Aug. 13 will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gov. Bert T. Combs, whom I consider the most successful and visionary governor in modern Kentucky history. He ran for governor three times, was defeated twice and served from 1959 until 1963. He was also a member of the Kentucky Supreme Court and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
A contemporary of President John F. Kennedy, Combs was, as governor, a utilitarian who created or expanded institutions which continue to serve regular Kentuckians today.
For years, Kentucky government suffered from an almost laughable absence of money. In the early 1930s a sales tax was passed, then repealed in a chaos of political competition. In 1955, Combs ran his first race for governor on a sales tax platform and was resoundingly defeated. But four years later, he ingeniously tied a 3 percent sales tax to a veterans' bonus referendum and one cent for the bonds, the remainder to school funding improvement. "Two cents for sonny boy and one cent for the solider boy," was the chant.
The tax passed and in a meager way, compared to the need, Kentucky education was enhanced. It was a start. That money, plus Gov. Louie Nunn's 1968 2-cent sales tax increase, remains the foundation of Kentucky's schools budget.
Never miss a local story.
Combs believed in two-year post-secondary education, and while very generous with the existing universities, he pushed that. He and his buddy, the University of Kentucky's Ellis Hartford, called them "community colleges." Before then, we had only one local college, the Paducah Junior College, a quasi-city institution. Combs' idea was to set up under UK the consolidated community college funding system, pledging tuition revenue to pay off bonds used to pay the costs of building more than a dozen community colleges. He was devoted to the idea that the UK name provided prestige and political insulation to the colleges. Otherwise he said, "The damn legislature will turn every one of them into a hiring hall."
Combs was enamored with Kentucky's beauty. A native of Town Branch in Clay County, he was a devoted mountain man. His idea was to establish a state park system with a revenue bond system and a $10 million general obligation bond, from which the almost 20 state parks were eventually constructed — from Barkley Lodge in the west to Jenny Wiley near his long-term home in Prestonsburg.
Largely funded by their own receipts, the parks should have a well-controlled liquor concession and good food so that people "all over Kentucky could get a decent dignified meal, with a little toddy, without running to Louisville," Combs said.
Of course, we are just now getting around to the liquor, more than 50 years later. Combs did not father the parks system. Kentucky Dam Village and Pine Mountain State Park preceded him, but he regularized its financing and dramatically expanded it.
Combs was fond of saying, "We aren't going anywhere without roads to get there on." His idea was to bond modern roads under the Kentucky Turnpike Authority. This was new. Money was borrowed, tolls were pledged, the roads were built, at a fraction of today's cost. Now they are all paid off. The Mountain, Bluegrass and Western Kentucky parkways were all started during his administration.
The Kentucky Educational Television network was a tripartite development: Combs thought of it, Gov. Ned Breathitt planned it and Nunn paid for it.
The vision for that system, the story goes, was the result of a meeting Combs attended in Philadelphia where such a system was discussed in Massachusetts. His response to his aide Bob Bell was: "Hell, we can do that, the cheapest thing we have are air waves. Why not?"
Now we have one of the best, if not the best, public television systems in America.
In civil rights, Combs was Johnny on the spot. Even though he knew his political nemesis Happy Chandler would probably use it to beat his candidate Breathitt in 1963; Combs signed a gubernatorial executive order in 1962 demanding integration of public accommodations. He said later, "as governor I couldn't do much to turn Jim Crow around but I could do this."
Breathitt won, anyway.
Finally, in the late 1970s, after a successful legal career, Combs was approached by Arnold Guess, a career education department official with superintendents from several rural districts, led by Gene Binion of Elliott County. Their point was Kentucky's 1891 Constitution requires "an efficient system of common schools throughout the commonwealth."
As I recall, McCreary County had the lowest per pupil annual expenditure at $2,100. Beechwood, (Kenton County) and LaGrange (Oldham County) were around $3,500 per pupil, per year.
At the first meeting, Guess said, "Judge Combs, no court is going to uphold that inequality."
Combs responded, "Who is going to pay for all this lawing? Got any money?"
Guess: "No money, you'll have to do it free, I guess."
"Aye Gad, I thought so," Combs responded, reverting to his mountain vernacular.
He brought the lawsuit; Judge Ray Corns in Franklin Circuit Court struck down the financing system of Kentucky schools as so unequal between urban and rural districts to be a denial of equal protection of the law and in violation of the "efficiency" language quoted above. The Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the whole system.
The result was the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 which was so far-reaching that many — including Combs, to some extent — thought it radical. "We asked for a thimble full and got a bucket full," he said.
This listing of Combs' accomplishments could go on. With his federal liaison John Whisman, he led development of the federally funded Appalachian Regional Commission, the state personnel merit system, a constitutional convention and many other enduring improvements.
He was part of what many call the "golden era" of Kentucky state leadership, including the administrations of Breathitt and Nunn.
Kentucky has had too many mediocre governors who merely wished to serve. But as Combs repeatedly told his wife, Court of Appeals Judge Sara Combs, Kentucky's failures have been the failures not of her people, but of the leadership. "When properly asked to move, they will."
We should celebrate Combs on the centenary of his birth. He was a great leader. Churchill once said, "If the present only criticizes the past, there is not much hope for the future."
Here was a man who did not choose only to be something, he chose to do something. He was a practical activist who dreamed big. He believed, as famed architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham said: "We must dream no little dreams, for they have no power to stir the hearts of men."
On Dec. 3, 1991, Combs was caught in a flash flood as he returned home from his law office. His body was found in the Red River in Powell County the following morning. His cause of death was listed as hypothermia. His hands had held on to a tree root until he froze to death. He was found firmly grasping that root.
In death, as in life, he never gave up. We honor ourselves by honoring him.