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John McDaniel's interesting life is wrapped all around Midway

By Martha Groppo
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Few people are more thorough experts on Midway than John William McDaniel III.

“He has stories that few have heard or known about,” said his good friend, Midway Mayor Tom Bozarth. “He has a lot of knowledge about Midway and our history.”

McDaniel with a big pencil, all about his writing. Mayor
Tom Bozarth (in background), his friend, calls him "Scoop."
But few in Midway are thorough experts on John McDaniel. Even he struggles to remember everything he has done. It would take much time to know everything about McDaniel, a lifelong Midway resident who has been a police officer, sold carpets, jailed in a jail he helped run, and ridden his horse down Main Street.

“He dabbles in a little bit of everything,” Mayor Pro Tem Sharon Turner said. “He knows everybody.”

“I just seem to be in the most weird places at the strangest times,” McDaniel said, coming to the same conclusion others seem to reach after hearing a few of his stories.

McDaniel started his eclectic life in the Woodford Memorial Hospital on June 11, 1949. His father, known as John Willie, was the Midway police chief, and McDaniel rode along with him when he was as young as 10.

McDaniel remembers a time when Midway’s quaint Main Street was quite different. One side was dominated by “beer joints and pool halls,” and many of today’s storefronts were private residences. “A lot of stores and things were houses,” McDaniel said. “Some of the slum areas were downtown.”

For recreation, he remembers riding his horse down Main Street. There were also boxing matches in front of the old railroad depot and Friday-night square dances in the street.

After graduating from Woodford County High School, McDaniel enrolled at the University of Kentucky in 1968. By joining the university’s ROTC program, he hoped to jump-start a career in the military — something he had wanted since childhood.

McDaniel arrived in Lexington in the midst of a tumultuous time for the university, when students burned down an ROTC building in reaction to the Kent State protests. “When we wore our ROTC uniforms on Fridays I had cans, rocks and bottles thrown at me,” he said.

His experiences at UK were not all negative, however. Once when he was new to campus and looking for a building, a man approached him and said, “Son, you look like you could use some help.” The man turned out to be Adolph Rupp, who directed McDaniel to the right place. McDaniel is still a Wildcat fan.

His military plans seemed to be working out when he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was unable to attend for medical reasons, however, and also failed to receive medical permission to enlist in the Army, his next choice.

“After that I began to focus on a career as a police officer, something I was really trying to avoid in the beginning with my father being a police officer and my grandfather on my mother’s side serving as a town marshal and Midway’s first police chief for 38 years,” McDaniel said. “I fought it the whole time but I still gravitated toward it.”

Despite his early resistance, McDaniel soon settled into a law-enforcement career. He transferred to Eastern Kentucky University in 1969 so he could attend its new criminal justice program. Though he was only 19, McDaniel received special permission to be in the first class of the EKU’s basic police training program. He said he graduated second in his class and was sworn in as a patrolman in 1970 at age 21.

McDaniel married shortly after becoming a Midway patrolman and continued school while working as a young officer, taking night classes at Kentucky State University in Frankfort to finish his degree in criminal justice while continuing at Eastern. He and his wife had two daughters and divorced in 1983.

During his years on the Midway Police Department, McDaniel rose to the rank of assistant chief. When the county and Midway departments merged in 1978, McDaniel worked for the joint force for two years as a patrolman and detective.

After roughly 12 years as a police officer, McDaniel switched to corrections in 1982. He worked for three years at the Fayette County Detention Center, becoming night shift commander by the end of his first year. He ran for Woodford County jailer, but said he “discovered there was a lot more involved to winning an election than just getting a few names on a petition and getting your name on the ballot.”

Feeling disillusioned with the politics of corrections, he moved to a career in sales. He said he worked for a flooring company for three years, then for several other retail businesses. He became a district manager of two flooring stores in Lexington and started his own carpet installation company, parking-lot marking company and limousine service. When he switched to another flooring company, he got to travel around Eastern Kentucky, which he said he enjoyed because he “discovered what Eastern Kentucky was all about” and saw how diverse the area was geographically and economically.

McDaniel said he was forced to quit his traveling job because his recurring back troubles were exacerbated by sitting for long periods and getting in and out of vehicles. He decided to sell his flooring and limousine businesses in 1994.

“It was after this that my back issues had me on my knees with the doctors wanting to fuse my spine and put me in a body cast for six months,” he said. His pain stemmed from a ruptured vertebra from an old injury he sustained when he fell from an 18-foot ladder. McDaniel said he also suffered from depression during this time, and spent four weeks at in treatment, where he was classified as manic depressive.

“I could at times barely walk but I couldn’t receive disability,” McDaniel said of his back pain. He said he opted for medication instead of major surgery, and it was that and mounting financial difficulties that led him to begin to selling drugs in 1996.

