Ex-Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who bought the iconic Fried Chicken chain and turned it into a fast-food juggernaut, married a Miss America and bought the Boston Celtics has died aged 88.
Brown’s family released a statement on Tuesday which said that ‘everyday was an exciting adventure’ for the former Democratic governor, who served Kentucky from 1979 to 1983.
‘He was a true Kentucky original who beamed with pride for his home state and its people,’ the family said.
‘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.’
In a tweet Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said that he was sad to share the news that Brown had passed away calling him a ‘remarkable leader.’
‘[He] was committed to serving the people of Kentucky,’ he said.
‘He made our commonwealth a better place. Britainy and I are praying for his family and loved ones.’
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1933, Brown paid his way through college and law school at the University of Kentucky as one of Encyclopedia Britannica’s top salesmen.
Following service in the US Army Reserve, he co-purchased KFC from Harland Sanders for $2 million.
He became president of KFC in January 1965 and sold it to Heublein Corp. in a $275 million stock swap in 1971. Brown received nearly $21 million in Heublein stock for his KFC shares.
In 1969, Brown purchased controlling interest in the Kentucky Colonels, a Louisville franchise in the American Basketball Association (ABA).
After the ABA folded, Brown paid a reported $1 million for half interest in the Buffalo Braves of the National Basketball Association.
He wanted to move the Braves to Louisville but was blocked in court. Brown and a partner then swapped the Braves for the Boston Celtics, in the first ever trade of professional sports teams in 1978.
Celtics fans turned on him however after he traded popular players without the approval of team president and legendary former Coach Red Auerbach. Brown sold the team in 1979.
While Brown will be best remembered as a restaurant magnate his turn as governor cemented his position as an esteemed Kentucky statesman.
Brown had been a leading Democratic fundraiser in the 1970s by the time he made his own run for public office.
In the spring of 1979, newly married to TV celebrity and former Miss America Phyllis George, Brown swooped back into his home state and entered the Democratic primary for governor.
His 1979 campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor destroyed the notion that candidates had to invest years of painstaking preparation before seeking office.
With his personal fortune, Brown kickstarted a six-week campaign that made heavy use of television, demonstrating that a modern campaign techniques, could overwhelm organizational politics.
He defeated Republican Louie B. Nunn, a former governor, in the general election, taking officer as the 55th governor of Kentucky from 1979 to 1983.
Brown had the bad luck to take office as a recession was tightening its grip and tax revenues were dropping.
While he was lauded for keeping the state solvent, thousands of state employees lost their jobs – later taking it out on Brown in his two future races.
During his tenure, according to the National Governors Association, Brown brought ‘record commerce’ to Kentucky and reduced the state budget by more than 20 percent.
His administration saw a more diverse cabinet than previous administrations, and the establishment of programs still in use today.
In 2009, Harvard Business School honored Brown as one of the top American business leaders in the 20th century, along with Ray Kroc, Sam Walton, Walt Disney, and Bill Gates.
Brown is survived by his sons, Lincoln and John Brown III, his daughters, Pamela Brown Wright, Sandy Steier and Sissy Brown, and his grandchildren, Vivienne and Benny Wright, Eleanor, Grace, Brooks and Colson Steier, Maggie Brown, John Brown IV, Will and Meg Talley, Lindo Mfeka and Will Alondamwani.
His daughter, a CNN anchor and senior Washington correspondent, Pamela Brown, said her father had a ‘zest for life.’
‘Our Dad, John Y. Brown Jr., not only dreamed the impossible dream he also lived it until the very end,’ she said.
‘His positive attitude and zest for life was unrivaled and allowed him to beat the odds many times over.’
In 1983, Brown had the first of his heart bypass surgeries.
He was heavily sedated for a week and breathed with the aid of a respirator.
Two months later, having sworn to give up cigarettes and lose weight, Brown told reporters his brush with death had made him a new man.
‘It’s sort of being born again to me,’ he said.
‘I think it will change my life, and it needed to be changed. I hadn’t eaten the right things, I hadn’t exercised, and I was a freak of nature.’
Pamela said that her father had been happy in his final days.
‘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.’
One of Brown’s sons, John Y. Brown III, added to the family’s political lineage by winning election as Kentucky secretary of state in 1995. He was re-elected without opposition in 1999.
‘My father was a true Kentucky original,’ said John Y. Brown III.
‘He loved our state and its people. He taught those around him to challenge the status quo, dream big and be bold.
‘He never feared failure, always kept his sense of humor and lived life with passion and intensity til the very end.’
In May 2020, Brown gave his condolences when his late ex-wife and former Miss America Phyllis George who died after a long fight with a blood disorder she’d had since she was in her 30s.
‘Phyllis was a great asset to Kentucky,’ Brown told the Courier Journal.
‘We had a great partnership. I think we enjoyed every single day.’
Visitation for Brown will take place Tuesday, November 29, at the Kentucky Capitol rotunda where he will lie in state. His service will be 3 pm at the state Capitol building the following day.
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