#tbt January 12, 2009 Senator McConnell Honors Senator Wendell Ford

WASHINGTON, D.C.U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor Monday, January 12, 2009, honoring Senator Wendell Ford: 

“A few months prior to this body’s convening last week, I was grateful to be chosen by my colleagues to serve once again as the Senate Republican Leader.  And I’d also like to thank the people of Kentucky for giving me another term in the U.S. Senate.

“I’m privileged that Kentuckians have sent me to the Senate five times now to speak for them and their interests. I intend to work harder than I ever have before to do just that over the next six years.

“At such a time as this, after the people of Kentucky have spoken, I can’t help but think of great Kentuckians in the past that the people of my State have selected to represent their interests.

“Some we know from the history books, like Henry Clay. Although he was Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, and a three-time presidential candidate, we know him best as the Senator from Kentucky—the Great Compromiser who staved off civil war.

“Or take John Breckinridge. Elected to Congress from Virginia, he resigned that seat to move to Kentucky, which at the time was America’s western frontier. A key architect of Kentucky’s early State government, Breckinridge went on to serve as Senator from Kentucky and then as our young nation’s attorney general under Thomas Jefferson.

“Moving to more modern times, I can think of other legendary Senators from Kentucky whose footsteps still echo in these halls.

“Kentucky still fondly remembers the career of public service carved out by A.B. Chandler. He would be the first to tell you he made his mark not as a Senator, but as a two-time governor, or in the job he resigned the Senate to hold: commissioner of baseball. No matter what the job, with his winning personality, he was better known throughout the State by his nickname, ‘Happy.’

“And I’m sure he would be happy, Mr. President, to see his grandson, Congressman Ben Chandler, continuing his family’s tradition of service to the people of Kentucky.

“I’ve also spoken on this floor before of my admiration and respect for John Sherman Cooper, the conscience of the Senate in his day. I’ll always remember the man who mentored me as an intern in my first job on Capitol Hill and helped me navigate these hallways decades later as a freshman Senator.

“And of course there’s Alben Barkley, the first and until recently the only Kentuckian to be elected his party’s leader. After 12 years leading Senate Democrats through the Great Depression and World War II, he became America’s 35th vice president.

“Alben Barkley held the record as Kentucky’s longest-serving Senator for over 40 years—until it was broken by a man who, like him, rose from humble beginnings to become famous across the Commonwealth.

“That Senator was Wendell Ford, a man many of my colleagues have had the honor to know and work alongside. Wendell was the senior Senator from my State when I was first elected, and I got to watch him up close for 14 years. Over those years I learned why Wendell is the first and only Kentuckian to be elected successively lieutenant governor, governor, and Senator.

“It’s because even while he attained high office, he never forgot the lessons he learned working alongside his parents on the farm. Countless times he reminded voters he was ‘just a country boy from Yellow Creek.’ And Kentuckians respected him for proving that a country boy could walk the corridors of power, dine with kings and presidents, and still come back to Yellow Creek and be right at home.

“Wendell Hampton Ford was born in Daviess County, Kentucky, and grew up on his family’s 250-acre farm in the little town of Thruston. The Ford family raised cattle, hogs and chicken and grew tobacco and corn.

“Young Wendell was no stranger to work. He did his part by milking 30 cows by hand, twice a day, every day. Decades later, whenever anyone told him he had a strong handshake, Wendell would tell them, ‘I milked at an early age.’

“I know Wendell would credit his parents with teaching him everything he needed to know to succeed in life. Ernest Ford was a farmer, an insurance company owner, and a chairman of the Daviess County Democratic Party. He served in both the Kentucky State House and Senate.

“His mother, Irene Ford, worked harder than anybody on the family farm. She picked strawberries, she snapped green beans, and she canned everything that you could can. She could cook a pork tenderloin that was so good, Wendell recalls, ‘we’d say it’d make you swallow your tongue.’ And she was devoted to her family, her friends, her neighbors and her church.

