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Former Kentucky Governor and KFC Magnate John Y. Brown Jr Dies at 88

John Y. Brown Jr., the magnate who helped build KFC into a global fast-food sensation and used his momentum to serve one term as Kentucky governor, has died at the age of 88. According to Brown’s family, the businessman and multimillionaire succumbed to complications from COVID-19 at a hospital in Lexington, KY. He is set to lie in the state capitol from 10 am to 7 pm. Tuesday (Nov. 29), with his family hosting a public visitation in the rotunda from 3 pm. to 7 pm. The public is invited to attend.

Brown’s daughter, CNN anchor and senior Washington correspondent Pamela Brown, first confirmed his death in a statement on Friday (Nov. 25):

“Our Dad, John Y. Brown Jr., not only dreamed the impossible dream, he lived it until the very end. His positive attitude and zest for life was unrivaled and allowed him to beat the odds many times over,” the statement read.

30-year-old Kentucky-born Mr. Brown was a lawyer and prolific salesman–one of the country’s best–when he bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from its owner, Colonel Harlan Sanders, for $2 million in 1964 (about $19 million in today’s money). Over the next seven years as head of the company, Brown worked tirelessly to transform KFC from a local chain out of Corbin, Kentucky, into one of the globe’s largest and most recognizable restaurant brands, growing it from 600 to 3,000 stores worldwide.

Brown sold Kentucky Fried Chicken to Heublein Inc. for $30 million in 1971 ($225 million today) and soon turned his attention to sports, buying an ownership stake in both the Boston Celtics and the Kentucky Colonels in the years that followed. But the ever-aspiring Brown had bigger dreams, and it wouldn’t be long until the millionaire launched a six-week Democratic bid for governor in his home state with the campaign slogan of “Running Government Like a Business.” Voters were won over by Brown’s business credentials and high media visibility in Kentucky, and he beat Republican rival, Louie B. Nunn, to serve one term as governor from 1979 to 1983. 

After completing his term, Brown tried and failed to re-enter the political realm, so he spent his time making big moves in the world of sports management. He also briefly returned to his restaurant roots and founded a roasted chicken restaurant chain with country music star Kenny Rogers called Kenny Rogers Roasters, a venture that was ironically driven out of business by the sheer dominance of KFC. 

Brown is survived by his five children from three different marriages.

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