Northern Kentucky Remembers Governor & Senator Wendell Ford

"To an unusual degree his life was not about him, but about Kentuckians."

Chuck Eilerman got his first government job under Governor Wendell Ford in 1971. Ford, who served as lieutenant governor, governor, and then US Senator from 1974 to 1999, died Thursday at the age of 90. Eilerman, now a Covington City Commissioner, remembered his former boss fondly.

"He really is a legendary figure in Northern Kentucky and really American history," said Eilerman, who, after graduate school, worked in Ford's office of policy and management where he helped craft the state budget. "He was a Yellow Dog Democrat, conservative in some ways, but he also did a lot of progressive things." Eilerman specifically cited a special session of the General Assembly called by Ford in 1972 so that the state could ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

"He was a very dedicated and effective public servant," Eilerman continued. "It harkens back to a time where - it's hard to be like that anymore. He was able to be bipartisan and work with representatives in Frankfort and Washington to get things done. Life was not as polarized then, though there were certainly colorful people and factions."

"He was an extraordinary man. He was intense and very much focused on the issues."

Ford was a native of Owensboro and was first elected to the Kentucky State Senate in 1965 and then won a race for lieutenant governor in 1967. In 1971, when governors could serve only one four-year term, Ford won the gubernatorial election. Before his term was up, the Democrat was back on the campaign trail, running for US Senate in 1974, defeating incumbent Republican Marlow Cook.

He would remain in Washington until his retirement in 1999 when his seat was won by Southgate's Jim Bunning, a Republican.

“Wendell Ford first came to the Senate in the 1970s, calling himself just ‘a dumb country boy with dirt between his toes.’ But, over a distinguished two-decade career, this workhorse of the Senate would prove he was anything but," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a statement. "I had the opportunity to watch my Senate colleague up close as he ascended to leadership in his party and established himself as a leader on issues of importance to my state."

McConnell won his seat in 1984, defeating Ford's former campaign manager, Dee Huddleston, who had held the seat since 1972. Ford appeared in a campaign spot for Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes last fall in her unsuccessful bid to oust McConnell from office.

“A proud Kentuckian who rose from page in the State House to governor of the state, Ford shaped the history of the Commonwealth in ways few others had before him," McConnell said. "He never forgot the lessons about hard work he learned while milking cows or tending to chores on the family farm. And this World War II veteran never backed down from a fight either. We imagine he approached his final battle with the same spirit. Elaine and I, and I’m certain I speak for the entire Senate, send our condolences to his wife, Jean — Mrs. Ford, as Wendell often called her — and the rest of the Ford family at this difficult time.”

“Kentucky has lost one of its great statesmen, and we all have lost a friend," Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear said. "Jane and I join with all of Kentucky to mourn the loss of Senator Wendell Ford.  As I began my career in public service, I watched and learned from Senator Ford, who was the epitome of principled leadership.  In every office in which he served, his methods were simple: Wendell Ford listened, he cared, and he got the job done.  Our state and our nation are better places for his decades of thoughtful, cooperative work to help people.  We are grateful for his legacy of service, and our prayers are with his wife, Jean, their children, Steve and Shirley, and their families.”

Back here at home, two former state legislators remembered their time working with Ford.

"I lack the vocabulary to speak about Wendell Ford," said Joe Meyer, the Covington Democrat who served in the Kentucky State Senate and House of Representatives before servings as Secretary of Education and Workforce Development under Beshear. 

Sen. Wendell Ford official portrait


"He was one of the most powerful men in Washington and I remember times we would go up with the kids and, heck, we could just call on him, walk into his Capitol office in our Bermuda shorts and summer vacation clothes and he was always extraordinarily gracious and welcoming and just made you feel right at home."

"He just meant so much to Kentucky, to public service. He's just a wonderful example of what public service means and what it can accomplish when you have really quality people like Wendell Ford in those positions."

Democrat Bill Donnermeyer, a longtime state representative from Bellevue, also remembered Ford fondly.  "We worked real well together," said Donnermeyer, who served from the 1970s to 1995. "He was always willing to work with people on both sides of the aisle."

Donnermeyer remembered that Ford always referred to him as Dad, even though they are the same age. "In 1970, I got married, I had been a widower. In 1971, along comes a little girl and we brought her around to the statehouse and at six months, she was the youngest page in the Commonwealth of Kentucky," Donnermeyer remembered. "All these guys are passing her around and my wife is up there watching and they're passing her around the whole General Assembly."

Donnermeyer learned that Ford's birthday is in September, like his, and also that Ford was roughly four weeks older. "I got in the habit, I would call him up on his birthday in Washington, and I never had a problem getting through, and I said, Senator, I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. I told him, Senator, you called me dad and you're older than I am by about four weeks!"

Donnermeyer turned 90 last year.

"He was a real gentleman," the former state representative recalled. "I found Wendell to be a people person and when he would come up for any kind of a visit or political thing, if you had something planned at 6 o'clock at night, Wendell would be here at about 5:30, 5:15, or 5 o'clock even. He's going around shaking hands with everybody. He made it a point to go to the busboys and waiters and waitresses, everybody. They all knew Wendell Ford because he was that open, that wonderful a guy."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of the The River City News

Top photo: Governor Wendell Ford and staff, including Chuck Eilerman, second from right with beard (via Chuck Eilerman)

Additional photos via Kenton County Public Library

Slideshow Images & Captions: 
Senator Wendell Ford speaks during dedication of Boone County Courthouse/via Kenton Co. Library