“Wendell remembers: ‘Mother never disliked anyone. She never would say anything unkind about anybody. And mother worked very, very hard.…If there’s anyone that ever went to heaven, my mother is there.’

“I’m going to guess, Mr. President, that maybe through his father’s political connections, Wendell scored a plum prize as a young child. He became a page in the Kentucky state House.

“The way they inducted pages back then is a little different than how we do it in the U.S. Senate today. Wendell’s sponsor, a representative from Taylorsville, had young Wendell come and stand on his desk on the House floor.

“He gave a speech about what a good little kid he was. And when he was done, the entire chamber applauded, making Wendell a page by acclamation.

“After an introduction to politics like that, is it any wonder Wendell decided he wanted more?

“Wendell was also lucky enough to meet one of the great Kentuckians I mentioned earlier—Alben Barkley—when he was young. At the Seelbach Hotel in my hometown of Louisville, he heard a speech from the Senator and future vice president.

“Like Barkley, Wendell always wanted to be around people—a trait that would serve him well as a public servant. And like most Kentuckians, Wendell Ford loves basketball. He played on the basketball team for Thruston Elementary School. And he played on the team for Daviess County High School.

“But while in high school, Wendell broke his arm. That ended his basketball career. And that threatened to end his involvement with the team, the friendships he’d made, and his seat on the bus to all the away games.

“So to stay involved, Wendell filled an open slot on the school’s cheerleading team. He got to keep going to the games. He got to keep up his friendships. And he ended up voted ‘most talkative’ in the Daviess County High School senior class of ’42.

“After high-school graduation, Wendell attended the University of Kentucky. Then in 1944 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and Sergeant Wendell Ford reported for duty at Fort Hood, Texas. But he was not the only Ford to trade in his bluegrass for a ten-gallon hat and make that trip.

“By his side was his lovely bride Jean, who met Wendell when they both worked at a J.C. Penney store in Owensboro the summer after Wendell’s high-school graduation. They married in September 1943, just after Wendell had turned 19.

“Jean hailed from the town of West Point, in Hardin County, Kentucky. She could hardly have known then how her life would turn out, or how she and her husband would become respected across the Commonwealth.

“Often times my colleagues and I will talk about our wives or husbands, and what we’ll be doing over the next recess, and so on. You’ll frequently hear spouses’ first names tossed around, like my wife’s, Elaine.

“But even after 50 years of marriage, Wendell only referred to his bride as ‘Mrs. Ford.’ It’s a testament to the fact that the country boy from Yellow Creek remains forever a country gentleman.

“After the end of World War II and an honorable discharge from the service, Wendell graduated from the Maryland School of Insurance. He and Jean returned to Owensboro, where his family had moved after selling the farm. Wendell entered the insurance business with his father, and started to take an interest in what was happening in his community.

“It all started with a razor. That’s what Wendell was looking to buy, on a lunchtime errand, when he ran into a friend who invited him to a Jaycees luncheon.

“Mr. President, in my travels across Kentucky, I’ve met many who know and remember Wendell from his days with the Jaycees. Devoted to fostering leadership and community service, the Jaycees have done a lot for Kentucky and the Nation. And once again, the man who played a role that cannot be ignored is Wendell Ford.

“A lot of the beliefs that would come to characterize Wendell Ford’s career come from the creed of the Jaycees. That creed states that only faith in God gives meaning and purpose to human life. That government should be of laws rather than of men. And that service to humanity is the best work of life.

“Wendell would rise rapidly in his career again and again, no matter what the arena—and his time in the Jaycees was no different. That first meeting at the request of a friend led to Wendell becoming a member. By 1954, he was the Kentucky Jaycees State president, at only 31 years old.

“In 1956, he led the Kentucky Jaycees to their national convention in Kansas City with one goal. They wanted to return home with a Kentuckian as the organization’s national president—a Kentuckian named Wendell Ford.

