LOUISVILLE, Ky. — John Y. Brown Jr., who became Kentucky's governor after building empires in business and sports, has died. He was 88.
Brown's family said in a release Tuesday that "every day was an exciting adventure" for the former Democratic governor, who served 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."
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Brown was a "remarkable leader who was committed to serving the people of Kentucky."
Brown had been a leading Democratic fundraiser in the 1970s by the time he made his own run for public office. He also acquired an international reputation as a master salesman. Kentucky Fried Chicken was a string of small-town restaurants before Brown turned it into a global enterprise and a household name. He also had owned three professional basketball teams, including the Boston Celtics.
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. With his personal fortune, Brown unleashed a six-week campaign that made heavy use of television. He squeaked by a comparatively colorless field of candidates to win the nomination, then defeated Republican Louie B. Nunn, a former governor, in the general election.
Brown had the bad luck to take office as a recession was tightening its grip and tax revenues were dropping. He got high marks for keeping the state solvent, but thousands of state employees lost their jobs, and they took it out on Brown in his two future races.
In 1964, Brown purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken 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. 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 trade of professional sports teams.
The Braves later moved to San Diego, and Brown later sold his share of the Celtics.
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," Brown 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."
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.
While governor, Brown offered his credo one day in a news conference at his office in the Capitol at Frankfort: "Let me be free; let me be myself. I am different."