‘Coal Miner Governor’ Paul Patton will debut memoir Saturday at Kentucky Book Festival

Democrat puts to rest the rumor that he and McConnell had a deal to protect each other

October 20, 2023 10:45 am

Then-Gov. Paul E. Patton spoke at the National Governors Association winter meeting as Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, left, and Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne listen Feb. 22, 2003 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

When I interviewed Paul E. Patton in 1987 for the Lexington Herald-Leader during his bid to become Kentucky’s lieutenant governor, he showed me his fingernails.

They looked as if they needed a good scrubbing, I told him.

Kentucky Book Festival

When: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21

Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington

What: 150 authors meeting readers and signing books, a full slate of main stage events.  educational workshops,  craft talks, children’s events.

Sponsor: Kentucky Humanites

He laughed. He said they represented where he came from. 

The stain from operating coal mines for 20 years had left an indelible mark on his body, perhaps on his soul.

The lean, handsome man born poor in Fallsburg in Lawrence County became wealthy working in coal after obtaining a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Kentucky. He sold most of his coal interests in the late 1970s and was set financially for life.

Too young to retire in his early 40s, he entered politics and eventually became the 59th governor of Kentucky from 1995 to 2003 as a Democrat.

But he never forgot about his life in coal mines — especially his working relationships with his employees and the ever-present danger of mistakes. (Relationships and the potential for mistakes are something that also should be at the forefront of consideration for politicians.)

Throughout his adult life, Patton’s stained fingernails helped him keep in perspective his mistakes, as well as his accomplishments.

They appear to have helped produce a man who has studied himself quite well and in old age is content.

He decided to use “Coal Miner” in the title of his newly released memoir.

Patton, now 86, writes about his life in “The Coal Miner Who Became Governor,” published by the University Press of Kentucky.

It is his life story compiled from a series of about 150 interviews he gave over four years to Jeffrey S. Suchanek, an oral historian at the University of Kentucky. 

At 276 pages, it costs $70 in hardback and $35 in paperback.

The cover of Gov. Paul Patton’s memoir. (University Press of Kentucky)

Patton and Suchanek are among the authors who will be meeting readers and signing and selling books Saturday at the Kentucky Book Festival at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Lexington Green in Lexington, starting at 10 a.m.

The governor is to participate in a forum at 2 p.m. Saturday at the festival’s main stage with other authors who have written memoirs.

He has scheduled other launch dates for the book: 6 p.m. Nov. 2 at University of Pikeville, Nov. 10 and 11 at Louisville Book Festival, Nov. 18 at Books by the Banks in Cincinnati and 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dec. 15 at McCarthy Strategic Solutions in Frankfort. 

The Patton memoir is not the first for a Kentucky governor, says state historian Jim Klotter. 

Klotter said Gov. Bert Combs was the subject of an oral history by George Robinson and there are memoirs by former Govs. Steve Beshear, Albert B. “Happy” Chandler and Wallace Wilkinson. 

There also is a book about former Gov. Martha Layne Collins, the first and only woman to be governor of Kentucky, Klotter said.

Thoughts on the book

Probably the most anticipated question about the Patton book is what and how much does it say about the Tina Conner affair.

Patton, as governor, was accused of giving the nursing home owner preferential treatment during their extramarital affair which made national headlines.

After then-WHAS-TV reporter Mark Hebert broke the story in September 2002, Patton said he knew “whatever political future I might have had went up in smoke, and even worse, it almost cost me my marriage.”

Patton and his wife, Judi, eventually reconciled but he said their struggles were “too painful” to write about in the book.

His discussion of the Conner affair takes up about a page and a half in his book. It will be left up to future scholars to analyze this more.

Patton makes some news in the book.  

He asserts that his first indication of a strained relationship with Republican Senate President David Williams occurred when Williams complained about where he was assigned to sit during Patton’s second inaugural ceremony in 1999.

Patton also puts to rest the rumor that Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and he agreed in 1999 that McConnell would not recruit a strong Republican candidate to run against Patton if Patton agreed not to run against him in 2002.

He adds more details to his legislative victories, especially ending the University of Kentucky’s control of the state’s community colleges and creating the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. 

Paul Patton

He once said his political toughness came from presiding as county-judge executive in the rough-and-tumble world of Pike County politics.

Patton writes the book in an orderly, chronological manner, a style indicative of the engineer he is, rather than as a poet with opinions ill or praiseworthy of others.

It is at its best when he occasionally offers his personal views on other politicians with him in the arena, as he does with former Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo and his successor, Republican Ernie Fletcher.

The book will be extremely useful as a starting point for future scholars who might be able to shed more light on why Patton did things as he did.

Patton devotes the last part of his book as a tribute to his wife. It is the author at his most personal.

For those of us who believe in redemption, Patton regained stature after being governor with his work as chairman of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and president of Pikeville College.

He now has taken to Facebook, chronicling adventures with his family and friends.

He lets us know at book’s end that he indeed is content.

Of his current life with Judi and family, he said, “What more could a man want? I feel that I have more to do, but if the Lord calls me home tomorrow, I won’t complain.”

When I interviewed Paul E. Patton in 2003 for the Lexington Herald-Leader in his final days as Kentucky governor, he said at the end he knew that his obituary would contain “up high in it, at least in the first two paragraphs,” a few of his accomplishments as governor and his adulterous affair.

I told him I expected he was right.   


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Jack Brammer
Jack Brammer

Jack Brammer, a native of Maysville, has been a news reporter in Kentucky since 1976. He worked two years for The Sentinel-News in Shelbyville and then from 1978 to 2021 in the Lexington Herald-Leader's Frankfort bureau. After retiring in December 2021 from the Herald-Leader, he became a freelance writer for various publications. Brammer has a Master's degree in communications from the University of Kentucky and is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.