John Y. Brown Jr., Former Kentucky Governor and KFC Owner, Dies at 88

John Y. Brown Jr., former owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken who parlayed his fast-food fortune to achieve a dramatic rise in Kentucky politics, winning a term as governor shortly after marrying sportscaster and former Miss America Phyllis George , died on November 21 at a hospital in Lexington, Ky. He was 88 years old.

He had complications from Covid-19, said his daughter Pamela Brown, CNN’s anchor and senior Washington correspondent.

The son of a one-term congressman who yearned for higher office, Brown entered politics after a business career in which he helped turn Kentucky Fried Chicken into one of the state’s most famous exports and food chains. largest express in the country. world. He also owned three professional basketball teams, including the Boston Celtics.

Brown was 30 years old in 1964 when he and a co-investor bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from founder Harland Sanders, better known as Colonel Sanders, for $2 million. They kept the colonel—the title was honorary—as their spokesperson as the chicken chain grew to include 3,500 locations worldwide, eclipsing even McDonald’s for a period.

Mr. Brown and his partner sold the business to Heublein in 1971, Mr. Brown’s share of the deal reportedly reaches $35 million. He had already bought the Kentucky Colonels, a team from the now-defunct American Basketball Association, and later became the owner of the Buffalo Braves and then the Celtics. He toyed with the idea of ​​running for the US Senate or for governor before running in the 1979 Democratic gubernatorial primary, less than three months before the election.

He and George were newlyweds when she embarked on the offer — they married the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale in March 1979 — and together they cultivated an aura of glamor that came to be dubbed Kentucky Camelot. George had been crowned Miss America in 1971 and later became one of the few women in sports broadcasting, co-hosting CBS’s pregame football show “The NFL Today.”

In the primaries, Brown defeated several other more experienced candidates, including former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane, state Commerce Commissioner Terry McBrayer, US Representative Carroll Hubbard Jr., and Lieutenant Governor Thelma Stovall. Brown then easily defeated former Republican Governor Louie B. Nunn in the general election. He relied heavily on his own wealth to cover Kentucky in television commercials, spending $2 million on his winning campaign, according to the American Politics Almanac.

His “campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination destroyed the notion that candidates had to spend years of painstaking preparation before running for office,” said Brown’s obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “He demonstrated that a quick push, based on modern campaign techniques, could overwhelm organizational politics.”

Mr. Brown pledged during the campaign to bring his business acumen to state government. Once in office, he helped guide the state through a recession. It cut state spending “by $676 million, or 16 percent, resulting in a payroll reduction of 4,000 jobs to 37,200, but the loss of programs of only about 4 percent,” according to a report by the New York Times in 1981.

Phyllis George, Miss America who became a pioneering sportscaster, dies at 70

State law prohibited Kentucky governors at the time from seeking a second consecutive term, and Mr. Brown indicated interest in possibly seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 1984. But he faced controversy over a federal investigation into his $1.3 million withdrawal cash. from a Miami bank that failed to make mandatory reporting of transactions to the IRS. Mr. Brown later said that he used much of the cash to pay off a gambling debt he incurred on “one really bad night” in Las Vegas.

“I worked hard for my money, did it legally, and paid the taxes,” Brown told the Times in 1983. “If I want to push it out of a bank in wheelbarrows, that’s my business. It’s my money and I can do what I want with it.”

Mr. Brown ultimately did not face charges.

In 1983, his last year in office, Mr. Brown nearly died after undergoing heart bypass surgery. The following year, he dropped out of a primary bid for the US Senate, citing his ongoing recovery. He tried to regain the governorship in 1987, but lost in the Democratic primary to Wallace Wilkinson, who ultimately prevailed.

John Young Brown Jr. was born in Lexington on December 28, 1933, one of five children and the only boy. His mother was a housewife. His father was named for John Young Brown, a Democrat who served as Governor of Kentucky from 1891 to 1895. He became a lawyer, speaker of the state House of Representatives, and a member of the United States House from 1933 to 1935. He ran seven times for the United States Senate and twice for Governor, each time without success.

“I wanted to atone for that,” Mr. Brown told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1994. “That was probably my underlying motivation. He wanted to go in there and kick out the scoundrels.”

Mr. Brown received a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a law degree in 1960, both from the University of Kentucky. He displayed an entrepreneurial streak as a college student, earning up to $500 a weekend selling copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica door-to-door.

While serving in the Army Reserve, Mr. Brown practiced law with his father. “I made a good living,” he told the Sun-Sentinel about his years before he bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from Sanders, a friend of his father. “But the Colonel arrived and I said: ‘To hell with the law. I can always go back to the law.’”

His prolific political fundraising helped gain the attention of the state and national Democratic parties. He unsuccessfully challenged United States Senator Walter D. Huddleston in the 1978 Democratic primary before his successful run for governor the following year. He sold his part to the Celtics in 1979.

Mr. Brown’s first marriage, to Ellie Durall, ended in divorce. He and George divorced in 1998, and she died in 2020. His third marriage, to Jill Roach, a former Mrs. Kentucky, also ended in divorce.

Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Sissy Brown of Lexington and Sandy Steier and former Kentucky Secretary of State John Y. Brown III, both of Louisville; two children from her second marriage, Pamela Brown of Alexandria, Va., and Lincoln Brown of Lexington; and 12 grandchildren.

Mr. Brown owned or helped grow several fast food chains, including Kenny Rogers Roasters, which he co-founded with the country musician of the same name. Another was called John Y’s Grill, a reference to the name by which many Kentuckians knew Mr. Brown. He joked that he was “the only governor with his name on a chicken coop.”

“Of all the things I’ve done, I’m the proudest to be in politics,” Mr. Brown told the Sun-Sentinel. “I regret not making it a career.”

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