John Y. Brown Jr., the dashing multimillionaire who built Kentucky Fried Chicken into an international success, then won Kentucky’s governorship in a whirlwind campaign with his celebrity wife, former Miss America Phyllis George, by his side, has died. He was 88.
In a statement, Brown's children wrote: "We are heartbroken by his passing, but find comfort in what he wrote in one of his final days: ‘I have never been so happy.’”
The children also said: "He was a true Kentucky original who beamed with pride for his home state and its people. He had many prominent accomplishments, but most of all he loved his family with all of his heart and we in turn loved him with all of our hearts."
Gov. Andy Beshear said Brown was "a remarkable leader who was committed to serving the people of Kentucky. He made our commonwealth a better place. Britainy and I are praying for his family and loved ones.”
Beshear directed that flags at all state office buildings be lowered to half-staff in Brown’s honor until sunset on the day of interment. Brown will lie in state in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol.
A trailblazer in the limelight with Phyllis George
Brown’s 1979 campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor destroyed the notion that candidates had to invest years of painstaking preparation before seeking the office. He demonstrated that a quick thrust, built on modern campaign techniques, could overwhelm organizational politics.
His upstart campaign relied on a blend of personality and political technique. Using his own fortune and an array of consultants, he challenged a large field of Democrats, plunging into the race just 10 weeks before the election.
Conventional wisdom said he had started far too late. But with his wife, Brown barnstormed by helicopter, promising to run state government like a business and market Kentucky’s potential for industrial development.
Unlike conventional candidates, he ignored the Democratic power structure and its county chieftains, defeating Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane by about 25,000 votes. Three other major candidates — Terry McBrayer of Lexington, U.S. Rep. Carroll Hubbard of Mayfield and Lt. Gov. Thelma Stovall of Louisville — were badly beaten.
Brown’s electrifying victory, coming in the wake of his marriage to George, catapulted the couple into the national limelight. “John Y. and Phyllis — Kentucky-Fried Style” read the headline on one none-too-flattering piece in New York Magazine.
Brown was Kentucky's first governor elected largely through television ads, making money more important in political campaigns, political reporter Al Cross, a professor at University of Kentucky, said in 2020.
By forsaking the traditional party machinery, Cross said, Brown gave us a more efficient professional administration. He claimed he had the best cabinet ever, and Cross said he may have been right.
Brown also helped establish the independence of the legislature by keep his hands off the election of legislative leaders in 1979, Cross said.
Brown’s term coincided with a severe national recession, crimping his efforts to lure industry and forcing him to shrink the size of state government.
Some observers said his experience keeping an eye on the bottom line made him well qualified to preside over state government in lean times.
“When I ran, I ran with a commitment to change,” Brown said in a midterm interview. “And I’ve changed things, I think, in basic areas. I’ve changed the political climate. I’ve cut waste. I am developing the economy. I said I would, and I have.”
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said that after turning KFC, one of Kentucky's signature businesses, into a global household name, Brown applied his private sector prowess to government, "promising to run Kentucky with the same discipline and creativity that had made his various enterprises thrive."
Outside of his family, one of his sons, John Y. Brown III, said his father was most proud of his time in office.
“I think the most rewarding accomplishment was being governor,” he said. “He saw that as public service and at some level it was a vindication of his father.”
John Y. Brown Sr., the father of John Y. Brown Jr., served one term in the U.S. House but lost races for governor and the U.S. Senate.
During the first years of his term as governor, the younger Brown and his aides kept one eye on the national stage. They dropped hints that Brown might be a candidate for president in 1984, a conservative alternative to the Democratic Party’s usual liberal tilt.
Brown’s name began to show up in national polls ranking the likely candidates. The Wall Street Journal ran a 1981 profile of the governor under a headline that read: “From Fried Chicken to the Governorship; Is White House Next?”
But Brown’s national prospects began to erode in 1982, when his name surfaced in connection with a federal investigation in Miami. Officials of a small Miami bank acknowledged that authorities had subpoenaed records of large cash withdrawals Brown made from the bank. The bank had not reported the withdrawals, as required by federal law.
Brown said he had transferred the money to Miami because he wanted to avoid the attention the transactions would have gotten had he withdrawn the money from a Kentucky bank. He insisted he had done nothing wrong.
“I worked hard for my money,” he said. “I made it legally, and I paid taxes on it. If I want to take it out of a bank in wheelbarrows, that’s my business. It’s my money, and I can do with it what I want.”
