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Steve Beshear was formally sworn into his second term as governor Tuesday, kicking off what is Kentucky’s 59th inauguration.
While the governor is often the most well-known official in the state – like presidents, their tenures serve as guideposts to our history – the truth is that few of our past leaders are well known beyond the counties named in their honor.
This week is a good time to learn a little more.
Much has been written, for example, about our first – and fifth – governor, Isaac Shelby. He was a well-regarded war hero, serving in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. He even led the Kentucky militia in battle while governor, a move that earned him a Congressional Gold Medal.
Though he spent eight years as governor, it did not appear to leave a lasting impression, because he dedicated all of one line in his autobiography to that time in his life. Another interesting side note is that his eldest daughter, one of 11 children, married Dr. Ephraim McDowell, the father of abdominal surgery whose statue is one of the five in the Capitol Rotunda.
Kentucky’s second governor, James Garrard, was the first to serve two consecutive terms – and the last for a long time because of a change in the Constitution. It wasn’t until voters amended that in 1992 that a governor could run for re-election, a provision that enabled Gov. Paul Patton to serve again in 1999.
Garrard was also the first to live in the Governor’s Mansion, which was later set aside for lieutenant governors. Now operated by the Kentucky Historical Society, it’s the nation’s oldest Executive Branch home still in use.
Our third governor, Christopher Greenup, was one of Kentucky’s two original members to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the fourth, Charles Scott, was George Washington’s chief of intelligence. The fifth, George Madison, was a cousin of President James Madison and was also the first of five Kentucky governors to die in office.
Gov. James Turner Morehead, who served in the 1830s, was the first native-born governor, and Gov. Preston Hopkins Leslie, who was elected in the 1870s, went on to become governor of the Montana Territory. Though achieving this rank twice in different areas is undoubtedly rare if not unique, it’s worth noting that he is one of more than 100 Kentuckians who went on to become governors in other states.
Another distinction Kentucky holds is that William Goebel remains the only governor in the nation to be assassinated in office. He was shot outside the Old State Capitol in 1900 and sworn into office on his deathbed following a hotly contested election.
His successor, Gov. John Crepps Wickliffe Beckham, is worth remembering not only for serving in that contentious time but also because his home in Bardstown is known as the “home of three governors.” His grandfather, Gov. Charles Anderson Wickliffe, lived there, as did another close relative who later became governor of Louisiana.
While most of our chief executives were attorneys, there have been a couple of physicians, a teacher and a journalist, but only one – Gov. Martha Layne Collins – who was a woman. The longest stretch between terms easily belongs to Gov. James B. McCreary. He was first elected in 1875 while in his thirties and again in 1911, when he was 73.
Overall, well over a dozen governors are buried in the Frankfort cemetery that overlooks the Capitol, while only five are buried outside of the Commonwealth.
In that regard, Gov. Simon Bolivar Buckner truly came full circle. He died in the very same room he had been born in 91 years earlier.
Although Kentucky did not join the South during the Civil War, it did have a provisional government, with Bowling Green serving as capital. Two governors were chosen during that time.
In another interesting twist with ties to that era, the same architect who designed the Old State Capitol – Gideon Shryock – also designed the Jefferson County Courthouse. He made it large enough that it, too, could serve as a capitol if the General Assembly ever chose to move the capital from Frankfort to Louisville. Though that never happened, the legislature did spend a brief time in that building in 1862.
These are just some of the interesting facts about our governors, but there are numerous books about them for those wanting to learn more. For a shorter refresher course, the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort has the Toyota Kentucky Hall of Governors, which features a wealth of information and artifacts.
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.