On Thursday, January 22, 2015, Owensboro lost one of our most beloved and respected citizens. The death of Senator Wendell H. Ford made national news, even being reported by The New York Times. President Obama released a statement that night saying, “Few in politics were as admired as he, and few have had as great an impact on his beloved Kentucky.” Vice President Biden said, “Wendell was an extremely effective senator and a great personal friend whose advice I sought long after he had left the Senate. I will miss him.”
Ford’s political career was legendary. He was the first person to be successively elected lieutenant governor, governor, and U.S. Senator in Kentucky history. He served for twenty-four years in the U.S. Senate, serving as both Majority and Minority Whip.
He was born in Thruston, graduated from Daviess County High School, and attended the University of Kentucky until his service in WWII. After the war, he came back to Owensboro to work for his family’s insurance firm: E.M. Ford and Co. Ford got his political start as president of the Jaycees, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, which helped him gain attention across the state and led to his first job in Frankfort as chief assistant to Gov. Bert T. Combs from 1959 to 1961. He was then elected State Senator in 1965, Lieutenant Governor in 1967, and Governor of Kentucky in 1971, serving three years until he was elected to the US Senate in 1974. Ford’s 24-year term was the longest running senate seat in Kentucky history until Mitch McConnell surpassed him in 2009.
After he retired from the senate in 1999, Ford was a consultant for a Washington lobbyist group, and was involved in campaigns right up to the end. Owensboro Democratic Party Chair Russ Wilkey remembers, “We were helping the Allison Grimes campaign and Senator Ford would show up at every event and rally, even when he wasn’t in the best of health. He’d be right there campaigning for her from his wheelchair. At one stop, I leaned over to him and said, ‘You know, you don’t really need to come to all of these.’ He looked up at me and said, ‘This is my life.’ And it was.”
“Wendell leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of service, and a Commonwealth and country that are stronger and fairer thanks to him. Michelle and I send our condolences to his wife Jean and all the members of the Ford family.” – President Barack Obama
Senator Ford had a knack for remembering facts and figures about national and statewide races. “He knew who was running in every county in Kentucky,” Wilkey recalls. He also had a great memory for remembering names. “Not only would he call people by name, he would ask about their family members by name too,” Wilkey said. “He just had a great love of people.”
His legacy lives on in the Wendell H. Ford Government Education Center exhibit at the Owensboro Museum of Science and History. Each year, thousands of high school students from around the region tour the center. President Bill Clinton made an appearance at a fundraiser for the center last March.
In honor of Senator Ford, the City of Owensboro lowered all city flags to half-staff until after his funeral. Mayor Ron Payne commented, “My earliest memory of the Senator was the day I graduated from Brescia College in May of 1972. This was the same day that Senator Ford, then Governor Ford, received an honorary doctorate from Brescia College. I admired him then and I admire him now. He contributed much to our community, especially in the area of transportation, our airport, education, veterans’ benefits and much more. I, for one, will miss his wit and wisdom, as I sought his advice on many occasions. He had a way of making his point using wit and humor in a manner similar to Will Rodgers and Abraham Lincoln. I will never forget his comment to me in the early years of our downtown renovation project, ‘Mayor, when they take your hide off for the first time, it grows back much thicker.’ I suppose this was his way of encouraging me to stay the course. Sister Joan Marie Lechner, president of Brescia College, said it best in a speech honoring the Senator, ‘Today, it is a privilege to honor Wendell Ford – a man who has dedicated himself to the social, cultural and physical welfare of his fellow man.’ He spent the rest of his life doing just that. I thank God for His gift of Wendell Ford. On behalf of everyone at the City of Owensboro, we send our most sincere condolences to his family and thank them for sharing him with us and the nation.”
Senator Ford died peacefully at his home here in Owensboro after being diagnosed with lung cancer in July. He was 90 years old.
President Obama closed his statement with these sentiments, “Wendell leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of service, and a Commonwealth and country that are stronger and fairer thanks to him. Michelle and I send our condolences to his wife Jean and all the members of the Ford family.”
For those attending the funeral, photography, video recording, audio recording, and weapons will be prohibited at the funeral of Wendell Ford at First Baptist Church of Owensboro on Tuesday, January 27, at 11:00 a.m.. Non-compliance will prohibit attendance. Vice President Joe Biden and Former President Bill Clinton will be in attendance.
Additional parking will be available in the Settle Memorial United Methodist Church parking lot located on 4th Street, the River Park Center parking garage located on Daviess Street, and The Owensboro Convention Center which will provide shuttle service.
The following streets will be closed tomorrow for Senator Wendell Ford’s funeral to be held at First Baptist Church in Owensboro, Kentucky:
JR Miller Boulevard – from Second Street to Third Street
Daviess Street – from Second Street to Third Street
East Third Street – from JR Miller Boulevard to Daviess Street
Second Street – from JR Miller Boulevard to Daviess Street
Street closures will be in place at 7:00 a.m. and remain in place until the end of the funeral. Please use caution and attention while traveling in these areas.