Col. Harland Saunders, whose visage beams down from the facades of 6,000 fast-food outlets in 48 countries that sell his "finger-lickin' good" Kentucky fried chicken died of pneumonia yesterday at the Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky. He was 90.
His ailment was diagnosed as leukemia earlier this year and he had been in the hospital since Nov. 7 for treatment of kidney and bladder disorders.
Col. Sanders -- the colonelcy was conferred on him by Gov. Ruby Laffoon of Kentucky in 1936 -- took care to appear always as the perfect southern gentleman. His planter's hat, his wavy white hair, his goatee, his white suits and black string ties became as much a part of the American scene as, well, the hot dog. For his likeness adorned the places that sold his chicken and the buckets, baskets and cups in which it was dispensed. His grandfatherly self, surrounded by small children or prancing through a meadow despite his years. appeared in dozens of television advertisements.
The message was always the same and part of it entered the American language: "finger-lickin' good" is what that Kentucky fried chicken was, according to the colonel, and as for the "11 secret herbs and spices," why they "can be found on just about any housewife's shelf." But if you wanted to taste the real thing, better get around to a place that hangs out the Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken sign.
Behind the all-American, slightly caricatured exterior there was an salesman and entrepreneur of genius. It was not until 1956 that Col. Sanders began selling franchises for the fried chicken that brought him fame and fortune. By 1960, he had 400 outlets. Four years later, there were 900 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in the United States, Canada, England and Japan.
In 1964, Col. Sanders sold all but the Canadian holdings to a group headed by John Y. Brown, then a young Louisville lawyer and now the governor of Kentucky, for $2 million. By 1970, the business had boomed to a $185-million-a-year enterprise and in 1971 it merged with Heublein Inc. in what was said to be a $250 million stock transaction. Through the changes in ownership, the colonel was retained for promotional purposes and earned upwards of $200,000 a year for commercials and personnal appearances. At his death, the business had spread to 48 countries around the world, an estimated 6,000 outlets and sales of $2 billion annually.
Col. Sanders' Canadian holdings now are valued at $20 million, according to news agency reports. He turned them over to charitable and educational purposes. (A condition for receiving a scholarship from Sanders funds was that the student agree not to drink or smoke while a student.) The Colonel's personal worth was estimated at $3.5 million.
In 1974, the colonel sued Heublein, claiming that they were not following his secret recipe and that both quality and his own good name was suffering. The suit was settled out court for $1 million in Col. Sanders' favor.
But the measure of Col. Sander's achievement is this: he began it all at an age when most people already have retired.
He had been a prosperous service station, motel and restaurant operator in Corbin, Ky., from 1929 to 1956. But in the early 1950s, an interstate highway was built through that part of southern Kentucky and it missed Corbin and the Sanders establishment by seven miles. Business went down to practically nothing and Col. Sanders could not even sell the place.
He had developed over the years a quick way of preparing fried chicken in a pressure cooker, using, of course, the famous 11 spices and herbs. So, at the age of 66 and with a bankroll that amounted to a $105 Social Security check, the colonel and his wife, Claudia, took to the road and went about the business of selling the process to restaurants.
"My wife and I slept in the car many nights while we waited for a restaurant to open so we could go into our sales pitch," he said. Their first big success was in Salt Lake City. The deal he offered was that he would get five cents for every chicken prepared according to his method and in those early days the bargain was sealed with a handshake. The white suit with the black string tie and the planter's hat became the Colonel's permanent uniform, both on and off the job, after a successful television appearance in Denver. stCol. Sanders, an admirer of the Horatio Alger stories of self-made success and himself a recipient of the Horatio Alger Award in 1965, always maintained that work is what kept him healthy.
"Work is what keeps you young," he said. "Golf or fishing isn't as much fun as work."
Harland Sanders was born on a farm near Henryville, Ind., on Sept. 9, 1890. His father died when he was 5 and his mother went to work. Col. Sanders said he began cooking for his family at that time and did it "like Mom did."
His formal schooling stopped in the sixth grade. He worked as a farm hand, as a streetcar conductor, as a fireman on a railroad, did a brief stint in the Army in Cuba, sold insurance and ran a steamboat on the Ohio River. He also spent a brief period as a part-time midwife, helping to deliver about eight babies in the Kentucky hills. He settled in Corbin in 1929 as a gas station operator.
There was enough room there to serve meals, so the family started doing so. Business was good, but being new at it, they never knew how much to cook. At first, the family ate what was left over by the paying customers. The Colonel took an eight-week course at the Cornell University school of restaurant and hotel management to learn the rudiments of his business. In time, the place grew to sit more than 140 people.
Then came the interstate that was seven miles away and Col. Sanders started on a career that made him a piece of genuine Americana.
Col. Sanders is survived by his wife, of Shelbyville, Ky., and two daughters from a previous marriage to Josephine King, of Jasper, Ala., Margaret Sanders, of Palm Springs, Calif., and Mildred Ruggles, of Lexington, Ky. A son, Harland Jr., died at the age of 20.
In a tribute, Gov. Brown hailed Col. Sanders as "the spirit of the American dream" and ordered that the Colonel's body lie in state at the State Capitol at Frankfort on Thursday. Mayor William Stansbury of Louisville ordered flags in the city flown at half-staff in his honor.