“Kentucky has a rich history of colorful, memorable campaign ads. But it took Wendell Ford, as a candidate for the Jaycees’ national president, to come up with a brilliant ad by piggybacking his name on perhaps the most famous rock and roll song of all time.

“By convention’s end, every Jaycee delegate went home singing a familiar tune, but with the words ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ replaced with ‘Shake, Rally with Ford.’

“Wendell remembers: ‘We kept them up all night with that record. And I guess [we] made it even better, because we won.’

“To work the crowds at that convention, Wendell bought two new suits for $35 apiece: one black, one gray. By rotating the jackets with each pair of pants, he had four different outfits for the four days of the convention.

“Whether it was the song, or the suits, or both, Wendell went home the first-ever Jaycees national president from Kentucky. And his network from that organization became the foundation for one of the Commonwealth’s most successful political careers.

“By the late 1950s, Wendell had caught the eye of Bert Combs, who had run for governor of Kentucky but lost to ‘Happy’ Chandler. Combs was planning to run again, and he wanted the impressive Jaycees president to be the youth chairman of his campaign.

“After winning that race, Bert Combs made Wendell his administrative assistant, a job he held from 1959 to 1961. But soon the time came for Wendell to emerge from the ranks of political staffers and run for office himself.

“In 1965, he ran for a state Senate seat representing Daviess and Hancock counties. And clearly, Mr. President, he was not afraid of a challenging race.

“In the primary, Wendell faced the incumbent, Cap Gardner. Gardner was not just any incumbent Senator—he was the State Senate majority leader.

“I was in law school at the University of Kentucky at the time, and I remember reading about the primary in which the majority leader of the Kentucky State Senate was upset by an impressive young man named Wendell Ford. He won that race by 305 votes—after a recount.

“Now in those days, Mr. President, Kentucky was very much a one-party State, and so winning the Democratic primary for most any office was tantamount to winning the election. In most counties, you could hold Republican Party meetings in a phone booth.

“It’s not that way anymore, which I think is for the better. I think a competitive two-party system makes both parties better, and that in turn best serves the people.

“But the Democratic Party ruled Kentucky then, and after Wendell won that primary, he easily won the general. And for the first time, but not the last, he became Senator Ford.

“As a freshman Senator, he sponsored 22 bills—all of which became law. That’s a record of success few legislators would dare seek to duplicate. But Wendell didn’t plan on staying in the State Senate too long.

“In 1967, he ran for lieutenant governor, and once again, he ruffled some feathers amongst the more established politicians of the Commonwealth who didn’t understand why this country boy from Yellow Creek couldn’t settle down and wait his turn.

“In the primary, Wendell faced Robert Matthews, the incumbent State attorney general. I am sure the entrenched political forces in Kentucky expected, and perhaps even desired, Matthews to win. But Wendell wasn’t going along with their program. He defeated Matthews in the primary, barely, 36.1 percent to 35.9 percent.

“Wendell went on to win a similarly close race in the general election, defeating Thomas Ratliff and becoming the lieutenant governor of Kentucky. But at the same time, something unusual happened.

“You heard me say just a minute ago, Mr. President, that in those days Kentucky was very much a one-party State. But in 1967, Kentuckians elected Louie Nunn to be the Commonwealth’s first Republican governor since World War II.

“At that time, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor ran separately. So while the Democratic candidate for governor lost, Wendell Ford won, and he instantly became two things: the top-ranked Democrat in State government, and a real thorn in the side of Louie Nunn.

“Wendell had to beat a Republican tide, a rare tide in those days, to become lieutenant governor. He was clearly a man of great talent and ambition who was not done yet making his mark on Kentucky politics. So naturally he looked next to the top job in State government: the office of governor.

“In that era, Mr. President, Kentucky governors were forbidden to succeed themselves by running for a second term. In fact, Kentucky retained that term limit for governors right up until the 1990s, one of the last states to do so. So Wendell would not have to face Governor Nunn in the 1971 election.

“He would, however, have to face a different governor: his friend and mentor, former governor Bert Combs.

