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
Wilkinson was survived by Martha and their two sons,
Glenn and Andrew.