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Statesmen Series Includes Bert Combs

Kentucky Governor Bert Combs

By Stu Johnson


Richmond, KY – Bert Combs made three runs for Kentucky governor, and was handily beaten by some of the era's best known politicians. In 1955, he lost to Happy Chandler. In 1971, Combs lost to Wendell Ford. But in 1959, Combs had what many believe was a very successful term as governor. Among them is his daughter, Lois Weinberg, who's a politician herself.

"I guess his biggest attribute as a politician was that people knew that he was a straight shooter and it was the same thing as a father I knew I could count on whatever he said."

His wife, Appeals Court Judge Sarah Combs.

"He didn't turn his back on his people he didn't forget his roots he used that office as an opportunity to expand horizons for his own people."

And retired journalist Al Smith.

"And he had a rather flat effect I mean he talked like this in sort of a mountain accent and he didn't get excited about anything when he talked that's the way he faced you, but he was very smart but you had to listen a little while before you got the point of how smart he was."

More than one Kentucky governor has been tabbed "an education governor." Bert Combs certainly deserves that label. In the late 1980's, the east Kentucky native was lead counsel in a landmark legal case on financing public education.

When it was over, the State Supreme Court ruled the entire public education system unconstitutional. Combs talked about the lawsuit as part of an oral history project at the University of Kentucky. Many lawmakers, he said, we surprised by the court challenge and the ruling.

They couldn't believe "somebody would have the audacity to sue make them defendants and allege that they had failed in their constitutional duty," said Bert Combs.

In addition to eliminating inequalities in state funding for schools, the court ruling prompted passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act. It was like a reboot, forcing educators to rebuild their curricula. And, as Smith points out, the act reached into every school district in the state.

"Combs was amazed because he says we asked for a thimble full and they gave us a bucket because those poor mountain districts not all of them wanted to be regulated very much they just wanted the money and what they got was a brand new demand for better quality of teaching and better rules about administrative and nepotism," said Smith.

The hiring of relatives by school administrators was, according to Smith, a statewide practice. Smith says all that changed with reform. He says one measures the success of Kentucky governors by what they've done for education.

Kentucky's Community and Technical College System, which was once known as the community college system, also underwent significant change. Another former governor, Julian Carroll, who now serves in the state senate, recalls a summons received from Governor Combs.

"Course was honored as a freshman legislator to come to the governor's office and he ask me if I would assist him in the passage of the community college bill which I did and of course I have been a strong supporter of the community colleges ever since," said Carroll.

Combs' work on Kentucky's system of parkways is also considered a major accomplishment. And, today, The Mountain Parkway through eastern Kentucky bears his name.

Combs daughter, Lois Weinberg says her dad was proud of the many projects undertaken during his time as Governor.

"He was just so excited about the projects that he had going whether it was the mountain parkway community college system the improvements in mental health, he just saw that he could make a difference," said Weinberg.

Often referred to as "Kentucky's Jewel," the state park system flourished under Combs.

"We said and was generally accepted we had the finest resort state park system in the country," said Bert Combs.

Money for park improvements came from a three percent increase on the sales tax. Al Smith says Combs never had second thoughts about the need for additional revenue.

"When the money began to pour in the roads were being built the parks were being improved money was being spent on higher education capital improvements he was wherever something new was being built and dedicated and he would stand up and say we owe this to the sales tax he was determined that no body would ever turn back reverse the sales tax take it away that it was needed to make up for a long term of neglect," said Smith.

Besides serving as governor, Combs had a long legal career. He served as a City and Commonwealth's Attorney, on the state court of appeals, when it was in essence the supreme court, and on the federal court of appeals. Combs widow, Sarah Combs says judge was always the title he preferred.

"All the things he did in his life all the titles he had if people insisted on calling him a title rather than his first name the title he chose was judge not governor but judge because he had such a belief in the last impact of the legal system," said Sarah Combs.

Combs adds her husband had a long standing commitment to civil rights. In 1963, he signed an executive order that desegregated all public accommodations in Kentucky.

"You know the horrible things that were happening in the area of civil rights all he had to do to look like a giant was nothing but as he said I could not turn my eyes away and so he signed that revolutionary executive order and civil rights equality basically came to Kentucky in a very peaceful way," said Combs.

Daughter Lois Weinberg calls the move a major step. It was less stressful, Weinberg says, when her father worked to attract tourist dollars to the Commonwealth. And it was not just through state park improvements. The historic floral clock which still sits near the state capitol can be credited to Combs. Weinberg says the garden clubs across the state were recruiting for the project.

"Who can oppose what the ladies in the garden clubs across Kentucky do so all of sudden happy chandler is saying combs is down there trying to figure out if it's two poseys past a petunia or five panseys before a tulip and so all that died down and everybody's loved the floral clock for ever," said Weinberg.

Bert Combs died in a 1991 flash flood while driving to his home in Stanton Kentucky. Although it's hard to forget such an end to one's life, for many, it may be harder to forget his accomplishments.