Former Governor Louie B. Nunn Dies At 79 - News, Weather & Sports

Former Governor Louie B. Nunn Dies At 79

(VERSAILLES, Ky., January 30, 2004, 1:30 p.m.) -- Former Gov. Louie B. Nunn, a symbol of his party as the state's last Republican governor for 32 years, died Thursday night of an apparent heart attack. He was 79.

Nunn suddenly collapsed while a family friend was visiting after a "sedate day" during which he entertained guests at his Versailles home, Woodford County Coroner Steve Ward said family members told him.

State Rep. Steve Nunn, R-Glasgow, Nunn's son, said Nunn's heart stopped around 8 p.m. EST.

"He was at home and had had a good day," Steve Nunn said. "He felt good. His heart just quit."

Nunn, elected in 1967, was Kentucky's last Republican governor before Ernie Fletcher was elected in November and was a symbol of his party in the decades that followed. Nunn rode in the back of a convertible during Fletcher's inaugural parade in December.

In July, Nunn was host at his farm to a fund-raiser for Fletcher that was attended by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. His role as host was noteworthy because his son, state Rep. Steve Nunn, ran against Fletcher in the gubernatorial primary.

A Kentucky State Police trooper working security at the Governor's Mansion Thursday night said Fletcher had been told of Nunn's death but had retired for the evening and was unavailable for comment.

Former Gov. Julian Carroll, a Democrat who was speaker of the House during Nunn's term, said he learned to appreciate Nunn.

"Louie was a very strong leader," Carroll said early Friday. "He always operated without fear. He always dealt with the members of the General Assembly with confidence."

Steve Nunn said his father wanted to be remembered "as a statesman."

"He was a man who loved Kentucky and Kentuckians," he said.

Nunn launched a long political career in 1954, winning election at age 29 as county judge of his native Barren County.

Nunn's four-year gubernatorial administration saw Kentucky take strides in its care of the retarded, the mentally ill and juvenile delinquents. Nunn later called the revamping of the state's mental-health treatment system his proudest accomplishment.

The state's university system also was expanded during his term and discrimination in housing was outlawed.

Nunn was a defining figure in Kentucky politics, a fierce competitor who asked no quarter on the campaign trail and gave none. He never played defense; an opponent who attacked him could be assured of a blistering counterattack.

Nunn thrived on political combat and was never far from the front. He sought statewide office four times and figured prominently in several other campaigns. His record was a mixture of heady victories and galling defeats.

He successfully managed Republican state campaigns for President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 and for U.S. Sens. John Sherman Cooper and Thruston B. Morton.

He won his own race for governor in 1967, defeating Democrat Henry Ward, but lost two others _ to Edward T. Breathitt in 1963 and to John Y. Brown Jr. in 1979. He was the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in 1972 but lost to Democrat Walter "Dee" Huddleston.

In 1991, Nunn threw his weight behind Larry Forgy's 11th-hour entry in the Republican governor's race against Larry Hopkins, a seventh-term congressman from Lexington.

Hopkins turned his guns on Nunn, deriding Forgy as "the Nunn candidate." Forgy had a fraction of Hopkins' money and organization, but came within 2,200 votes, barely 1 percent, of a stunning upset.

Four years later, Forgy was the GOP nominee, but Nunn turned against him. Bob Gable, a former state Republican chairman opposed to Forgy, jumped into the primary against him. Nunn backed Gable and recorded a memorable radio commercial that savaged Forgy. Democrat Paul Patton made repeated use of the commercial and beat Forgy by 25,000 votes.

Nunn had the distinction of being board chairman of three universities, each at a time of turmoil.

As governor, he was by law chairman of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees. In May 1970, a time of nationwide campus unrest, Nunn ordered state police and the National Guard onto the Lexington campus after the ROTC building was burned to the ground. Nunn's order brought a combination of public acclaim and bitter criticism.

In January 1986, then-Gov. Martha Layne Collins appointed Nunn and Breathitt, his old nemesis, to the board of regents at Morehead State University, where replacement of the president was deemed necessary.

Three years later, Collins' successor, Wallace Wilkinson, asked Nunn to take control of the board at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Nunn agreed and brought several members of the Morehead board with him, including Breathitt. Again, they oversaw a presidential transition.

Breathitt died in October.

But it was as a Republican governor with a legislature controlled by Democrats that Nunn forever made his mark.

He manipulated and maneuvered, bullied and bluffed. And his frame fit his style at 6 feet 3, 230 pounds.

Nunn's administration was less than a month old when it reached a pivotal moment.

Faced with a choice of a budget deficit or curtailment of vital services, including closure of some mental hospitals, Nunn proposed a record budget to the 1968 General Assembly.

To pay for it, he submitted a tax package that included raising the sales tax to a nickel from 3 cents on the dollar and hiking the $5 fee for license plates to $12.50.

"I have done what the time, circumstances and conditions demand that I do," Nunn said in his budget message to the legislature.

But Nunn had run for governor on a promise of no new taxes, and the sales tax increase, "Nunn's nickel," would remain a political issue for more than 20 years.

Carroll said Nunn's greatest achievement as governor was the passage of the 5-cent sales tax in 1968, which funded state programs at a time when money was badly needed.

"He came to helm of state government at a time when the need for additional funds was great, and he met the challenge," Carroll said.

The new taxes helped pay for institutions, roads, jobs, contracts and other favors that were Nunn's currency for the votes he needed in the state House and Senate.

Nunn said in an interview years later it was "a positive program ... that extended to all areas and reached all people in one form or another."

"And the people on the other side offered no constructive alternative," Nunn said. "Then, of course, there was horse trading. There always is horse trading in the legislature."

Nunn also could be ruthless. Shortly after taking office, his staff fired thousands of state employees who were covered by the merit system. All were Democrats and most were in departments that were traditional strongholds of patronage, such as the highway department.

A lawsuit ensued and courts declared the firings illegal. They eventually cost the state $2 million in settlements.

A few days before leaving the governorship, Nunn mused on his place in history.

"My hope is that people will look upon my record 20 years from now and say, `This man was good for Kentucky,' rather than to say, `He was a hell of a politician.'

"Of course," Nunn added, "I don't know why they couldn't say both."

Louie Broady Nunn was born at Park in Barren County on March 8, 1924, the fourth of five children of Waller Harrison Nunn and Mary Roberts Nunn, who operated a country grocery. A brother, Lee Nunn, would become Kentucky Republican chairman and a leading strategist for the party.

Louie Nunn attended Bowling Green Business College, joined the Army in 1943 and entered the University of Cincinnati after his discharge in 1945. He received a law degree from the University of Louisville in 1950.

Nunn married the former Beula Cornelius Aspley of Glasgow in October 1950. She owned a Glasgow insurance agency and had three children from a previous marriage. They had two children of their own _ a daughter, Jenni Lou, in July 1951 and son, Stephen, in November 1952. Steve Nunn was elected to the Kentucky House, representing Barren County, in 1990.

Louie and Beula Nunn were divorced in 1994. She died in 1995.

Arrangements were pending under the direction of Kerr Bros. Funeral Home in Lexington.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)