'What you see of Kelley now is what she was then'

Kelley Paul speaks in January about her new book during an event at the Hilton Garden Inn. (Austin Anthony/photo@bgdailynews.com)

When Lally Riley McLean talks about Kelley Paul, it’s easy to tell the two are close friends.

“We just had the best of times growing up together. We were in each other’s weddings. We send each other birthday cards and remember the fond memories we had growing up,” the St. Louis woman said. “Our families are good friends. Our parents live right down the street from each other. We try to see each other over Christmas as much as we can.”

She and other friends of the wife of presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., describe her in glowing terms – “fun,” “sweet,” “energetic,” “vivacious,” “bubbly,” “life of the party” and “role model.”

“What you see of Kelley now is what she was then,” said Kelley Smith Steenbergen of Russellville. “Kelley was always the perfect girl. She was nice to everyone at school. She was strong academically. She was a strong, bright girl.”

While Paul was “spirited,” she never got in trouble, said Shelly Smith Dillard, Kelley Smith Steenbergen’s twin sister, of Bowling Green.

“She didn’t do bad things,” she said. “She was very well-respected.”

McLean was in fifth grade when the former Kelley Ashby’s family, including her parents, Hilton and Lillian Ashby, moved to Russellville from Turkey. Kelley Paul’s father had been in the Air Force, she said. They became fast friends.

“We used to play pioneer girl,” she said. “We were Laura Ingalls Wilder fans.”

The duo took vacations in Florida, and being in each other’s weddings was “very special,” McLean said.

“We’re very lucky we’ve found a way to maintain our friendship all these years,” she said.

Steenbergen remembers when Kelley Paul was on the cheerleading squad when the Russellville High School Panthers won the state football championship during the 1980-81 school year.

“She was the only senior at the time on the cheerleading squad,” she said. “She was like a big sister to all of us.”

Dillard also remembers the game.

“That was Kelley’s senior year and my junior year. It started snowing, and we had to put on our blue jeans, she said. “We thought it was the coolest thing that we could cheer in our blue jeans.”

Kelley Paul’s makeup and the way she dressed was “always perfect,” Steenbergen said.

“She is so pretty. She’s almost model-looking,” she said. “Some people were jealous of her. She’s always looked like that. She’s always taken pride of how she looks.”

When Kelley Paul went to college, she and Steenbergen lost touch, but when they saw each other at a high school reunion, it was like they had never been apart.

“She was still the same Kelley Ashby we always knew,” she said.

Dillard became reacquainted with Kelley Paul as well.

“We all got reacquainted when they honored all the cheerleaders and football players a couple of years ago. My husband (a contractor) did a kitchen remodel for them,” she said. “We see them at functions around town.”

Alison Baker of Russellville remembers having classes with the then-Kelly Ashby.

“We were classmates in school from fifth grade through senior year. We became friends quickly. You felt she was always a friend even if you had different sets of friends,” Baker said. “I think there were a few times we went bowling with friends and went for pizza afterwards.”

Baker has a picture from when they in either fifth or sixth grade.

“She was the cutest little thing,” she said. “She had her hair in braids in little buns on the side of her face.”

Baker remembers a visit she took to the Ashbys’ house, a home that Baker’s grandmother and aunt would later live in. “I think we were working on a school project together,” she said.

Alicia Stivers of Bowling Green didn’t grow up with Kelley Paul. She met her after she moved to Bowling Green more than 20 years ago.

“We got to be good friends and had our children together and were neighbors,” she said. “We started a book club together.”

Kelley Paul still makes as many book club meetings as she can despite spending much of her time with her husband in Washington, D.C.

“She decided to put Robert, her youngest, in school up there. Usually, she’s home a week or so every month,” Stivers said. “She’ll be here all summer once Robert’s out of school.”

Stivers thinks the world of Kelley Paul.

“Kelley’s like a sister of me. I’m an only child,” she said. “She’s a wonderful person. She’s very entertaining. I’m honored to have her as a friend.”

She looks forward to the release of Kelley Paul’s book, “True and Constant Friends: Love and Inspiration from Our Grandmothers, Mothers and Friends,” which is scheduled to be released April 14. The book is a collection of essays about strong women. Kelley Paul will also be at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest, Stivers said.

“She can make a trip to the store to buy a sack of potatoes a humorous story. I’ve read a lot of the book, and it’s really good,” she said. “Her gift translates to writing. She writes very well.”

Bobbie Jean Burnett has lived in Russellville a long time. A retired schoolteacher, she had Kelley Paul’s nephew as a student.

“I know her parents real well,” she said. “They’re a hop, skip and a jump from where I live. I knew them even before she became famous.”

Burnett, a member of the Logan County Republican Women’s Club, said the group invited Kelley Paul to talk about her book.

“We got even more acquainted with her at that time,” she said. “She’s a delightful young lady.”

Kelley Paul donated one of her books to the club.

“It’s going to be a good book. She did just a marvelous job of telling us about her grandmother (who is featured in a story in the book),” Burnett said. “She’s an accomplished speaker. She had her notes but rarely used them. I want to get a copy of it for myself when it’s out.”

Kelley Paul’s friends are excited about the possibility of her becoming first lady of the United States.

“I think she’d be ideal for it. She has nothing to hide. I think they’re great role models for Bowling Green,” Dillard said. “Some of the things he is for, I oppose, but as a whole I think they’re nice people. I think they would be a good representation for this country.”

Baker always thought Kelley Paul would do something notable.

“I think she is a great spokesperson for her husband and the things they stand for. I think they have a lot of family values that everybody looks for,” she said. “They have those values that reflect the Bible Belt.”

She pictures Kelley Paul as being a strong supporter while also being a spokesperson in a “natural” way.

“I don’t think she will be overpowering,” she said. “She has a kind and gentle spirit.”

Stivers said Rand Paul has a passion for politics and thinks Kelley Paul will be a good attribute.

“Politics has always been Rand’s passion. He’s really one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. It doesn’t surprise me that Rand went into politics,” she said. “I signed his papers when he ran for Senate. At the time, we thought it was a long shot. He was not tied in to the Kentucky Republican party. There were more established candidates. We didn’t know about his ability to raise the funds.

“The technological age opens it up to the everyday Joe. He raised the money for his campaign by people sending $5, $15 and $20,” Stivers said. “In a world where people have the money have the most say, I think that’s a wonderful thing. People who don’t have a lot of money have a say of who runs for office.”

She knows, however, that Kelley Paul will be fine on the national stage.

“She’s a natural,” Stivers said. “She’s a gifted speaker and storyteller and she’s super-smart and talented.”

McLean said she has been “so incredibly proud” of the Pauls.

“When Rand won the first Senate race, I was moving my daughter home for the summer. I stopped in Bowling Green and surprised Kelley at the victory party,” McLean said. “Two little girls from Russellville, to think one of them could be the first lady of the United States. I hope they’re in the White House soon. It’s pretty exciting.”

— Follow features reporter Alyssa Harvey on Twitter at twitter.com/bgdnfeatures or visit bgdailynews.com

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