Former Kentucky first lady Martha Wilkinson dies at age 72

jbrammer@herald-leader.comMay 8, 2014 

FRANKFORT — Former Kentucky first lady Martha Wilkinson, a strong advocate for adult literacy, died Wednesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Fla. She was 72.

Doug Alexander, who was press secretary for the late Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, on Thursday confirmed the death of Mrs. Wilkinson.

Alexander said she died of natural causes after suffering from an infection, and her two sons, Glenn and Andrew, were with her.

"It's a sad day for all who knew this wonderful lady," Alexander said.

Arrangements are pending, but Mrs. Wilkinson is expected to be placed in a mausoleum in Sarasota near her husband, he said.

As governor, Wallace Wilkinson oversaw the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act and ushered in the state lottery. The millionaire entrepreneur later saw his financial empire implode in one of the largest bankruptcies in state history.

Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement that Mrs. Willkinson "was a wonderful ambassador for Kentucky and a steadfast advocate for education, especially for improving literacy in our state."

A native of Casey County, Martha Carol Stafford Wilkinson was a strong ally of her husband in their early business years and in his term as governor from 1987 to 1991.

As first lady, she created "Martha's Army" to fight adult illiteracy. A popular state poster to promote her fight against illiteracy showed her as a general in a military uniform.

To wage her war against illiteracy, Mrs. Wilkinson opened a telephone hotline, 1-800-GED-ARMY, for Kentucky high school dropouts to call to learn how to obtain a General Educational Development certificate.

One of the army's success stories in 1990 was country music singer Waylon Jennings, who dropped out of school in the 10th grade.

At the May 1989 Kentucky Derby Breakfast, Mrs. Wilkinson told the Herald-Leader she had been nominated by an Alabama writer for the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in fighting illiteracy. The newspaper discovered a few days later that the writer was not qualified to nominate anyone for the prestigious award. He said he did it because he was impressed with Mrs. Wilkinson's work.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who was close to the Wilkinsons, said in an email message Thursday that "Martha was one of the most memorable first ladies Kentucky has ever seen."

"I thought she was a perfect match for Gov. Wilkinson, because she was just as passionate as he was when it came to improving Kentucky's schools, and she also didn't hesitate to let you know what she thought," Stumbo said. "She is a key reason why our adult-education programs are now among the best in the country, and I was proud to work alongside her in this effort. She will be missed, but her contributions will not be forgotten."

Danny Briscoe, who was Wallace Wilkinson's campaign manager, said Kentuckians liked Mrs. Wilkinson as first lady because she "came across like a normal, typical person. She was herself."

Briscoe attributed Wilkinson's successful gubernatorial campaign to Martha and her sister, Catherine Rubards of Lexington.

He said Rubards told him early in the campaign that when she hit the campaign trail with Mrs. Wilkinson, they found that most people did not know Wallace Wilkinson. But she later reported that "everyone was talking about Wallace" when he proposed a statewide lottery to finance education.

Her comments sparked the campaign to focus on a lottery, which propelled Wilkinson to victory, Briscoe said.

In 1991, when her husband could not seek a second four-year term because of term limits at the time, Mrs. Wilkinson announced her candidacy for governor.

She withdrew from the race before the Democratic primary when polls showed her trailing Lt. Gov. Brereton Jones. During her brief campaign, the Herald-Leader reported that she had been a Republican until 1983.

Martha Wilkinson said her husband's involvement in Democrat Harvey Sloane's unsuccessful candidacy for governor in 1983 might have been a reason she changed to the Democratic Party that year.

Her husband, she said, probably did not know that she had been a registered Republican.

In a 1985 interview, Martha Wilkinson said she and Wallace Wilkinson had been friends in high school in Casey County, when she was known as Martha Carol Stafford. They didn't begin dating until they were students at the University of Kentucky. They married in September 1960.

At age 20, within a year of moving to Lexington, Wallace Wilkinson opened Kentucky Paperback Gallery. The lone employee was Martha Wilkinson, who kept the books. She also took a full-time job in the Lexington office of Greyhound Bus Lines for $115 a week. "It was more money than I had ever seen," she said.

Wallace Wilkinson didn't take a salary. He plowed his earnings back into the book business, and the couple lived on Martha's earnings.

"I can truthfully say the first 10 years of our marriage were spent working night and day," Martha Wilkinson said.

In 1965, Wallace Wilkinson borrowed $20,000 and converted The Paperback Gallery into Wallace College Book Co., which specialized in used textbooks. It became his flagship company and the cornerstone of his business empire.

In 1999, Wallace Wilkinson helped launch Ecampus.com, an Internet company that sold textbooks and other goods to college students. There was no hint at the time that building Ecampus into a big success and selling it to public shareholders might be his only way to avert personal financial disaster.

In 2001, the former governor was forced into bankruptcy by creditors who were owed more than $418 million. Mrs. Wilkinson was then forced into bankruptcy reorganization after a federal judge ruled that she was responsible for repaying more than $100 million in loans that she had co-signed for her husband.

Wallace and Martha Wilkinson became Florida residents shortly after his bankruptcy.

In 2002, sons Glenn and Andrew sold their Lexington homes and turned over the proceeds to their father's creditors to satisfy loans their father made to them.

The former governor died in July 2002 in Lexington at age 60 of a massive stroke while suffering from cancer and heart disease.

In August 2002, the body of the former governor was moved from the Blue Grass Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Jessamine County to a mausoleum at Sarasota Memorial Park in Florida.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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