“Everybody in Kentucky thought that Governor Combs, who had subsequently had a distinguished career as a U.S. court of appeals judge after his term as governor, was a lead pipe cinch to be the next governor of Kentucky, or at the very least to win the Democratic primary. But once again, Wendell Ford beat everybody’s expectations.

“Bert Combs resigned his judgeship to run for governor, and couldn’t believe what a tough race his former administrative assistant gave him. When a mutual friend of the two candidates said to Combs that he had taught Wendell well, Combs replied, ‘Yes, I taught him too damn well.’

“Wendell beat Bert Combs 53 percent to 44 percent in the primary and went on to easily win the general election. On December 7, 1971, he was sworn in as governor of Kentucky.

“Right from the start, Governor Ford’s guiding belief as Kentucky’s chief executive was that the only reason for the existence of government, at any level, was to serve people. And wherever he felt that wasn’t happening, he believed there must be change.

“Throughout his term, no bill that Governor Ford supported failed to pass. He commanded the forces of state government below him like a general commands his troops.

“But Governor Ford didn’t ask anyone else to work harder than he did himself. His work ethic back then was legendary, and I think some of my colleagues can attest to the fact that he kept right at it after joining us here in the Senate. As governor, a 14-hour work day was routine, a 16-hour day frequent, and an 18-hour day not uncommon.

“When Governor Ford used to fly up here to Washington for official matters, he was all business. Time in the car or the plane was spent reading memos or writing speeches. Dinner was a cheeseburger and fries in the hotel room.

“And as early as possible the next morning, Wendell was up and flying home to Kentucky, where he would put in an extra-late night at the state Capitol to make up for time missed.

“Once he had successfully enacted the major points of his platform—including shrinking and streamlining State government, creating the State’s first environmental protection agency, and enacting a severance tax on coal—Wendell Ford decided he was not finished serving the people of Kentucky just yet.

“I’ve already said that at that time, a Kentucky governor could not run for a second consecutive term. So Wendell looked to the U.S. Senate election in 1974, where he would have to take on incumbent Republican Senator Marlow Cook.

“The 1974 election came on the heels of the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation. It goes without saying that it was a very hard year for Republicans.

“So Wendell won over Marlow Cook pretty handily, and Governor Ford became Senator Ford. I should point out here, Mr. President, that I actually used to work for Senator Cook, as his legislative director from 1968 to 1970.

“Senator Cook graciously agreed to step aside a little bit early for Senator Ford, and so Wendell’s tenure in this chamber began on December 28, 1974. At this point, the Wendell Ford that so many of my colleagues know and admire emerges, as he spent an incredibly successful and fruitful 24 years here.

“After my election in 1984, I served alongside him for 14 of those years. Obviously, Mr. President, Wendell Ford and I didn’t stand on the same side of the aisle. But we always stood together for the people of Kentucky.

“With Wendell, whether you agreed or disagreed, you always knew where you stood with him. And even if you disagreed—which we often did—Wendell knew how to disagree without being disagreeable.

“I remember one joke he liked to tell, about how seriously we Kentuckians take our horse racing. He liked to say that one day on the running of the Kentucky Derby, a man walking in Churchill Downs noticed a box with an empty seat in it. He stopped and said to the little old lady sitting next to it, ‘This is the first empty seat I’ve seen today.’

“She replied, ‘Well, it belonged to my husband, but he died.’

“The man said, ‘It seems a shame to let such a good seat go to waste. Why didn’t you give it to one of your relatives?’

“The lady said, ‘I would have, but they’re all at the funeral.’

“That’s how important the Derby and the horse industry are in the Bluegrass State, Mr. President. Wendell Ford enjoyed telling that joke.

“With his sense of humor, a penchant for storytelling that rivaled his childhood hero Alben Barkley, and his ability to establish friendship and trust, Wendell quickly became a leader amongst his Senate colleagues. He served a stint running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“By 1987, he had risen to become chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. That position put him in charge of the Inaugural ceremonies here at the Capitol for both Presidents George H.W. Bush in 1989 and Bill Clinton in 1993. Kentuckians were proud to see one of their own on the Inaugural platform just footsteps away from a new president.

