Fayette County

Bill Embry Jr., retailer and housing advocate, dies at age 91

Bill Embry at St. James Place apartments on June 29, 2005.
Bill Embry at St. James Place apartments on June 29, 2005. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Bill Embry Jr., former owner of high-end retailer Embry’s and a longtime advocate and developer of affordable housing, died Thursday. He was 91.

Embry pushed for the creation of St. James Place, a 100-unit residence for the working homeless in downtown Lexington, and St. James Place II, a 38 unit-apartment complex for veterans who are recovering addicts. In addition, he started the Faith Community Housing Foundation, which built and rehabilitated 44 single-family houses for the working poor.

Embry also pushed for the creation of Lexington’s affordable housing trust fund and served on two city boards concerning housing and homelessness.

Many in Lexington’s homeless and housing community credit Embry for keeping the plight of the city’s homeless and working poor on the public’s and elected officials’ radar.

“He has been involved with affordable housing for decades,” said David Christiansen, a longtime homeless and housing advocate. “He was pushing constantly for the creation of the affordable housing trust fund and was always talking to the council.”

Rick McQuady, director of Lexington’s affordable housing fund, first became familiar with Embry when McQuady was at the Kentucky Housing Corporation and Embry was looking for funding for St. James Place more than 20 years ago. St. James Place opened in 1995.

“St. James wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Bill Embry,” McQuady said. “ He pursued that project like a rabid dog. He felt the same way about the affordable housing trust fund in Lexington.”

The affordable housing fund — which can be used to build affordable housing in Lexington — was established in 2014.

In addition to housing, Embry was also involved in his family’s business, Embry’s. Embry took over the business from his father in 1944 while he was still in college, said his wife, Frances Embry. Frances and Bill Embry Jr. were married for 62 years.

Embry expanded the company throughout Kentucky and into other states. In 2003, he and his son, Bill Embry III, decided to focus on furs in stores in Lexington, Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

It was a bout with cancer in 1988 that led Embry to his second volunteer career as a developer and advocate for affordable housing. In a July 2005 Herald-Leader article, Embry said after he was diagnosed with leukemia, “I went out to the car and cried and prayed. Then I talked to the Lord. I said, ‘Lord, you save me from this and I will do whatever you say.’”

A month later, his blood work showed that the cancer was gone. Just a few months later, Embry was asked to sit on the public policy committee of a local bank that concentrated on low-income housing. It was through that committee that he became aware of the critical need for affordable housing, Embry said in 2005.

A University of Kentucky graduate, Embry was also president of the Lexington Chamber of Commerce and served on various civic boards and commissions. He was also an active member of Central Christian Church, holding several leadership positions including chairman of the board of trustees.

He received several awards during his lifetime including Best Housing Developer from the Kentucky Housing Corporation, the Humanitarian Award from the National Conference for Community and Justice and an award named for Embry from the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative.

McQuady said Embry at 91 had not slowed down. He was working on another affordable housing project before he fell and broke his hip recently.

“He wanted to do one more project before he died,” McQuady said.

Visitation will be at 11:30 a.m. Monday at Central Christian Church, with the funeral service to start at 1:30 p.m. Burial will follow at the Lexington Cemetery. Milward Funeral Home on North Broadway is handling funeral arrangements.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall