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Pioneer

Pioneer Stories: Leticia Cline

Everyone who meets the enigmatically charming Leticia Cline falls in love with her, and we reckon that once you finish reading this interview, you’ll love her, too. After starting her career as an international model in the early ‘90s, Cline worked as an interviewer for Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling. She has since left the spotlight and now the 44-year-old resides in her childhood hometown of Cave City, Kentucky, where she opened a free community motorcycle garage, Smiley’s, named after her late father. 

In the six years since she’s been back in Cave City, Cline has been constantly hustling, making incredibly positive impacts on the community. She even ran for mayor, though she didn’t win the election. It’s hard to know where to start an interview with a woman who has lived such an adventurous and full life, so we decided to use her Instagram biography as a prompt, where she describes herself as a “writer, motorcycle racer, heritage tourism preservationist, cancer survivor, retired politician, and proud Kentuckian.”

When did you first start writing?

To be honest with you, I didn't think that I could write because I was severely dyslexic, and growing up in a small-town school, there wasn't any diagnosis for learning disabilities like that—I just didn't think I was smart. But writing in high school changed the course of my life forever. There was an assignment to write about the most important incident that happened to me, so I wrote about this kid that I knew in sixth grade who died in a hunting accident. I felt like I had to write it well to do him justice. I got 99%, which taught me two things: that I could write, and that if I worked hard at something, I could overcome any challenges. I started writing more, but secretly, only started writing professionally to supplement my income and fund my motorcycle rides across America.

"If we don't preserve the past, we have no idea what our future is. "

Now I've been working on a book for 10 years. I live next to the longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave National Park. In the 1920s, my great-great uncle went down into the cave and was trapped for 17 days and died. It was the second largest story between the World Wars and Lindbergh’s flight, and there was a moment of silence at the White House. My great-great uncle believed that all the key cave passages were connected, which was true, and after that Mammoth became a national park. I’m telling our history- where we date back to Cherokee Indians, and where I live now, Cave City. There are lots of things that I struggle with writing about because my family never wanted it talked about, but I have a ton of artefacts from grandma, that I've been fortunate enough to collect throughout my life.

Next on the list is “motorcycle racer,” so what got you into bikes?


My dad. He built motorcycles, and all of my baby pictures are on bikes. He put me on a motorcycle when I was four, racing around on little mini dirt bikes. 14 years ago I lost my dad and when he died, I gave up motorcycling. I just didn't want to ride, because it was something that I identified with him so much. And then I got a writing assignment from a motorcycle outlet, and it was like, “What am I doing? I need this, I just got to do this again.” 

That next weekend I sold my car and bought a motorcycle, and I felt connected to him again. I used to race motocross, and then Harley Hooligan flat-track racing, but I stopped after being charged by a bison during a ride in South Dakota. After surgery, I came back to Kentucky to recover, and when I got bored I went to my dad’s garage to work on my bike. Once I opened the doors, all these people started stopping by because no one had been in there for, 18 years, and these folks started telling me all these stories about my dad and their memories about the garage, and that’s when I decided to open the free community motorcycle garage, Smiley's.

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Why is heritage tourism and preservation important to you? 


There's no reason why we can't save the past and pave the way for the future. In fact, if we don't preserve the past, we have no idea what our future is. Living in small-town America, and growing up in a small town next to a very big tourist attraction, I understand the importance of preserving the past, and I take it one step further. I not only tell these stories through journalism, but I’ve also invested in an entire block of buildings in my hometown, renovated them, and opened up six businesses.

"Our first-of-the-month “Cars & Coffee” event brings in 3,000 people. We built an event centre outside that attracts musicians from all over, and now all of that's attracted investors to our area."

Are you open to discussing your struggle with cancer?


I had the run-in with the buffalo, and around the same time I had an abscessed tooth, which sent me to the hospital and had me on bed rest for three months. That’s when I found out I had cervical cancer. I’ve always felt that it was important to tell my story because early detection saved mine, and maybe it can help save someone else's. I still do wellness checks every year, because I have a lot of anxiety about the cancer, which makes sense when you consider that there was something foreign in my body that was trying to kill me. Cancer affects everyone, directly or indirectly, and it makes you value life a lot differently. It just completely put everything in perspective for me and made me realise that time is precious, and it's the only true thing that we have.

 

How did you get involved with politics?

I wanted to see change. After I moved home, I started opening all these businesses and started investing in property but not seeing any growth; the city was the same as when I left 18 years ago, if not declining. I realised that the people who were in office had been there for 50 years and after getting onto city council, I figured the way to change things is to empower people with knowledge.

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We were four generations deep of suppression and living off the government dollar, so I encouraged the community to attend city council meetings and have their say. It’s hard to believe that I live in the Bible Belt, own a bar across the street from a church, and have naked pictures online, but I was still the third-highest vote-getter for the city council. I ran for mayor last year, but I lost by 50 votes. In some ways, I won because I got my life back because the City Council was a full-time job, and I didn't have much time to do anything else, but I feel like our citizens lost because there's so much that we could have done if I were elected.

Next on your list is “proud Kentuckian,” so tell us about the bar you opened in downtown Cave City.


In the past, my sister has run bars, and she said there was a great building downtown for a bar, so we decided to go for it and bring our mom into it, too. The whole intent was to create life downtown and maybe encourage further business development. There was nowhere to eat, nowhere to drink, and nothing to do, so we did something about it. We're not just a bar, but also events. We do things that are crazy, in this little town that almost no one has heard of, where we close down the entire street for bike night, and 500 motorcyclists show up. Our first-of-the-month “Cars & Coffee” event brings in 3,000 people. We built an event centre outside that attracts musicians from all over, and now all of that's attracted investors to our area.

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What else is happening in the life of Leticia Cline that isn’t listed on your Instagram?

 

Well, recently I became marketing director for a pickle company, SuckerPunch.


Of course you did, congratulations. How’d that come about?

I was at this guy's farm in Tennessee, looking at an Airstream trailer, and he had a pickleball court, and that led to him saying he had a pickle company. We started talking and before long he offered me a job as a marketing director. I had just lost the election, so I said, “Yeah, I can have a life and work, too.”

It feels like “badass mother” should be on your list, too. If it’s all right to ask, how’s your son doing?

 

He just turned 21, he's enrolled in BMW mechanic courses and is at the top of his class. I'm so proud of the man that he's becoming. I've never lived the conventional life that people say you should have when you have a kid, but I also wanted my son to live a life full of passion and risk, and I wanted to give him all the tools and opportunities to do whatever he wanted. As long as I did that, I knew he would find whatever it was that he loved.

One other word that describes you well—and fits perfectly for this interview—is “pioneer.” What does that mean to you?


I love the word “pioneer.” To me it is about discovery, innovation, making your own way, and persevering. As a proud Kentuckian, I realise that young people from Kentucky won't have much, but they'll be so proud of it because they had to struggle and fight to get it, and that's something that gives us the tools to survive and do all that we can do. A pioneer, I definitely consider myself that and I want to be more of it, you know?

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