John Y. Brown Jr., a born salesman who made his fortune turning Kentucky Fried Chicken into a worldwide brand and who later used a six-week TV blitz to become the governor of Kentucky and serve one term, passed away on Tuesday in Lexington. He was 88.
His loved ones have speculated that Covid-19-related medical issues led to his untimely demise.
In 1964, Mr. Brown, a 30-year-old lawyer, and another investor paid $2 million (equivalent to nearly $19.3 million today) to purchase Kentucky Fried Chicken from its creator, Harlan Sanders. In the next seven years, he expanded a nationwide network of roughly 600 eateries into one of the biggest fast-food chains in the world, with some 3,000 red-and-white striped takeaway shops.
In 1971, he sold the company to Heublein Inc., a distiller, for an estimated $30 million (equivalent to around $225 million today).
Mr. Brown, the son of a former Kentucky congressman and state legislator, is a prodigious Democratic fund-raiser. He toyed with a political career in the past, considering a run for the United States Senate before ultimately deciding against it and then eyeing a run for governor in 1975 before ultimately deciding against that, too.
Mr. Brown’s tenure as governor of the state was marked by ups and downs, particularly given the state’s economic situation during his time in office. Promoting “Kentucky & Co.” as “the state that’s operated like a company” was one way he posed as “the architect of policy and manager of money” to bring in investors. Nonetheless, he had to reduce state payroll by the thousands in order to keep the state viable, all the while doing his best to prevent services from being drastically reduced.
According to “Kentucky’s Governors,” written by Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau and Bruce L. McClure, “he was a competent custodian of the commonwealth’s resources, but he was not a leader who suggested innovative initiatives in areas such as education or human resources” (1985).
Mr. Brown joined the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky in 1984 after his tenure as governor ended in December 1983, but he withdrew from the race six weeks later, citing the continued effects of the potentially fatal heart-bypass surgery he had had the previous year. Again running for governor in 1987, he finished in second place in the Democratic primary. His appeal as a possible presidential contender had already waned by that time.
John Young Brown Jr. was born on December 28, 1933, in Lexington. John Sr. was a trial attorney who, in the mid-1930s, spent a single term in the United States House of Representatives and, later, a long career in the Kentucky House of Representatives. John Jr. blamed the machine politicians whose backing his father had shunned for the repeated setbacks in the contests for governor and the U.S. Senate that tormented the family. The name of his mother was Dorothy (Inman) Brown.
He enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1959 and served until 1965, all the while earning a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a law degree in 1960 from the University of Kentucky.
Mr. Brown, who had an innate flair for business, had earned $1,000 monthly in commissions selling vacuum cleaners during his junior year of high school and $25,000 annually selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica during his two years of law school.
His adversaries would use the fact that he was a habitual high-stakes gambler against him. A probe was conducted into why he did not record withdrawing $1.3 million in cash from one of his bank accounts, although he was never formally accused of any crime.