Gov. Wallace Wilkinson hugging a constituent at a public event.  Boone County.  September 1991.  Wilkinson, who was governor from 1987 to 1991, died July 5, 2002, at the age of 60.

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     Wallace Wilkinson loved to hug the ladies.  It was all very innocent, old-style politics, one of the things you do when you're governor.  You kiss the babies and hug the ladies.   The men just get a hearty clap on the back.  The first time I met Wilkinson, he walked up behind me and slapped me so hard on the shoulders that he almost knocked me down.  Then he shook my hand.
     Before he was elected, Wilkinson's professional reputation was that of a no-nonsense businessman.  But out in public as the governor, he loved the seeming nonsense of ceremonial appearances.  He was always at ease in a crowd of people.

     Wilkinson was a native of Casey County in south-central Kentucky, where he helped his father run a grocery business in Liberty, the county seat.  Local legend has it that as a teen-ager, Wilkinson started business for himself by selling candy and other snacks from the trunk of his car to fellow high school students.
     Wilkinson spent some time in college, never graduated.  But his business mind learned something else in college:  that there was a fortune to be made in selling books.  In the early 1960s, he and his wife, Martha, opened a bookstore in Lexington.  They sold used paperbacks at first, then textbooks.  By the mid-1970s, Wilkinson owned or operated bookstores at college campuses around Kentucky and in several other states.  He expanded his business empire to include real estate development, banking, a charter flying service.  He was a millionaire before he turned 40.

     In 1987, Wilkinson used part of that fortune to help finance a campaign for governor which, against all conventional wisdom, he won.  A Democrat who came from a traditionally Republican area of the state, Wilkinson charted an independent, populist, course as governor.  He was outspoken and sometimes confrontational.  He made a number of enemies during his four years as governor, including some powerful members and supporters of his own party.  Even so, he maintained a high popularity among the public at-large throughout his term.
     Late in Wilkinson's administration, Martha Wilkinson announced her candidacy for governor.  At the time, Kentucky governors were limited to one four-year term.  Her campaign never really caught on, and Mrs. Wilkinson withdrew from the 1991 gubernatorial race a month before the Democratic primary.

     When his term ended in December 1991, Wilkinson left politics and went back to his businesses.  By all appearances, he continued to make more millions.  But in 2001 it was revealed that Wilkinson's companies had begun to default on loans totaling more than $400 million.  Wilkinson's assets were less than a third of that amount.  His business empire fell and his fortunes turned in full view of friends and enemies alike.  On paper at least, he was broke.

     On Memorial Day weekend 2002, Wilkinson experienced chest pains and was taken to a Lexington hospital.  Doctors discovered he was suffering from recurrence of lymphatic cancer, for which he had been treated a decade earlier.  He never left the hospital, and died on July 5.
     Wilkinson was survived by Martha and their two sons, Glenn and Andrew.

Posted July 5, 2002.