“The excuses,” he said, “are too many to remember.” He said he has often tried to figure out how he ended up on the wrong side of the law. “Lord knows I was taught better,” he said. “I don’t think I have a criminal mind. Word got out that I had a prescription for pain killers for my back.” After that, he said he started getting calls “from people you would not believe” looking for drugs. “Amazing how they knew when my refill times were,” McDaniel said.

“When my prescription refill time was due, I didn’t take many of the pills myself because I didn’t want to become dependent on them. So I started selling my refills instead of taking them myself. I needed the money, so I determined that they were going to get the stuff from somebody so I may as well be making the money. It was then I expanded my operations.”

Once he determined what the drug market was like, McDaniel said he sold marijuana, then valium, then cocaine. “It’s amazing how things can escalate,” he said. An undercover police officer caught McDaniel in Fayette County, and he was charged with 11 counts of drug possession and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, a period he calls a “great experience.” He served his time at the Fayette County Detention Center, Roederer Correctional Complex, Blackburn Correctional Complex and the Dismas House, a halfway house in Lexington. “That’s probably when I got more into my writing,” he said.

McDaniel said he had always loved to write poetry and prose but started to increase his efforts during his time at the Dismas House. Looking back, McDaniel is thankful that he was arrested. “If I had not been caught, I could have ended up in jail for life,” he said, adding that in the drug world, “You end up getting shot or having to shoot someone.”

Even in prison, however, McDaniel’s life was marked with unusual experiences. During his time at Dismas House, McDaniel worked at a recycling center. Eager for reading material, he would often go through the unwanted papers. One day, he said he found a list of all of the officers of the Lexington Police Department with their phone numbers and addresses. He took the document, got a friend to copy it, and mailed the copy to the police chief, accompanied with a letter complaining about what McDaniel thought was loose security. “I also put a ring around the officer undercover on my case,” McDaniel said, explaining that he wanted to show just how dangerous that sort of list could be if it fell into the wrong hands.

When he got out of prison in 2000, McDaniel hopped right back into the middle of civic activity in Midway. “I got involved in downtown stuff,” he said. He was soon on the Midway Museum board, then became the director of the museum, which was housed in the City Hall building. He said the museum opening was attended by several hundred people.

Within two years of being released from prison, McDaniel was recognized as Midway’s Citizen of the Year. He said one citizen at his recognition was upset and asked another, “Do you know what that guy has done?” The other citizen responded by saying, “Yeah. So what?”

Bozarth said of McDaniel, “He’s a great example of someone who did something wrong but has paid his debt to society. He does a lot for the community.”

McDaniel worked for a home builder in Nicholasville, but before long, he returned to Midway. He became involved with Midway Renaissance and the project to revitalize Main Street and was president of the organization. He also became involved with the Midway Merchants Association, serving on its executive board.

In 2004, McDaniel teamed up with his brother Jim, right, to open the Thoroughbred Theater. They ran the not-for-profit theater for a little over four years. “We kept it afloat with a lot of support from the community,” he said.

In 2003, McDaniel used his lifelong love of writing to start the Midway Exchange, then the Georgetown Exchange, free local newsletters he describes as having “fun stuff about the local people, history and upcoming events.” The Georgetown Exchange is still in publication, and McDaniel is currently working on a comeback for the Midway Exchange. He hopes that citizens will be able to enjoy free copies of the Exchange in Midway restaurants in June.

The newsletter is just one of many projects McDaniel has in the works. He also takes photographs for Discover Horses and does freelance writing for the Kentucky Beverage Journal. He remains involved with the Merchants Association.

He may be best known for his weekly column of observations that leads the Midway page in The Woodford Sun. “John is a great asset to this newspaper,” said Stephen Peterson, managing editor of the Sun. “He’s not a trained journalist, but I don’t know of anyone who knows more about what’s going on in Midway than John. I would have a difficult time replacing him should that ever become necessary.”

This spring, McDaniel was in the news when the Midway City Council honored him for saving a choking woman by performing the Heimlich maneuver on her at 815 Prime. McDaniel said he and the woman were fortunate that he noticed her, since she had excused herself from the group and was in a corner struggling to breathe.

Looking to the future, McDaniel plans to remain involved with the town he loves. He would like to run for City Council, but cannot since he was convicted of a felony and has not applied to the governor for the restoration of his rights. Though several legislators have offered to help him get his rights reinstated, McDaniel said, he has resisted as a matter of principle, believing people should automatically be able to vote after serving their time, as is the case in almost every other state.

If McDaniel never gets to run for public office again, he still plans to try to help the city. “I’d like to be part of the development of Midway into more of a tourist area,” he said. “I’ve got some ideas and visions. Midway could be a pretty neat little town.”

After years of being closely involved with the city, it only makes sense that McDaniel’s future is tied up in Midway’s. “He is a very giving person to Midway,” Bozarth said. “He is a character with a big heart.”

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