Unafraid of death, former Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll reflects on his long political life

By: - November 23, 2023 5:50 am

Julian Carroll was Kentucky’s governor, House speaker and a state senator. On Jan. 30, 2020, during his last term in office, he spoke on the Senate floor. (Photo by LRC Public Information)

FRANKFORT — At age 92, former Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll sits in a recliner at his Franklin County home, talking about his glory years in politics and the six-page program-in-progress on a nearby stand.

The program is entitled “Julian Morton Carroll: A Lifetime of Public Service.” It contains a portrait of him, his bio and a program that will include family and Democratic and Republican colleagues.

It is to be distributed when Carroll lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda. He says he has no idea when that will be but that he is ready mentally and spiritually.

Carroll has been under limited hospice care for about six months.

Family members now attend to him. He takes oxygen. He can’t walk without assistance. His hands tremble.

But his memory of years gone by is sharp.

His red-brick home is in an isolated, heavily wooded area of Franklin County known as Deer Run Farm. It is remote but only six miles from the hustle and bustle of the state Capitol where he served as governor from December 1974 to December 1979.

The former Democratic governor has lived on the property for about 40 years and has enjoyed its calming solitude. It is filled with memories, especially of his wife, Charlann Harting Carroll.  She died in 2014. They had been married for 64 years.

On the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving, Kentucky’s 54th governor talked for nearly two hours about the good and the bad of his life and its winding down.

As he spoke, he wore red pajama trousers and a pull-over gray shirt. He frequently adjusted the oxygen tube to his nose.

A large-screen TV was not far away on which he regularly watches the news and religious programs, especially sermons of Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

Carroll in 1975. (University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center)

Surrounding his recliner were several chairs for guests who drop by to chat with him, mostly about his years in Kentucky politics. A walker is near his chair to assist him when he stands.

“I’m doing as well as I can be expected,” he says in a clear, though somewhat shaky, voice.

“I can’t walk by myself any longer. The oxygen seems to be getting more a problem. I go to the kitchen at night for dinner and occasionally go out to eat with a friend.”

He then smiles and says ever hopeful, “The way I look at it is I’ll be 93 soon (next April 16) and then 94. I have been blessed.

Before politics

Born in 1931 to Elvie “Buster” and Eva Heady Carroll in West Paducah, Carroll was one of 11 children and still amazed to have been part of such a large family. Six of the siblings became college graduates.

He was a good student. Near the end of 1950 when he was 19, he began dating Charlann Harting. They parted ways the next year so she could attend the University of Kentucky and he the nearby Paducah Junior College.

After their first college year, they decided to get married. They eventually had four children — Kenneth, Patrice, Brad and Elly.  Kenneth takes care of the farm and Patrice lives in Lexington. Elly lives in Washington state.  Brad was killed on Aug. 14, 2011, when his Ford Explorer struck an embankment and caught fire on Leestown Road. He was 47. One of his sons, John Bradley, 30, now lives with his grandfather, the former governor.

Driving home from church the Sunday morning of their son’s fatal accident, the former governor and his wife saw emergency responders at the scene. They did not know their son was involved until they received a call from the hospital.

“I could not cry,” said Carroll. “I wanted to so badly but could not. The grief was that overpowering. I was numb. You never want to lose one of your children. Never. It tears you up like nothing else.”

Family remains important to Carroll. He has seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He used to make chocolate chip cookies for them on Sundays.

After graduating from the University of Kentucky Law School in 1956, Carroll served three years as an Air Force attorney and then returned to Paducah to practice law.

He garnered public attention when he successfully led a public campaign to allow the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide electricity at lower costs. The referendum passed by a 3-1 margin and Carroll became a household name in the county.

He became active in civic affairs with a beautiful family and was a frequent lay speaker at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

He was ripe for the political world.

The state House

Carroll was elected to the first of five two-year terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1962 and held its highest office, speaker, from 1968 to 1970.

As House speaker, Carroll inherited a chamber where lobbyists frequently roamed the floor and family members came and went as they wanted. Carroll removed the lobbyists and family members from the floor to provide more decorum. Soon afterwards, the members gave him a standing ovation for the move, saying it made them more professional.

The governor was a Republican, Louie Nunn.

“Louie was a country lawyer and we got along really well,” said Carroll. “Of course, we had our differences. I voted against his raising the state sales tax. It was a gutsy move on his part but it destroyed him politically.”

The sales tax increase was called “Nunn’s nickel” by his political opponents and he never won another election. Carroll’s critics say he got to spend all the money when he was governor that Nunn had raised.

“I just thought the increase was too much,” Carroll says.

The governor’s office

Carroll said he “flat out campaigned, shaking over 7,000 hands and beat” the popular Attorney General John Breckenridge in the 1971 Democratic primary election for lieutenant governor.  He won the office by defeating Lexington businessman Jim Host in the general election.