While investigators took no action against Brown, the probe drew attention to his occasional plunges into high-stakes gambling. He acknowledged he occasionally suffered heavy losses in Las Vegas. A year later, his name surfaced in reports about another federal investigation of drugs and gambling in central Kentucky that eventually touched some of his friends, but not him.
The impact of the two investigations dimmed his luster, all but precluding that he would make a national race.
In June 1983, he underwent emergency heart-bypass surgery at the University of Kentucky’s Albert B. Chandler Medical Center and nearly died of complications. He spent much of the rest of his term recuperating.
When the Democratic Party gathered in San Francisco in July 1984 to nominate Walter F. Mondale for president, Brown was out of office and largely a forgotten player on the national scene.
Under state law at the time, he was ineligible to immediately seek a second term.
Ironically, when he ran for a second term in 1987, hoping to succeed Kentucky’s first woman governor, Martha Layne Collins, he fell victim to a campaign that had overtones of his 1979 race.
Lexington businessman Wallace Wilkinson, propelled by his promise to start a state lottery, overtook Brown in the final days to win. Like Brown, Wilkinson depended heavily on television to get his message out and spent heavily of his own fortune. And like his opponents in 1979, Brown appeared to be without an effective answer to Wilkinson’s closing drive.
From Kentucky Fried Chicken to the Boston Celtics
A native of Lexington, John Young Brown Jr. was born Dec. 28, 1933, to John Y. Brown Sr., a prominent trial lawyer and politician and Dorothy Inman Brown, who is also deceased.
The elder Brown’s inability to win major office helped shape his son’s career. Brown Sr. ran numerous races for the Senate and for governor — always unsuccessfully, although as a young man he served as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives and as a congressman.
In his campaigns, John Y. Brown Jr. painted his father as the victim of machine politics who never enjoyed the success or recognition he was due.
In 1961, father and son opened a law partnership with offices in Louisville and Lexington. But the younger Brown was to spend most of his time wheeling and dealing in the business world.
In 1964, Brown Jr. formed a corporation that purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from Col. Harlan Sanders for $2 million. Brown was elected president of the corporation a year later and was chairman when it was acquired by Heublein.
He made $284 million on the deal, equal to about $1.8 billion in 2020 dollars.
In 1969 a group headed by Brown that included Humana co-founder Wendell Cherry purchased controlling interest in the American Basketball Association’s Louisville-based Colonels.
Initially hailed as a hero for saving the franchise from being moved to Cincinnati and bringing a championship to Louisville in 1975, Brown later became the goat, first for selling the rights to star center Dan Issel to the Baltimore Claws, to save money, then for taking $3 million to fold the team during the ABA-NBA merger the next year, rather than paying $3 million for it to join the older, established league.
Brown said he was done with professional sports, but went on to buy the Buffalo Braves, then an NBA team, then trade it for the ownership of the Boston Celtics. Fans turned on him there after he traded popular players without the approval of team president and legendary former Coach Red Auerbach. Brown sold the team in 1979.
He flirted with running for office before he won the governorship.
In 1972, he nearly ran for the U. S. Senate, but as the filing deadline approached, he sat for hours in a car outside the Capitol before deciding against running, apparently convinced that a Democrat wouldn’t have much chance in what was destined to be a Republican year.
He may have overthought the decision. Despite Richard Nixon’s record landslide presidential victory, Democrat Walter “Dee” Huddleston narrowly won the Senate seat.
In 1975, Brown considered running for governor but backed off.
Sworn in to that office on Dec. 11, 1979, Brown promised fiscal restraint. He had little choice on account of the sagging national economy that damaged the state’s financial health.
Brown was forced to trim the state budget four times, for a total of more than $600 million in planned expenditures. Stressing that state employees should be more productive, he cut the state payroll from 37,000 to 30,000 over four years.
Brown claimed credit for abolishing patronage and for saving millions of dollars by eliminating waste and the scores of personal service contracts that traditionally went to political favorites. His administration also required bidding for state investments and insurance.
But Brown was often criticized for his casual approach. Opponents said he was a better promoter than manager. His style was to leave the nuts and bolts to his cabinet heads, whom he gave unprecedented autonomy. While most of his predecessors stayed close to the job, Brown was often gone from Frankfort for weeks at a time. It was not unusual for him to be at his Florida home while the legislature was in session.
