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Former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. dies at age 88

Office of the Governor of Kentucky

John Y. Brown Jr., Kentucky’s Democratic governor from 1979 until 1983 and a prolific investor in fast food chains, died at age 88 on Tuesday. He is known for catapulting the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain into an international brand. 

His passing was confirmed in a statement by his family:

“Every day was an exciting adventure for him. 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. 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.’”

Gov. Andy Beshear issued a statement, calling Brown a “remarkable leader.”

“I am sad to share that former Governor John Y. Brown Jr. has passed away. Gov. 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 said.

Brown was the son of former Congressman John Y. Brown Sr., who served as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives and a member of the state legislature for over 30 years.

Brown graduated from the University of Kentucky with a law degree and first went into his father’s law practice, and began investing in fast food chains in the early 1960s. He built Kentucky Fried Chicken into one of the biggest fast food chains in the world before selling it.

He was involved in professional sports businesses, investing in the Boston Celtics and the now-defunct Kentucky Colonels.

During his time as governor, he was married to former Miss America Phyllis George. He later married former Miss Kentucky Jill Roach.

In 1979, Brown self-funded his campaign for governor and won, serving until 1983.

Al Cross, Kentucky political journalist and director of Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues called him a “reformist governor.”

“Kentucky used to be a patronage-oriented state, by extension allowing political corruption. Brown simply said he’d run the state like a business, he was an excellent salesman, and that’s what he went on to do. He didn’t really like legislative politics as governor, he thought he was elected to do the job and not to run the Democratic party,” he said.

Brown ran again for governor in 1987 and sparred with fellow Democratic candidate, then-Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear. He lost the Democratic primary that year and Wallace Wilkinson won the governor’s race.

Brown went back to focusing on restaurants after his stint in politics and launched another chain and a meal-prep service.

This story has been updated. 

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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