The recent death of Bill Sturgill, a Kentucky leader of the first order, prompts a realization that a generation of our commonwealth’s most highly regarded visionaries is quickly leaving the scene. Mr. Sturgill wore many hats in the public and private sectors, and his passing is a loss to the people of Kentucky.
Long before he was in Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.’s executive cabinet as secretary of energy and agriculture at a salary of $1 a year, Sturgill was a consummate businessman in the coal, lumber, equine and tobacco industries. More than anything, he knew how to share. He generously shared his labor, time, energy and money to advance the state of Kentucky. His endowments to the University of Kentucky and his service as chairman of its board of trustees confirm his dedication to quality education, and as chairman of the Kentucky Racing Commission he established a strong leadership position in the Thoroughbred industry. His altruism and philanthropy benefitted the state’s key industries and educational endeavors. Bill Sturgill will be missed.
W.T. Young is another key Kentucky leader to pass away in recent times, and he left large footprints across the state. His successes in businesses and contributions to education (U.K.’s main library bears his name) and other worthy civic causes are immeasurable. He, too, served as a cabinet secretary in the Brown administration. John Gaines, one of the racing visionaries who established The Breeders Cup Race, will sadly not be alive to witness its running at Keeneland next year.
Who will take the places of these contemporary leaders who have passed on? We know that someone will – just as these distinguished Kentuckians, over time, took the places of those earlier leaders in history like Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” who forestalled a young nation’s Civil War by decades; Alben Barkley of Paducah, who was U.S. vice president under President Harry Truman; members of the Breckinridge family, who were so involved in Kentucky’s early development; Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan, Nobel Prize winner for his research in genetics; U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper, who also became the first ambassador to East Germany; and Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler, who as commissioner of Major League Baseball made it possible for Jackie Robinson to enter professional sports.
Kentucky’s history is replete with leaders who were great, near great or merely wildly successful – some homegrown and others imported. Do Kentucky’s children learn in school about the commonwealth’s past and its influential citizens? Kentucky owes so much to its leading figures of the past as well as its contemporary leaders.
Some likely or possible designees for contemporary leadership to take the places of the aforementioned and recently departed Kentucky visionaries are: Bill Samuels Jr., who has guided Makers Mark Distillery’s impressive success in making its bourbon a familiar name around the world; Warren Rosenthal, entrepreneur extraordinaire, who established a successful national chain of restaurants and generously supports higher education and other deserving causes; Alice Headley Chandler and John Chandler, successful equine farmers and breeders; Don and Mira Ball, who built one of the leading home construction businesses in the nation and generously support educational television and programs for mothers and children.
The recent death of Corbin businesswoman and philanthropist Nelda Barton-Collings left big shoes to fill among Kentucky’s most successful businesswomen. Her business card simply read: “Businesswoman – Banking, Long-Term Healthcare, Pharmacy, Newspapers, Rental Properties and other small businesses.” She served on National Business Councils, traveled for presidential assignments and served on the Kentucky Economic Development Commission. She was the first woman elected president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. She mentored many businesswomen and was a trustee for a Kentucky university.
While Bill Sturgill’s generation of Kentucky leaders is exiting the stage, others will step forward, as in the past, to advance Kentucky’s march into the next decades. Names, both familiar and yet unknown, will emerge to address challenges of the commonwealth’s future.
Pat Freibert is a former Kentucky state representative from Lexington. She can be reached at [email protected]