Foster Pettit an advocate for city progress

Foster Pettit
Foster Pettit

Few individuals have ever fit the term "civic leader" like H. Foster Pettit, who died Nov. 22 at age 84.

Funeral services will be held at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church followed by a public reception at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

His public service is well-documented: state representative, first mayor of Lexington-Fayette County's merged government, head of the state Cabinet for Public Protection and Regulation.

A man with deep, deep roots in Lexington, he understood the need to preserve and respect the past while pushing our community into a better future.

He worked hard to combine Lexington and Fayette County, making it the first merged government in Kentucky. As the first mayor of that new entity, he did the hard work of combining city and county public offices.

He believed that it was the only route to a modern, progressive community. As mayor, he extended sanitary sewer service to thousands of homes and improved fire protection in the rural parts of the community.

In the 1970s as suburbanization drained life out of downtown, Mr. Pettit devised ways to maintain its vitality. As mayor he created the Lexington Center Corp. which built Rupp Arena and the convention center and restored the Opera House.

Under his leadership Jacobson, Masterson Station and Ecton parks were also created.

Mr. Pettit's work for Lexington didn't stop when it was no longer his day job. He advocated for creating a local history museum and for funding arts in the community, serving at times as chairman of the Lexington Arts Council and co-chair of the fund to create ArtsPlace on Mill Street.

Mr. Pettit was also a leader in the campaign for public ownership of the water company.

Although he was clearly willing to take on a contentious fight, Mr. Pettit was recognized for the civility and thoughtfulness with which he pursued the causes dear to him.

Remembering Mr. Pettit, people talk about his winning personality and his enthusiasm.

Two anecdotes recorded in the files of the Herald-Leader reflect those qualities.

In one, as mayor he was charged with welcoming a Russian high school basketball team here to play in a benefit game. Mr. Pettit gave customary remarks in English, according to an account, while the players looked bored.

Then he repeated them in Russian, which he had learned while in the Air Force. "By the time Mayor Pettit got through, the visitors were all smiles and feeling at home," writer William J. Hanna recounted.

In another, columnist Don Edwards recounted the tale of the alligator Mr. Pettit sheltered in his downtown backyard only to have it escape in the night. Before it got away, he had a photograph made with the alligator to show doubters. He told Edwards, "You know how it is with former mayors, I've been searching for credibility all my life."

Edwards also wrote that Mr. Pettit wasn't "crazy about the idea that his epitaph might be: This was the man who left an alligator on historic West Third Street."

It won't be.

Mr. Pettit left this community and his family much too soon but his contributions will live on long after him.