The Ohio River still rolls by Billy C. Clark’s home town, the river where he fished, set traps and rowed boats during his boyhood.

It’s the same river he watched as a lad, his fertile imagination already roiling with the story ideas he would eventually set down in his autobiography, “Long Road to Hoe.”

The autobiography of Catlettsburg’s favorite son, who grew up to teach and write at the University of Kentucky, nationally acclaimed as an Appalachian author of the first rank, is the subject of a play to be produced in Boyd County.

The play is “River Dreams,” written by Betty Peterson, once a student of Clark’s at UK and now a professor of English at Somerset Community College.

Ashland Community and Technical College theater director Ed Figgins plans to direct the play.

A $7,500 grant to the Catlettsburg Community Development Club from the Kentucky Arts Council made the production possible, said Nikki Baker, agent for community and economic development with the Boyd County Cooperative Extension Service.

Peterson first considered adapting Clark’s autobiography to the stage 10 years ago and felt strongly enough about it to take a four-year sabbatical to write it. “I’ve always thought his autobiography to be one of the outstanding autobiographies. It’s written from the heart,” Peterson said in a telephone interview from her Somerset office.

Her own ardor comes from her long acquaintance with Clark. “He was my very first mentor in college and he was the one who encouraged me for years,” she said.

Peterson thinks of Clark as a literary figure still waiting for the acclaim he deserves. “He may not be as appreciated as he should be but I think that will come,” she said. “He’s a wonderful storyteller. There’s an honesty and a depth to the story.”

Figgins hopes to produce the play as part of ACTC’s 2007 summer theater series. He and Peterson are looking for a composer to write music for it; as written the play includes a chorus whose words may be either sung or spoken. “I think a musical would go over better,” he said.

The play follows Clark’s years growing up in the Gate City and his eventual graduation from high school, quite an accomplishment for a boy born into poverty.

Clark’s mother took in laundry to eke out a living; neither of his parents completed elementary school.

The play introduces viewers to several characters instrumental in Clark’s young life, Figgins said.

“I really like the title because Catlettsburg sits at the crook of the Ohio and Big Sandy and the river was very important to people of that time period,” he said.

Producing the play won’t be a one-time thing, Figgins hopes. Planners are hoping to hire a set designer to make collapsible sets that can be reused at different venues.

That way the show could be put on at schools and, hopefully, at Catlettsburg’s annual Labor Day festival. And if well-received, ACTC may make it an annual production at the college, Figgins said. “I think the community will be very supportive, because it’s based on one of their native sons.”

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.

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