John Yarmuth to receive JCL’s highest award

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth speaks at a 2016 rally against gun violence that the congressman organized at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Louisville. Yarmuth is this year’s recipient of the Blanche B. Ottenheimer Award. (Photo by Kathryn Harrington)

When John Yarmuth first ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006, he decided to do something most members of Congress never do.
If elected, he would give his paycheck to charity.
He was, and he has … for 11 years.
“I’m fortunate that I can afford to do that,” said the Louisville Democrat, who is running for a seventh term. “To me it was an opportunity to say in a different way that this job is about public service, it has nothing to do with personal financial interest, and it allows to me to give back in a different way.”
Yarmuth’s generosity is emblematic of why the Jewish Community of Louisville just named him the 2018 recipient of the Blanche B. Ottenheimer Award, the highest honor the JCL can bestow.
The award will be presented at the JCL Annual Meeting on Tuesday, May 29. Yarmuth, who will be unable to attend that evening, will accept in a videotaped message.
JCL President and CEO Sara Klein Wagner called Yarmuth an “outstanding champion of justice and fairness,” in announcing him as the Ottenheimer recipient.
“He exemplifies the virtues Blanche Ottenheimer engaged in civic life to help those in need,” Wagner said. “She was a lifelong advocate. The committee noted John’s work creating the LEO, and civic engagement in the Jewish and general communities.”
Over the years, Yarmuth, 70, has donated funds from his paycheck to several Louisville charities. Among them are Metro United Way, Fund for the Arts, JCL, Scholar House, Simmons College and the Urban League.
“What I focused on were organizations that help young people or vulnerable populations,” he said. “One of the great things about this job is, over time, you get exposed to some of organizations in the community that do incredible work.”
A lifelong Louisville resident, Yarmuth is a graduate of Yale University. He worked as an aide for then-U.S. Sen. Marlow Cook (R-Kentucky) from 1971 to 1975 before returning to Louisville. Here, he worked as a vice president of university relations at UofL and started his publishing career.
Yarmuth founded Louisville Today in 1976, which published until 1982. In 1990, he began his most successful news venture, LEO Weekly (Louisville Eccentric Observer), an alternative publication that is still in business, owned and operated by Yarmuth’s son, Aaron.
Yarmuth wrote a long-running column for LEO Weekly, which he only suspended when he ran for Congress.
Asked if journalism has influenced his community work, Yarmuth said, “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
“Probably the biggest factor was my parents’ civic activity, their philanthropy,” he continued. “A It always begins with the role models you see, and that informed what I did journalistically.”
Yarmuth pointed to several legislative achievements during his time in Congress:
• The Affordable Care Act (he served on one of the drafting committees);
• Student loan forgiveness for borrowers who go into public service careers;
• The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (he was the primary sponsor), providing housing, guidance and help finding school for youths fleeing troubled home environments.
Yarmuth said his staff has also worked hard to secure federal assistance for urban projects that may not otherwise receive help. He cited Louisville’s Shepherd Square as one such project.
“It’s a great honor,” Yarmuth said of the Ottenheimer Award, rattling off a list of past recipients in whose company he was proud to be.
“When you read the criteria for the award,” he added, “that’s what I try to do. I try to do the things that my faith teaches and my background taught me.”

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