Estill native comes home to write the next chapters
of her event-filled life.
By Don White, CV&T Staff Writer
Her eventful life is an open book, and Johnetta Kirby Dunaway Whalen has returned to her old Kentucky home to write the next chapters.
“I’m here to entertain,” says the tall, spirited redhead and proprietor of Irvine’s first bed & breakfast, sitting down in the parlor of her stately home and playing a fast-paced tune on her piano.
At age 71, the Estill native, whose mother and grandmother were known for being avid squirrel hunters, admits some people may think she’s a little nuts for starting a new business.
Born in post office
But living life on the edge and taking on new challenges has been her hallmark ever since she was born in the back of the South Irvine Post Office.
The two story frame home at 233 Main Street was occupied by the Bergman family when Johnetta was attending nearby Estill County High in the early to mid 1950s.
She is calling her residence and place of business “The Bergman House” in honor of the former owners.
It’s not the first time a member of her family has housed guests in Irvine.
Father was jailer
Her father, John “Brud” Kirby, was Estill County jailer in the 1960s and early 1970s, while her mother, Dixie, served as postmaster at South Irvine.
Vivid memories of her high school years include being called a “sheep herder” by the city residents who attended nearby Irvine High.
“We country kids called them “alley rats” and “drug store cowboys,” she says.
She was seldom seen out of the presence of tall and handsome Elmer Dunaway.
She recalls being at basketball games when the hard-driving athlete was called for fouling early and often.
Elmer was sixth man
“He was usually the sixth man and the coach brought him in when they needed some rough housing. I can still hear the referee now….’23 ELBOWING!’” she says, laughing.
After seven years of dating, the two were married for 28 years and had three sons and a daughter before divorcing.
Steamy details of their life together in Cincinnati where Elmer was a very high profile police officer are detailed in her book Under The Cowboy Hat.
“I told it like it was,” she says of the book that was the best seller in Cincinnati for three weeks before being dethroned by Angela’s Ashes.
Son died at 40
Besides helping guide her family through some difficult times, including the sudden and shocking death of her eldest son, Kirby Lee, at age 40, she worked as a travel consultant, legal secretary, and a one-week stint as a beautician.
After being single for 15 years, she met and married northern Kentucky native Mike Whalen, 59, a railroad conductor, former blacksmith and heavy equipment operator, and an avid gun collector.
Wed for five years
They have been married for five years and are working together to make their business venture a success.
Despite limited advertising, more than half a dozen guests have found their way to the Bergman House since the official opening on May 15. coming from as far away as Alexandria, Virginia.
Two rooms are ready for guests and two more are being prepared.
All are decorated in themes, including the 1950s, complete with a framed Elvis photo and period furniture; a Civil War room featuring photos of generals Lee and Grant, Kentucky Wildcats, and Kentucky Derby.
All rooms upstairs
All guest rooms are upstairs, including an entertainment room complete with plush furnishings and a wide- screen TV.
Guests are welcome to come downstairs to the newly remodeled kitchen for snacks, but a full breakfast cannot be served at this time due to regulations calling for two kitchens in the home, according to Johnetta.
Anyone wanting a full breakfast is provided with 10 percent-off coupons for the Railroad Café, located across the street.
Rooms rent for only $70 per night for two people, one of the lowest rates to be found for such a high quality establishment.
“We’re not out to get rich,” says Johnetta.
“Mainly I just wanted to come back home and do something for myself, and for my hometown.”