John Y. Brown Jr., a onetime owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken who parlayed his fast-food fortune into a dramatic rise in Kentucky politics, winning one term as governor shortly after marrying sportscaster and former Miss America Phyllis George, died Nov. 21 at a hospital in Lexington, Ky. He was 88.
The son of a one-term congressman who longed for higher office, Mr. Brown entered politics after a business career in which he helped build Kentucky Fried Chicken into one of the state’s most famous exports and one of the largest fast-food chains in the world. He was also an owner of three professional basketball teams, among them the Boston Celtics.
Mr. Brown was 30 in 1964 when he and a co-investor purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from founder Harland Sanders, better known as Colonel Sanders, for $2 million. They kept the colonel — the title was honorary — as their spokesman as the chicken chain grew to include 3,500 locations around the globe, eclipsing even McDonald’s for a period.
Mr. Brown and his partner sold the business to Heublein in 1971, with Mr. Brown’s share of the deal reportedly reaching $35 million. He had already purchased the Kentucky Colonels, a team in the now-defunct American Basketball Association, and later became owner of the Buffalo Braves and then the Celtics. He toyed with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate or for governor before jumping into the 1979 Democratic gubernatorial primary less than three months before the election.
He and George were newlyweds when he embarked on the bid — they were married in March 1979 by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale — and together cultivated an aura of glamour that was dubbed the Kentucky Camelot. George had been crowned Miss America in 1971 and later became one of the few women in sportscasting, co-hosting the CBS pregame football show “The NFL Today.”
In the primary, Mr. Brown defeated several other more experienced candidates, including former Louisville mayor Harvey Sloane, state commerce commissioner Terry McBrayer, U.S. Rep. Carroll Hubbard Jr. and Lt. Gov. Thelma Stovall. Mr. Brown then easily beat former Republican governor Louie B. Nunn in the general election. He drew heavily on his own wealth to blanket Kentucky in television commercials, spending $2 million on his winning campaign, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
His “campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor destroyed the notion that candidates had to invest years of painstaking preparation before seeking the office,” Mr. Brown’s obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal said. “He demonstrated that a quick thrust, built on modern campaign techniques, could overwhelm organizational politics.”
Mr. Brown pledged on the campaign trail to bring his business acumen to state government. Once in office, he helped steer the state through a recession. He trimmed state spending “by $676 million, or 16 percent, resulting in a reduction in the payroll by 4,000 jobs to 37,200, but loss of programs of only about 4 percent,” according to a report in the New York Times in 1981.
Kentucky governors at the time were barred by state law from seeking a second consecutive term, and Mr. Brown indicated interest in possibly pursuing the Democratic nomination for president in 1984. But he faced controversy over a federal investigation into his withdrawal of $1.3 million in cash from a Miami bank that did not make a mandatory report of the transactions to the IRS. Mr. Brown later said he used much the cash to pay off a gambling debt that he incurred in “one real bad night” in Las Vegas.
“I worked hard for my money, I made it legally and I paid the taxes on it,” Mr. Brown told the Times in 1983. “If I want to take it out of a bank in wheelbarrows, that’s my business. It’s my money and I can do with it what I want.”
Mr. Brown ultimately faced no charges.
In 1983, his last year in office, Mr. Brown nearly died after undergoing heart bypass surgery. The following year, he abandoned a primary bid for the U.S. Senate, citing his ongoing recovery. He attempted to reclaim the governor’s seat in 1987 but lost in the Democratic primary to Wallace Wilkinson, who ultimately prevailed.
John Young Brown Jr. was born in Lexington on Dec. 28, 1933, one of five children and the only son. His mother was a homemaker. His father had been named after John Young Brown, a Democrat who served as Kentucky governor from 1891 to 1895. He became a lawyer, speaker of the state House of Representatives, and a member of the U.S. House from 1933 to 1935. He ran seven times for the U.S. Senate and twice for governor, each time unsuccessfully.
“I wanted to atone for that,” Mr. Brown told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1994. “That was probably my underlying motivation. I wanted to get in there and throw the rascals out.”
Mr. Brown received a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a law degree in 1960, both from the University of Kentucky. He displayed an entrepreneurial streak as a college student, making as much as $500 a weekend selling copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica door to door.
While serving in the Army Reserve, Mr. Brown practiced law with his father. “I was making a good living,” he told the Sun-Sentinel of his years before he purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from Sanders, a friend of his father’s. “But the Colonel came along, and I said, ‘The heck with law. I can always go back to law.' ”
His prolific political fundraising helped bring him to the attention of the state and national Democratic parties. He unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Walter D. Huddleston in the 1978 Democratic primary before his successful bid for governor the following year. He sold his share of the Celtics in 1979.
Mr. Brown’s first marriage, to Ellie Durall, ended in divorce. He and George were divorced in 1998, and she died in 2020. His third marriage, to Jill Roach, a former Mrs. Kentucky, also ended in divorce.
Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Sissy Brown of Lexington and Sandy Steier and former Kentucky secretary of state John Y. Brown III, both of Louisville; two children from his second marriage, Pamela Brown of Alexandria, Va., and Lincoln Brown of Lexington; and 12 grandchildren.
Mr. Brown owned or helped grow a number of fast-food chains, including Kenny Rogers Roasters, which he co-founded with the eponymous country musician. Another was called John Y’s Grill, a reference to the name by which many Kentuckians knew Mr. Brown. He quipped that he was “the only governor with his name on a chicken house.”
“Of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of being in politics,” Mr. Brown told the Sun-Sentinel. “I sort of regret that I didn’t make it a career.”