ ” he said. “It’s been great fun, I’ll tell you that.”
This year there are enough entries from Ireland — the result of a trip McKiernan made to the ancestral grounds years ago — that he’ll have separate winners from that group alone.
“It’s fun to see all the Irish names that come from across the pond,” he said.