Former Senator and Kentucky Governor Wendell Ford dead at 90

01/22/2015 09:35 AM

UPDATED WITH REACTION: Wendell Ford was an icon in Kentucky politics and in the Democratic party. He died early this morning, according to sources close to the family.

Ford was the 53rd Governor and served 24 years in the U.S. Senate before retiring in 1999. Ford was diagnosed with lung cancer and had been undergoing treatment in his hometown of Owensboro.

In 2012, Pure Politics and other reporters spoke with Ford about his legacy and what he was most proud of in his legislative career. At the time Ford was on the campaign trail for U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Lexington, here is what he said:

Current Governor and Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear and Crit Luallen both released statements mourning the loss of Ford.

“Kentucky has lost one of its great statesmen, and we all have lost a friend,” 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.”

Luallen, who said she got her first job in politics working for Ford, also remarked on Kentucky’s loss.

“I’m deeply saddened by the loss of Sen. Wendell Ford, who was one of Kentucky’s great leaders. He was a true voice for the people of Kentucky throughout his remarkable career in public service, and so many Kentuckians are better off today because of his leadership and willingness to always put Kentucky first. I got my first job in politics in the mailroom of his Senate campaign, and he continued to mentor and guide me throughout my career, just as he did so many other Kentucky leaders. My thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Jean, and his entire family during this time of mourning and remembrance of this iconic Kentucky statesman.” Luallen said.

State Auditor Adam Edelen took to social media on word of the news Thursday, saying he is “heartbroken at the loss of Wendell Ford, Kentucky’s great statesman of the last half century.”

“As his youth chair for reelection in 92,I traveled with him and learned the reason [Kentuckians] loved him so much is because he loved Kentucky so much. His enduring legacy is that true public servants put people above politics,” Edelen said.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, took to the Senate floor to remark on the passing of “one of the giants of Kentucky politics.”

“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. 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 said.

“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. 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.”

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth,D-Louisville, called Ford “a legend” for his work at the federal and state level.

“For decades, he served our Commonwealth and nation with a level of dignity, respect, and common sense not commonly found in so many in politics. As great of a leader as he was, he was an even better person, never losing his one-of-a-kind sense of humor and kindness throughout his life. My thoughts and prayers are with Mrs. Ford and their entire family,” Yarmuth said.

Former Democratic Gov. Julian Carroll, who was preceded in the governor’s mansion by Ford, said his “heart is heavy today at the loss of my fellow governor, Senator Wendell Ford.”

“I had known Wendell since he ran for the State Senate, having been elected to the House that same year, 1962. Later I managed his campaign in McCracken County for his race as lieutenant governor and secured a margin of victory for him equal to more than three times the amount he won by,” Carroll said.

“In 1971, I ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with former Governor Bert T. Combs and joined Wendell in the fall campaign at which time we were both elected as governor and lieutenant governor. Wendell encouraged me to run for the U.S. Senate, but after several weeks of discussion, he decided to run himself. My relationship with Wendell Ford has been long standing and his passing is indeed a powerful moment for me and for Kentucky, but he had a good life. I offer my deepest condolences to his wife Jean, all his family and his many, many friends. Today is a sad day for all Kentuckians. We truly lost one of our greatest sons.”

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who Ford last campaigned for in 2014 before being diagnosed with lung cancer, called Ford a mentor and a friend.

“Senator Wendell Ford was not only a close friend, but a mentor to me. He was one of the best Kentuckians I’ve ever known, and he deeply loved our Commonwealth and all of its people,” Grimes said.

“Sen. Ford was a true statesman. On every stage, he represented Kentucky with dignity and honor, embracing compromise to achieve results that benefited the Commonwealth. His service has provided an extraordinary example for others who wish to serve Kentucky, and especially for me,” she said.

“I will miss Sen. Ford’s friendship and, most of all, his incredible support and counsel. Andrew and I send our warmest thoughts and prayers to his wife Jean and their family.”


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