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Former Ky. Governor John Y. Brown dies at 88

Governor John Y. Brown, First Lady Phyllis George, President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford; immediately behind them is boxing great Muhammad Ali
University of Kentucky Special Collections
Left to Right: First Lady Phyllis George, Governor John Y. Brown, President Gerald Ford, boxing great Muhammad Ali, and First Lady Betty Ford.

Former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown Jr. has died. His family confirmed the passing in a social media post on Tuesday. WUKY's Alan Lytle has this remembrance.

Brown was born in Lexington in 1933 and was the son of former U.S. Rep. John Y. Brown, Sr.

After a brief stint in the family’s law practice, Brown and a group of investors bought Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1964 for $2 million, turning Col. Harland Sanders’ restaurants into a global chain which he sold in 1971.

In the 1970s, Brown purchased ownership stakes in several professional basketball teams.

In 1979, after marrying his second wife, Phyllis George, Brown won the Democratic party’s nomination for Kentucky governor and went on to defeat incumbent Louie B. Nunn.


Brown served as the 55th governor of the commonwealth from 1979-1983. According to the National Governors Association, while governor, Brown reduced the budget by 22 percent and brought record commerce to the state.

Brown’s term as governor was marked by tough economic times, budget challenges, and state employee layoffs. After serving one term, his lieutenant governor, Martha Layne Collins, went on to become Kentucky’s first and only female governor.

Brown tried to make a political comeback in 1987 but failed to win the Democratic party’s nomination for governor.

After the defeat, Brown focused again on his business ventures which included teaming up with country star Kenny Rogers to create a chicken restaurant chain and later a meal prep kitchen concept with actress Suzanne Somers.

Brown’s business accomplishments put him on the Harvard Business School’s list of “Great American Business Leaders of the 20th Century.”

John Y. Brown was 88 years old.

Release from Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear:

“I am sad to share that former Governor John Y. Brown Jr. passed away yesterday,” said Gov. Beshear. “Gov. Brown was a remarkable leader who was committed to serving the people of Kentucky. He made our commonwealth a better place. Britainy and I are praying for his family and loved ones.”

The family of John Y. Brown Jr. released the following statement:

Our Dad, John Y. Brown Jr., not only dreamed the impossible dream, he lived it until the very end. His positive attitude and zest for life was unrivaled and allowed him to beat the odds many times over. Every day was an exciting adventure for him. He was a true Kentucky original who beamed with pride for his home state and its people. 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. 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.”

Gov. Beshear has directed that flags at all state office buildings be lowered to half-staff in Brown’s honor until sunset on the day of interment. The former Governor will lie in state in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol. Additional arrangements will be forthcoming.

Individuals, businesses and organizations throughout the commonwealth are encouraged to join in this tribute. Flag status information is available at governor.ky.gov/flag-status.

Alan Lytle has more than 25 years of experience as a Kentucky broadcaster. Over that span he has earned multiple awards for anchoring, writing and producing news & features for WUKY. He took home the Kentucky Broadcasters Association's Best Radio Anchor award in 2021.