Former Kentucky governor and businessman John Y. Brown dies

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John Y. Brown Jr., who became governor of Kentucky after building empires in business and sports, has died. He was 88 years old.

Brown’s family said in a statement 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 significant accomplishments, but most importantly, he loved his family with all his heart, and we in turn loved him with all our hearts.”

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said Brown was an “outstanding leader who is committed to serving the people of Kentucky.”

Brown had been a top Democratic fundraiser in the 1970s by the time he ran for public office. He also gained an international reputation as a master salesman. Kentucky Fried Chicken was a chain of small town restaurants before Brown made it a global company and a household name. He also owned three professional basketball teams, including the Boston Celtics.

In the spring of 1979, newly married to television celebrity and former Miss America Phyllis George, Brown returned to 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 through a relatively colorless field of candidates to win the nomination, then beat Republican Louie B. Nunn, a former governor, in the general election.

Brown was unlucky to take office as a recession tightened its grip and tax revenues dwindled. He earned high marks for keeping the state solvent, but thousands of state employees lost their jobs and they went after Brown in his two future runs.

In 1964 Brown purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from Harland Sanders for $2 million. He became chairman of KFC in January 1965 and sold it to Heublein Corp. in a $275 million stock exchange in 1971. Brown received nearly $21 million in Heublein stock for his KFC stock.

In 1969, Brown purchased a controlling interest in the Kentucky Colonels, a Louisville franchise from the American Basketball Association. After the ABA shut down, Brown paid $1 million for half the National Basketball Association’s Buffalo Braves interest. He wanted to move the Braves to Louisville but got stuck in court. Brown and a partner then traded the Braves for the Boston Celtics, in the first trade of professional sports teams.

The Braves then moved to San Diego and Brown then sold his share of the Celtics.

In 1983, Brown underwent the first of his heart bypasses. He was heavily sedated for a week and breathed using a respirator. Two months later, after swearing to quit smoking and lose weight, Brown told reporters that his brush with death had made him a new man. “It’s kind of a rebirth for me,” Brown said. “I think it’s going to change my life, and it had to change. … 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 line by winning election for Kentucky Secretary of State in 1995. He was re-elected unopposed in 1999.

While governor, Brown once offered his credo during a press conference at his Capitol office in Frankfurt: “Let me be free; let me be myself. I am different.”

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