|Former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown, Jr. (center-right) sit with his son (far right) and grandson (center-left) to discuss his family's legacy of public service/Provided|
Some call them the “Kennedys of Kentucky,” for their generations of devotion to serving the Commonwealth. But former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown, Jr., his son, and his grandson think of it less as meriting distinction and more as a way of life.
That’s because, for the three “JYBs," as they’ve been nicknamed, public service is not just the family business. It's in their blood.
The former governor, who served from 1979 to 1983, sat with his son, John Y. Brown, III, and his grandson, John Y. Brown IV, Thursday night at Northern Kentucky University’s Votruba Student Union for a special evening of storytelling and reflection, in which the three generations looked back on the Brown family’s legacy of entrepreneurship and political and public service to Kentucky.
Dr. William Landon, NKU Professor of History & Geography, moderated the event and set the tone early with an anecdote from his own childhood spent in Kentucky, recalling a family tradition of piling into the family van and going to watch the progress of the then under-construction AA Highway, one which stretches from Alexandria to Ashland, a project launched under Brown’s administration.
For Landon, watching that highway progress, which was the first major roadway to connect Northern Kentucky to the rest of the state, now serves as a symbol for how the Brown family has paved the way for the Kentucky that exists today.
That legacy actually began before John Y. Brown, Jr., ever took office. Or even before he built Kentucky Fried Chicken into a multi-million, world-wide corporation. Even before he could walk, the governor's father, John Y. Brown, Sr., was serving as a representative in the Kentucky State Legislature, a career with aspirations to serve that stretched a half-century.
That’s a long time to leave an impression on the would-be governor. “He (Brown, Sr.) didn’t teach me about religion or girls,” Brown, Jr. said. “He taught me about public service. We are here tonight to honor him and his legacy."
“It all started with my dad,” he said. His father is often regarded as one of the General Assembly’s most effective lawmakers ever to serve.
The topic of the Brown family legacy dominated the first half of Thursday night’s discussion, each generation weighing in on what it is like to grow up as part of a political family. The general consensus was that it was less about the politics and more about building character and serving one’s community.
“You don’t necessarily have to be in politics to satisfy the urge to serve,” said John Y. Brown, III, who served as Kentucky’s Secretary of State under Governors Paul Patton and Ernie Fletcher in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Despite his own political accomplishments, Brown III said of his relationship with his father, “It was never about the politics… that was always in the background. I always thought of (my dad) as a business person.” He even admitted to, as a teenager, watching the film Midnight Express over and over again the night his father won office, rather than watching the election returns.
Despite many considering the family a political dynasty, all three Browns returned over and over again to the fact that politics was not what they learned from their fathers. Rather, they all inherited an impulse to chart their own course, challenge assumptions, and dust themselves off when they fail.
Brown III recalled one election that he lost during his career as a politician: “I was glad for my kids to see that, to see me defeated and pick myself back up."
“I’ve tried my best to chart my own path,” said Brown III’s son, John Y. Brown, IV, currently a junior at Bellarmine University, studying economics. As far as charting his own path goes, Brown IV is also the only registered Republican among the JYBs.
Brown IV’s diversion from his father and grandfather’s political party prompted Landon to raise the question of partisan politics and their relationship to public service.
For the college student, the lessons learned from his father and grandfather outweigh any party allegiance, he said. “Public service is more a matter of doing what you believe is right,” echoing the paternal influence voiced by his father earlier in the evening.
For Governor Brown, his inspiration these days lies in the younger generations, like that of his grandson, who he continually praised for being well-spoken during the conversation.
“Each generation comes along to solve the problems of the one before,” he said. “The youngest generation is always the smartest. These young people are thinking big."
For Brown, Jr., it is the entrepreneurial spirit he has seen in his sons and grandson, and that he also became known for throughout his career, that defined his time in office. While governor, Brown built himself a cabinet comprised of entrepreneurs and businessmen, campaigning on a platform that promised to run government like a business.
“We had no politics to speak of… We were free to do things, what we wanted to do,” he said.
To all three Browns, in fact, entrepreneurship has driven their approach not only to politics but also to public service.
Brown III echoed this thinking while reflecting on his time in office, saying, “I didn’t want to be a career politician, just climbing the ladder in Frankfort. Being a partisan was never appealing to me. Solving problems appealed to me."
Brown IV, who playfully evaded the question of whether or not he had political aspirations (“I haven’t ruled it out,” he quipped), is demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit of his father and grandfather, having already founded his own business, John Y Brown IV Enterprises, a startup based in Louisville.
Looking forward, Brown IV, like his grandfather, is optimistic about how his generation views public service. “They have a commitment to their state and their country,” he said.
Whatever the next generation has in store, Thursday evening’s discussion showed that the urge to serve one’s community is best cultivated across generations. When done so, the Brown family has demonstrated, that urge and its impact will last not just one lifetime, but many.
- via Northern Kentucky Forum