Kentucky bids farewell to the man who 'never lost a race'

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By Keith Lawrence/Messenger Inquirer/Kentucky Press News Service

 Retired U.S. Sen. Wendell Hampton Ford, the self-styled "Boy from Yellow Creek" who became governor of Kentucky and assistant majority leader of the U.S. Senate in a 33-year political career, died early Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015.

He was 90.

Ford had announced on July 18, 2014, that he was battling lung cancer.

Ford, who never lost a race, served in public office from 1965 to 1999 - first as a member of the Kentucky Senate, then as lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator.

Despite his reputation as a rural politician, Ford was born in Owensboro and spent four years – ages 8 to 12 - in Frankfort, where his father, the late Ernest Milton “E.M.” Ford, served a term in the House of Representatives, four terms as assistant clerk of the House and was on the Public Service Commission.

Wendell Ford’s first public speech was in the Kentucky House, where he served as an 8-year-old honorary page.

In 1936, the Fords returned to Daviess County and bought a farm in Thruston, near the banks of Yellow Creek, a small stream that flows eastward from Chautauqua Park in Owensboro to the Ohio River.

And Ford’s campaign literature always played up those rural roots, telling how he got up at 4 a.m. to milk 16 cows each morning before school.

Ford and his younger brother, Reyburn, also raised five or six acres of tobacco each summer.

Their father – an insurance executive – was active in Kentucky politics, also serving in the Kentucky Senate from 1945 to 1953, as Daviess Democratic Party chairman from 1940 to 1956 and as Owensboro city manager in 1958-59.

On Sept. 18, 1943, Ford married Jean Neel of Owensboro.

In 1944, with World War II heating up, Ford was drafted. He served two years in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood, Texas, and Camp Robinson, Arkansas, where he was discharged as a sergeant.

Ford came home in 1946 and joined his father in the insurance business. He also became a high school basketball referee on the side.

And in 1947, he joined the Owensboro Jaycees – a decision that would change his life.

In 1953, Ford ran for his first office, president of the local Jaycees chapter – and won.

That was the start of his political career.

Ford rose rapidly through the ranks. He was elected state Jaycee president later that year, one of several national vice presidents in 1955 and national president in 1956.

“I was actually more issue-oriented as a Jaycee than I was as a candidate,” he said years later. “When I was in Jaycees, we put in the Hillcrest Golf Course and got the support to build both the Owensboro airport and the Sportscenter.”

As national Jaycee president, Ford spoke in all (then) 48 states plus Canada, Mexico, Hawaii (which still wasn’t a state), New Zealand and Australia, traveling 230,000 air miles.

And not one of them on a jet.

In 1957, he toured Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines on his way to an international Jaycee meeting.

All that travel would leave its mark, making Ford a national advocate for better air transportation.

In 1954, he was named Owensboro’s outstanding young man.

And a year later, Ford was named one of Kentucky’s three outstanding young men.

In 1959, Gov. Bert Combs tapped him to become his chief administrative assistant.

On March 17, 1961, Ford’s mother – the former Irene Woolfolk Schenk – died of a heart attack at age 65. And he came home to help his father and brother with the family business.

But Ford didn’t stay away from politics long.

In 1963, he managed Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt’s successful campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor. And the following year, Ford was named Daviess County’s outstanding Democrat and was elected chairman of the county’s Democratic Party.

In 1965, Ford successfully challenged former Mayor Casper “Cap” Gardner, the incumbent, for the state Senate seat his father had once held.

“Breathitt encouraged me to run,” he said.


The Louisville Courier-Journalwrote that one of Ford’s strengths was in co-opting former foes.

In 1967, halfway through his Senate term, Ford entered the race for lieutenant governor.

Voters that year went for a rare split ticket. They elected Republican Louie Nunn as governor – and Ford as lieutenant governor.

It was the last time Kentucky would have its two top officials from different parties. State election laws have been changed to require the governor and lieutenant governor to run as a slate.

Both of Kentucky’s U.S. senators were Republicans in 1967, just as they are now. And Ford quickly became the state’s most powerful Democrat.

But victory came with a cost.

On July 31, 1967, while Ford was on his way to a campaign speech in Madisonville, his father died of a heart attack at age 70, while eating lunch at home.

But his political star was rising.

In 1971, Ford was elected governor.

His accomplishments include removing the sales tax from food, medicine and clothing, reorganizing state government for the first time since 1936, creating revenue sharing with local governments and pushing home-rule legislation for cities and counties.

In 1974, with another year left on his term, Ford ran for the U.S. Senate.

It was a move he hadn’t expected to make.

“We had purchased our home in Owensboro while we were in Frankfort, and Jean was looking forward to coming back to Owensboro,” Ford said of his wife.

But Bob Strauss, national Democratic chairman, came to Frankfort to visit Ford.

"I wasn’t planning on running," Ford said. “But polls showed I was about the only one who could beat (incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Marlow) Cook.”

So he ran – and won.

In Washington, Ford quickly became one of the leading spokesmen for the tobacco industry and the tobacco growers.

But he was in near perfect health throughout his career.

In 1998, just before his retirement, Ford said, “I tried to stop smoking once or twice – but not for very long. The only health problems I’ve ever had are two hernia surgeries and an aneurysm. I’m in good health, and I have no intention of stopping smoking.”

In January 2013, Ford told a group of students at a leadership training program at his Wendell H. Ford Government Education Center that he almost left the Senate after two years – frustrated at his lack of success in getting things done.

Instead, he said, he decided to work to attain more power to help change the Senate and make it more effective.

“We were too liberal in our Senate leadership,” Ford said. “I was more moderate.”

One student asked how it felt to be among the most powerful men in Washington.

“Awesome,” Ford said. “It was something tremendous.”

Asked the best advice he ever received, Ford said, “Be honest. My mother told me that. She also said to never use a word unless I could spell it.”

Ford has been the only Kentuckian to serve successively as lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator.

Rob Mangas, Ford’s Washington chief of staff, said the senator “really agonized” over whether to leave Washington and run for another term as governor in 1991. Just as he would agonize over his retirement eight years later.

“I came very close to running,” Ford said of 1991.

“I’ve been competitive all my life,” he said. “But I never made a sale by condemning my opponent. I did it by showing I gave the better service.”

Ford was among the last of the old-time fire-and-brimstone stump speakers in Kentucky politics. When his rhetoric got hot, someone in the crowd would always yell, “Give ‘em hell, Wendell!”

As chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Ford presided over two presidential inaugurations – George H. W. Bush’s in 1989 and Bill Clinton’s in 1993.

As the ranking Democrat on the committee, he co-chaired two others – Ronald Reagan’s in 1985 and Clinton’s in 1997.

A bust of Ford adorns the southeast corner of the Daviess County Courthouse lawn.

The U.S. 60 bypass around Owensboro was renamed in his honor as was the Western Kentucky Parkway from Elizabethtown to Eddyville.

In November 2012, the airfield at Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport was renamed in his honor. And Ford was inducted into the city’s new Walk of Fame as its second member – after NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip.

On March 6 2013, the Ford Center brought former President Bill Clinton to town to speak to a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser to help fund the center so it could create a new Wendell Ford Statesmanship Academy where high school students can receive college credit.

Ford said privately that two other Kentucky cities have approached the Ford Center, asking about similar programs.

If the center can raise the money, he said, the programs could be sent statewide by teleconferencing.

“When they put me in the ground, I want to leave something lasting behind,” Ford said.