In this undated photo, Carroll is second from the left and the late Bert Combs, a former governor and Carroll’s informal running mate in 1971, sits a the far right. (University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center)

Carroll was the informal running mate of former Gov. Bert T. Combs, who was seeking a second term. (The governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately at the time.) Combs, however, lost to Democrat Wendell Ford of Owensboro. Ford beat Republican Thomas Emberton in the fall’s general election. It marked the last time a Republican for governor has carried Jefferson County.

As Ford’s lieutenant governor, Carroll said he “felt ignored. Wendell just sort of ignored me.”

But Ford later came calling on Carroll, urging him to run for the U.S. Senate in 1974 against Republican Marlow Cook.

“I kept telling Wendell no, that I wanted to stay in Kentucky,” said Carroll.  “I remember that night when some of us were meeting and I kept refusing. Wendell slammed a tablet on the table and used a well-known profanity to say he was going to run.”

Gov. Julian Carroll takes the oath of office in 1975. (University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center)

With Ford’s departure to Washington, Carroll was elevated to the governorship. He won a four-year term as governor in his own right in 1975.

As governor, he says he was most proud of increasing funding to education — doubling some teachers’ salaries — and promoting the coal industry during a national energy crisis.

He also was governor when Kentuckians approved a constitutional amendment in 1975 to reorganize the state’s judicial system.

His toughest problem to deal with, he says, was the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.

The fire in Southgate in Campbell County occurred on the night of May 28, 1977. In it, 165 people died and more than 200 were injured. The state found numerous code violations and initiated new safety policies.

Carol on the golf course. (University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center)

His biggest disappointment as governor, he says, was “dealing with the FBI.” 

Carroll and his predecessor were under the cloud of an investigation for an alleged workers compensation insurance kickback scheme. They were never convicted of any wrongdoing. Howard “Sonny” Hunt, a former state Democratic Party chairman, pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from state insurance contractors and served time in prison.

“I consider him as a friend,” says Carroll of Hunt. “He comes to visit me and I enjoy his company.”

The state Senate

After the governor’s office, Carroll practiced law in Frankfort.

In 2004, he was elected to the Kentucky Senate. He served there until he retired in 2020.

Republicans were taking control of the state and ruled the state Senate.

David Williams, a Burkesville attorney and former House member, had become the Senate president in 2000. He was smart and adept in keeping the Republican caucus together.

“I learned quickly that the best way for me to deal with David Williams was to stay out of his way,” says Carroll.

Williams left the Senate in 2012 to become a circuit judge. His successor as president was Clay County attorney Robert Stivers, who still holds the post.

“Robert Stivers was willing to work with me. I appreciated that very much,” says Carroll.

“When I retired, he wrote me a personal note. Robert Stivers is a real gentleman.”

Carroll does not have such feelings for Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown. “He’s overbearing, like Napoleon,” says Carroll. “He likes to run things but he has a hard time doing that.”

Carroll attributes his party’s decline in power in Kentucky to the abortion issue.

“It’s ironic that the Republican Party’s cry against abortion helped them in gaining public offices but it’s hurting them now because most people are concerned about what happens when the mother’s life is in danger or rape or incest occur.”

Carroll also gives U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell much credit for building up the Republican Party in Kentucky.

“He’s tough, very tough. I knew him as a county judge. He has totally dedicated himself to the Republican Party.” McConnell was Jefferson County judge-executive before unseating Democratic U.S. Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston in 1984. 

A bright light for Democrats in Kentucky, says Carroll, is Gov. Andy Beshear, who recently won reelection against Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who would have been Kentucky’s first Black governor.

“Andy Beshear has been a very good governor but I really don’t know if he will reach the national stage,” says Carroll. “The Republicans will be out even more so now for him to make his life miserable. I wish him well.”

Concerning the recent gubernatorial contest, Carroll said he hopes it wasn’t but wonders whether race was “a slow death knell for Cameron.”

“You didn’t hear the media talk about race much but I’m guessing it was somewhat a factor in the election,” says Carroll.

Carroll says he also guesses he will be interested in politics until his last breath.

On the farm and elsewhere

For now, Carroll is thankful for his family and “best” friends like Judy Campbell, a sister of the late Lexington businessman and attorney Terry McBrayer, and David Cobb, who was Carroll’s chief of staff in his Senate office.

“I still have people come and visit me,” he says.

He says he is most positive about his faith.

He is a member of Elevate Church, a local Assembly of God church. He likes to talk about his Christian beliefs, including that “mercy and grace for an eternal life in heaven” await those who believe.

“The Lord has been so good to me,” says Carroll.

“Every night before I go to bed, I thank the Lord for letting me have another day.”

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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.

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