Local Obituaries

Former Lexington mayor H. Foster Pettit dies at 84

Foster Pettit
Foster Pettit

Former Lexington mayor H. Foster Pettit died Saturday morning in Hammond, La., family members said. He was 84.

Mr. Pettit had been in the intensive care unit at North Oaks Medical Center in Hammond for weeks battling a life-threatening bacterial infection.

Mr. Pettit served as a Democratic state representative from 1964-70 and as mayor of Lexington from 1972 to the end of 1977.

He had "a spirit and enthusiasm and energy that was just so genuine," Mayor Jim Gray said in a statement. "He was a leader, and yet he was everyman, who walked comfortably alongside each of us. His leadership in creating the merged city-county government transformed Lexington from a sleepy college town to a growing city. He loved Lexington's history, yet he realized early on that the choice was to grow and thrive or to decay and decline ... and he always made the right choice."

Former Mayor Pam Miller described Mr. Pettit as "very much a Lexingtonian, the very best that we could offer."

"Without Foster Pettit and Robert Stephens, we would not have the merged government," she said. "And we would not have been able to make the enormous progress that has occurred in the last 40 years."

Mr. Pettit was recruited to run for mayor in 1971, and he won a three-way race against two members of Lexington's city commission.

During that first term, Mr. Pettit worked with the late Robert Stephens, who was Fayette County's last judge-executive and who went on to become chief justice of the state Supreme Court, to advocate for the consolidation of the Lexington and Fayette County governments. Voters approved the merger in 1972.

The following year, Mr. Pettit ran against James Amato in an election that ended up in court.

Initially, Amato was declared the winner by a 112-vote margin, but it was soon discovered that an error in a voting machine in the Aylesford precinct had caused votes cast for Mr. Pettit to be counted for Amato, and vice versa. Mr. Pettit, who filed suit, was ultimately declared the winner and first mayor of the Urban County Government.

Amato, who succeeded Mr. Pettit as mayor in 1978, issued a statement Saturday, saying he was saddened by the passing of a man he considered his friend.

"Despite the tenacity of the campaign, he was always a gentleman, and his civility and statesmanship earned my enduring respect and admiration," Amato said. "Our community is better today for his steady and thoughtful leadership during an important period of transition for our local government."

Miller, who served under Mr. Pettit on the city's first Urban County Council, said the task of combining the city and county governments was not an easy one.

"He was an excellent mayor, thoughtful and thorough and committed to the success of the new government," Miller said. "He worked out the solutions to the numerous problems involved in combining the two entities."

She explained that Mr. Pettit "had to merge two police departments and pick one chief." The same had to be done for every department in both city and county governments.

"It was contentious," Miller recalled. "Foster had this wonderful patience and a gentlemanly way of doing business."

During his time as mayor, there also were a host of major building projects. Lexington Center and Rupp Arena were designed and constructed, the Opera House was restored and a new terminal at Blue Grass Airport and new jail were built.

"He's one of the all-time great mayors," said longtime friend Jim Host.

He said Mr. Pettit "had such a winning personality" and was adept at consensus-building.

He said Mr. Pettit had been working on a book that included accounts of his time as mayor.

"He was still active, even though he was in his 80s," Host said.

After completing his terms as mayor, Mr. Pettit served from 1979-81 as Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.'s secretary for public protection and regulation.

He was a real estate investor and longtime attorney at Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs.

One of his more notable real estate investments was the 15-story First National Building on West Main Street, which is being remodeled into a 21c Museum Hotel. Mr. Pettit owned the building from 1970 to 1999 and appeared before the Urban County Council last summer to urge continued city support for the hotel.

A decade ago, Mr. Pettit served as chairman of Bluegrass FLOW (For Local Ownership of Water), an organization that led an unsuccessful push for city acquisition of Kentucky-American Water Co.

He also spent time as president of the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation and was active in a number of civic groups, including the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce.

He helped raise money for the purchase and restoration of McConnell Springs.

Mr. Pettit, a descendant of some of Lexington's earliest settlers, was born in Lexington to Dunster Foster and William Pettit.

He enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 and learned Russian before being stationed in Samsun, Turkey, where he intercepted radio communications from the Soviet Union.

He earned bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Virginia.

Mr. Pettit was fishing with friends and family on a fanboat in the Louisiana Delta on Oct. 16 when the boat capsized in shallow water. Mr. Pettit was cut on the leg and was stranded along with the rest of the boat's passengers for several hours before being rescued by the Coast Guard.

Soon after, he was diagnosed with an infection of Vibrio, a bacterium common to coastal waters. He did not recover.

Mr. Pettit is survived by his wife, Brenda, and three sons, Noble Gregory Pettit of Lexington; Harrison Foster Pettit Jr. and his wife, Lisa Pearlstein, of Portland, Ore., and Van Meter Pettit and his wife, Linda Blackford, of Lexington, as well as five grandsons.

Funeral services will be held at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church on North Mill Street, where Mr. Pettit was a lifelong member. The service will be followed by a public reception at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Sign an online guestbook in tribute to Mr. Pettit
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