John Y. Brown Jr., who built KFC into one of the largest and most recognizable restaurant brands in the world before serving as the governor of Kentucky, has died at the age of 88, CNN and multiple other media outlets report.
The New York Times reports that Brown died in the hospital in Lexington, Ky., on Tuesday (Nov. 22). His cause of death was complications from COVID-19.
Brown’s daughter, CNN anchor and senior Washington correspondent Pamela Brown, confirmed his death in a statement on Friday (Nov. 25).
“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,” the statement reads.
“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.’”
Brown was born in Lexington in 1933, and his life played out like a literal hard-work American Dream story. He paid his own way through college and law school at the University of Kentucky by selling Encyclopedia Britannica, working his way up to becoming one of the company’s top salesmen.
A stint in the Army Reserve followed college, after which Brown co-purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from its founder, Harland Sanders, in 1964. During his tenure at the head of the company, Brown grew KFC into the largest fast-food service in the world at one point, turning it into a brand with household name recognition in the process by growing it from 600 stores to 3,000 stores worldwide.
Brown sold Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1971, and he turned his attention to sports after that, buying an ownership stake in both the Boston Celtics and the Kentucky Colonels in the years that followed. He then launched a Democratic bid for governor in his home state of Kentucky with the campaign slogan of “Running Government Like a Business.” Brown won based on his business credentials and high media visibility in Kentucky, serving as governor from 1979 until 1983.
The National Governors Association reports that Brown “reduced the budget by 22 percent and brought record commerce to the state” during his time in office in Kentucky. Brown co-chaired the Appalachian Regional Commission and chaired the Southern States’ Energy Board, earning the Democrat of the Year award and a lifetime placement as Honorary Treasurer of the Democratic Party.
Brown also made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1984. He ran for governor again in 1987, losing to Wallace Wilkinson.
Harvard Business School recognized Brown as one of the top American business leaders of the 20th century in 2009 alongside McDonald’s head Ray Kroc, Walmart founder Sam Walton, Walt Disney and Bill Gates.
John Y. Brown Jr. is survived by his sons, Lincoln and John Brown III; his daughters, Pamela Brown Wright, Sandy Steier and Sissy Brown; and his grandchildren, Vivienne and Benny Wright, Eleanor, Grace, Brooks and Colson Steier, Maggie Brown, John Brown IV, Will and Meg Talley, Lindo Mfeka and Will Alondamwani.
Brown will lie in state at the Kentucky Capitol rotunda on Tuesday (Nov. 29), where visitation will be open to the public from 10AM until 7PM. A private service will follow in the rotunda on Wednesday (Nov. 30).
The family is asking for donations to the Sanders Brown Center on Aging, which Brown helped found, in lieu of flowers.
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