“Wendell was the chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing, where he worked to trim the costs of government printing and implemented the first-ever program for the use of recycled printing paper.

“That may not be the type of issue that grabs the biggest headlines, but obviously, official Washington uses a lot of paper. Wendell was ahead of his time in making these environmentally friendly efforts that are commonplace now, and he saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

“Wendell could see the absurdity of some of what goes on here in Washington, and knew just when to break the tension with a little humor. One former colleague has spoken of one of the many times this Senate has continued in session until 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning, with debate still going on here on the Senate floor.

“At one of these times, Wendell nudged a Senator next to him and said, ‘You know…the people back home think that we are the ones who won.’

“Wendell even appeared once on the cable channel MTV, on a program called Rock the Vote, because of his sponsorship of the motor voter law. That MTV appearance made him very popular with his grandchildren. Surely the number of U.S. Senators who have appeared sandwiched in between videos for Whitney Houston and Billy Ray Cyrus is very small.

“In 1990, Wendell’s colleagues in the Democratic Caucus elected him to be their party’s whip, the number-two position in Senate leadership, and he held that slot until his retirement in 1999. Wendell was elected by acclamation, and without opposition.

“That’s obviously a position of great responsibility and honor, and it speaks to the respect Wendell commanded from his fellow Senators.

“After his election as whip, he said, ‘In Kentucky we are known for our horses. I plan on being a work horse and not a show horse.’ I think, knowing Wendell’s work ethic, no one doubted that he would give his all to the job.

“In March of 1998, Wendell became the longest-serving Senator in Kentucky history, breaking the record of the man he had seen give a speech more than 50 years earlier—Alben Barkley. That’s just another accomplishment in a long list that he has amassed over his extraordinarily successful tenure in both State and federal government.

“Wendell Ford served in this body for 8,772 days, a record that stood for nearly 11 years until January 10th, this past Saturday. He never lost an election for public office. Kentucky sent him to the U.S. Senate four times, and he was the first Statewide candidate to carry all 120 counties in Kentucky.

“How does a country boy from Yellow Creek achieve such success at the highest levels of American politics? I think it’s because no matter where he ended up, Wendell Ford never forgot where he started from.

“Even in his final months in the Senate, he still got goose bumps every time he looked up at the Capitol dome on his way into work. He remained the same man, partial to a cigarette and a down-home tale.

“When his duties didn’t require him to be here in Washington, he would return home to Kentucky, as he did most weekends throughout his Senate career. 

“A three-day weekend was a perfect chance to go to the house he and his family owned by Rough River Lake and do some reading and fishing. He once said his idea of vacation was ‘not shaving and not wearing a suit.’

“Wendell Ford never forgot the truly important things in his life: his wife Jean, their children and grandchildren, and the simple pleasures of his native Kentucky.

“Many of my colleagues will remember his trademark greeting when he walked into a room. He’d say, ‘How are all you lucky people doing?” Sometimes that would be shortened to simply, ‘Hey, Lucky!’

“But Wendell never lost sight that he was truly the lucky one, for receiving the trust of the people of Kentucky many times over.

“He’d be the first to tell you that. And Kentucky and our Nation are lucky as well, for having had his many years of service.

“Over the next six years, as I work my hardest to better the lives of everyone in Kentucky and the country, I’m going to remember the lessons learned from his long career.

“I’ll remember how his life is a testament to the success anybody in America can attain, even a country boy from Yellow Creek.

“And I’ll remember what an honor it is to continue in the tradition of Wendell Ford and so many other fine public servants who have come from the great Commonwealth of Kentucky.

“Their service will continue to remind me every day that with energy, determination, and principle, being the Senator from Kentucky is the best job I could ever hope to have.”

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