Brown brought new style as Kentucky governor
Brown argued that a governor who had to stay at his desk had not done a good job in choosing staff.
“I see the governor’s role as that of chief executive, the maker of policy, and manager of finances,” he said in a 1981 interview. “Government is a service business, but still a business. The key is getting good people, and we’ve gotten them.” His cabinet included successful businessmen like W.T. Young, William B. “Bill” Sturgill George Fischer, Gene Smith, Larry Townsend and Frank Metts.
The centerpiece of his administration was economic development. Under the slogan “Kentucky & Co. — The state that’s run like a business,” Brown pitched Kentucky from coast to coast. The state launched an ad campaign that featured Brown as chief executive. Some of his detractors saw it as much a promotion for Brown as it was for the state’s economic future.
While proof of his success was hard to come by, there was little doubt that the technique he developed while selling encyclopedias as a University of Kentucky student was a factor in convincing business owners to relocate or expand their operations in Kentucky.
One unquestioned change was Brown’s relationship with the legislature.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Brown did not dictate selection of legislative leaders nor did he use bare-knuckle pressure or dangle such goodies as road projects or jobs in front of reluctant lawmakers. Legislative independence gave lawmakers a more equal footing than ever in dealing with a governor. As a result, Brown often found himself forced into compromise, and sometimes defeated.
He was the first governor to support collective bargaining legislation for the state’s public school teachers. But a bargaining bill died in the Senate in 1980, and Brown did nothing to revive it, either then or in the 1982 session.
He also lost a 1980 effort to revamp the state’s personal income tax and a proposal permitting multicounty banking was defeated in 1982, although it was enacted after he left office.
While Brown won credit from critics for his grasp of the state budget, they often said he did not understand the government programs it financed. And they said he sometimes lost his focus, such as when he unsuccessfully attempted to oust Fran Curci as UK football coach.
But Brown had his legislative successes. He won expansion for the use of industrial revenue bonds to finance new industry. He and the legislature also lowered workers' compensation premiums, another move said to promote industrial expansion.
Brown’s push for an amendment to the state constitution that would have permitted him and other statewide elected officials and sheriffs to seek re-election was widely opposed by the political establishments of both parties and suffered a crushing defeat at the polls.
While governor, Brown and his wife enjoyed a highly visible, almost flamboyant lifestyle, as they shifted between Manhattan and Los Angeles as well as Frankfort and Lexington, where they lived in a historic estate called Cave Hill. Their private estate was home during much of his term because of the renovation of the Executive Mansion.
The helicopters, jet travel, expensive entertainment and the governor’s admission that he enjoyed gambling were constant rallying points for his detractors, while Brown insisted that he should have a private life even as governor.
Overall, he won high marks for his honesty and energy and the absence of greed and vindictiveness. While Brown’s administration was scandal-free, it was not immune from controversy.
In 1983, for instance, Brown fired Neil Welch, who had served as Justice secretary, after Welch acknowledged he authorized the taping of a conversation at Brown’s Florida home between former Transportation Secretary Frank Metts, a Brown confidante, and retired Brighton Engineering executive William H. May of Frankfort.
In the years after he left office, Brown continued to invest in business ventures, the most high profile of which was Kenny Rogers Roasters, a wood-roasted chicken restaurant he founded with the country music star of that name. It grew to 350 locations worldwide, but ran into competition from Boston Market and KFC, leading it to file bankruptcy in 1998 before its purchase by Nathan’s Famous, the hot dog giant.
Brown’s marriage to George was his second. In 1977, he was divorced from Eleanor Durall Brown. They had three children, Eleanor and Sandra Brown and John Y. Brown III, who served two terms as secretary of state before disavowing politics.
He and George had two children, Lincoln Tyler George Brown, a tech entrepreneur, and Pamela Ashley Brown, a television reporter who is an anchor and senior Washington correspondent for CNN.
He and Phyllis George, a pioneer for women in sports broadcasting, were divorced in 1998 and she died in 2020 at age 70.
Brown that year was wed a third time to another beauty queen, former Mrs. Kentucky, Jill Louise Roach, who was 27 years his junior. They divorced in 2003.
John Y. Brown III said after his father left public life, he became more philosophical and more family oriented, spending time with his adult kids and grandkids.
"He excelled at it," Brown III said. "And it meant a lot to us. "
Columnist Joseph Gerth contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: John Y. Brown Jr., a former KFC owner & Kentucky governor, dies at 88