Wendell Ford, the patriarch of Kentucky Democratic politics in the latter part of the 20th century, died Thursday morning in his hometown of Owensboro. He was 90.
Ford served 24 years in the U.S. Senate and was governor from 1971 to 1974. He was the first person in Kentucky history to be elected lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator.
A heavy smoker and strong defender of the tobacco industry for most of his political life, Ford announced in July that he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer. He said he was going to follow his doctors' orders "and leave the rest with the good Lord."
Ford was the longest-serving senator in Kentucky's history when he retired in 1999, a mark that was surpassed by Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2009.
Since his retirement, Ford frequently advised Democratic politicians and stumped on the campaign trail for them. He expressed disappointment that he was too ill to campaign for a number of state and local Democratic candidates on the November ballot, including U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes in her bid to oust McConnell.
Dozens of state and national leaders lamented Ford's death Thursday in statements that praised his impact on Kentucky during a political career that spanned several decades. Ford served four terms in the U.S. Senate, where he was first elected in November 1974. He was the Senate Democratic whip from 1991 to his retirement.
Former President Bill Clinton said he relied heavily on Ford's advice and support, "especially when the outcome was unclear, the stakes were high, and the vote was close."
On the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell recalled that "Wendell Ford first came to the Senate in the 1970s, calling himself just 'a dumb country boy with dirt between his toes.' But, over a distinguished two-decade career, this workhorse of the Senate would prove he was anything but."
He said Ford shaped the history of Kentucky "in ways few others had before him," but "never forgot the lessons about hard work he learned while milking cows or tending to chores on the family farm."
Ford's leadership in the U.S. Senate paid off for the state. He secured much money for building projects and sometimes held up national legislation to cut a better deal for Kentucky. In the 1980s, unemployed Kentuckians ended up with 13 weeks of benefits, rather than six, after Ford held out for more.
Ford was governor of Kentucky from Dec. 7, 1971, to Dec. 28, 1974.
In his office Thursday, Gov. Steve Beshear choked up when he mentioned that he had told Ford on the day he took office in December 2007 that he would be glad to be half as good a governor as Ford was.
Ford's overhaul of state agencies was the hallmark of his tenure as governor, said Kentucky's late historian laureate, Thomas D. Clark.
Kentucky Democratic Party chairman Dan Logsdon said Ford "has been everything to us. He always fought for Kentucky interests. He never backed down on that."
Logsdon said Ford was "a wonderful stump speaker. He would always give the best speech at political events."
The Kentucky Democratic Party headquarters off Interstate 64 in Frankfort bears Ford's name.
As a politician, Ford was known more for making deals than authoring legislation. Still, he helped shape several pieces of historic legislation, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, the National Energy Security Act of 1992, the Age Discrimination Act Amendments of 1986, the Tobacco Reform Act of 1985 and the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977.
He also was a key player in passing the 1993 motor-voter law, which allows people to register to vote when they get their driver's license.
His reputation was that of an effective, shrewd politician who, despite an easy smile and a folksy wit, played hardball behind the scenes.
His intense support for home-state interests — coal, tobacco and alcohol — at times incurred the wrath of health and consumer advocates. He fought hard against warning labels on cigarette packs and alcoholic beverages and was often photographed with a cigarette.
But Ford was beloved by most fellow Kentuckians.
"Ford was a champion of Kentucky's so-called sin products — tobacco, whiskey, coal," veteran journalist Al Smith said. "He was always proud to be from Kentucky and never forgot where he came from."
Wendell Hampton Ford was born Sept. 8, 1924, in Owensboro. His father, Ernest, was a state senator and an ally of Kentucky Gov. Earle C. Clements.
Ford graduated from Daviess County High School in 1942. He attended the University of Kentucky for a semester, then returned to work on the family farm. He married Ruby Jean Neel of Daviess County on Sept. 19, 1943. The couple had two children, Steven and Shirley.
After serving in the Army from 1944 to 1946, Ford graduated from the Maryland School of Insurance and entered the insurance business with his father.
Ford didn't set out to follow his father into public office.
"One of the things I had been turned off about politics by was watching my Dad, and how many people were coming in asking for things, pushing for things," Ford said in 1999.
Ford didn't become interested in politics until he was the national president of the Jaycees in 1956-57.