Kentucky businessman and former UK trustees chairman Billy Joe Miles dies

Billy Joe Miles was elected by the UK Board of Trustees at its new chairman, Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, September 21, 1999.
Billy Joe Miles was elected by the UK Board of Trustees at its new chairman, Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, September 21, 1999. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Billy Joe Miles, the Owensboro businessman and former University of Kentucky Board of Trustees chairman who turned his family’s seed company into one of Western Kentucky’s largest enterprises, has died. He was 78.

His death was announced by Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg, at the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee meeting on Tuesday morning. Committee members held a moment of silence. Miles’ daughter, Suzanne, a Republican lawmaker from Owensboro, was in the meeting but left shortly after it started.

Miles’ accomplishments in business were overshadowed in the past two years by a lurid court case. He was indicted in September 2016 on charges of sexually assaulting a 30-year-old home health worker and offering her $1 million to buy her silence. The charges were later dismissed after credibility issues were raised about statements made by the worker.

Miles had been suffering from dementia in recent years, according to testimony in the case.

Miles graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1962 with a degree in agronomy, and began working at his father’s seed corn company. He began expanding Miles Enterprises into other types of seed, agricultural chemicals, fertilizer, a gas supply company, farm and truck tires, and machinery repair. In later years, he became interested in corn and tobacco genetics and progressive agricultural technologies. He also expanded those interests into a business of exhibition tractor pulls, and later bought a 40,000 acre ranch in Bolivia.

Miles used his strong Kentucky accent and folksy demeanor to hide a brain shrewd in business and politicking.

He emerged as the surprise chairman of the UK Board of Trustees in 1999 in a shakeup stemming from a controversial move by one group of trustees to give former President Charles Wethington an extended contract. Three newspapers filed suit against what they called an illegal meeting. Miles worked the board until he had support for a deal to offer Wethington two more years as a university fundraiser instead of president.

Miles later led the presidential search that found fellow businessman Lee T. Todd, and worked with him to reform UK’s scandal-plagued athletics department. In 2003, he delivered a blistering diatribe over what he called UK’s priority of athletics over academics and economic development.

“It’s great to win a (basketball) championship, but the university needs to put money in people’s pockets and make life better,” he said at the time.

He served on the UK board from 1995-2013.

Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, has known Miles for 30 years, starting with the time Miles quietly gathered the votes to defeat then-Owensboro Mayor Adkisson’s attempt to merge city and county government. “He wanted me to pull the plug on the effort and I said, ‘it’s too late, you’ll just have to beat us, and he promptly did,” Adkisson said.

Miles had a wicked sense of humor, Adkisson recalled, including the time he sat next to former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson on a plane to Washington, D.C. and pretended to be a sanitation worker from Owensboro.

“He was a major figure not just in Daviess County but in Western Kentucky agriculture and I think he enjoyed playing down the fact he was a highly successful, multimillionaire agribusiness tycoon,” he said. “He liked to play the role of just a country boy.”

But that country boy was a highly progressive agriculture pioneer, who would take fellow farmers to Europe and South America to show them different farming techniques, Adkisson said.

“Billy Joe made a difference wherever he was, whether it was on the UK Board of Trustees or chairman of the local hospital, or in the wheat field with local farmers helping them improve their practices,” said Rod Kuegel, a former president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, fellow Daviess county farmer and friend. “He always brought the best out in the people around him. He expected the best and always performed at his best.”

Miles is survived by his four children, Debra Seymour, Sterett Miles, Paul Miles and Suzanne Miles. Services will be held on Friday, March 16, 2018, at Owensboro Christian Church, 2818 New Hartford Road in Owensboro. The burial will be private. Arrangements are being handled by Davis Funeral Home in Owensboro.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford