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Louie B. Nunn, a symbol of his party as the state last Republican governor for 32 years, died Thursday night of an apparent heart attack. He was 79.
Nunn suddenly collapsed while a family friend was visiting after a “sedate day” during which he entertained guests at his Versailles home, Woodford County Coroner Steve Ward said family members told him.
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“He was at home and had had a good day,” Steve Nunn said. “He felt good. His heart just quit.”
Nunn, elected in 1967, was Kentucky last Republican governor before Ernie Fletcher was elected in November and was a symbol of his party in the decades that followed. Nunn rode in the back of a convertible during Fletcher inaugural parade in December.
In July, Nunn was host at his farm to a fund raiser for Fletcher that was attended by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. His role as host was noteworthy because his son, state Rep. Steve Nunn, ran against Fletcher in the gubernatorial primary.
A Kentucky State Police trooper working security at the Governor Mansion Thursday night said Fletcher had been told of Nunn death but had retired for the evening and was unavailable for comment.
Former Gov. Julian Carroll, a Democrat who was speaker of the House during Nunn term, said he learned to appreciate Nunn.
“Louie was a very strong leader,” Carroll said early Friday. “He always operated without fear. He always dealt with the members of the General Assembly with confidence.”
Steve Nunn said his father wanted to be remembered “as a statesman.”
“He was a man who loved Kentucky and Kentuckians,” he said.
Nunn launched a long political career in 1954, winning election at age 29 as county judge of his native Barren County.
Nunn four year gubernatorial administration saw Kentucky take strides in its care of the retarded, the mentally ill and juvenile delinquents. Nunn later called the revamping of the state mental health treatment system his proudest accomplishment.
The state university system also was expanded during his term and discrimination in housing was outlawed.
Nunn was a defining figure in Kentucky politics, a fierce competitor who asked no quarter on the campaign trail and gave none. He never played defense; an opponent who attacked him could be assured of a blistering counterattack.
Nunn thrived on political combat and was never far from the front. He sought statewide office four times and figured prominently in several other campaigns. His record was a mixture of heady victories and galling defeats.
He successfully managed Republican state campaigns for President Dwight D. Sens. John Sherman Cooper and Thruston B. Morton.
He won his own race for governor in 1967, defeating Democrat Henry Ward, but lost two others _ to Edward T. Breathitt in 1963 and to John Y. Brown Jr. in 1979. Senate in 1972 but lost to Democrat Walter “Dee” Huddleston.
In 1991, Nunn threw his weight behind Larry Forgy 11th hour entry in the Republican governor race against Larry Hopkins, a seventh term congressman from Lexington.
Hopkins turned his guns on Nunn, deriding Forgy as “the Nunn candidate.” Forgy had a fraction of Hopkins money and organization,
but came within 2,200 votes, barely 1 percent, of a stunning upset.
Four years later, Forgy was the GOP nominee, but Nunn turned against him. Bob Gable, a former state Republican chairman opposed to Forgy, jumped into the primary against him. Nunn backed Gable and recorded a memorable radio commercial that savaged Forgy. Democrat Paul Patton made repeated use of the commercial and beat Forgy by 25,000 votes.
Nunn had the distinction of being board chairman of three universities, each at a time of turmoil.
As governor, he was by law chairman of the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees. In May 1970, a time of nationwide campus unrest, Nunn ordered state police and the National Guard onto the Lexington campus after the ROTC building was burned to the ground. Nunn order brought a combination of public acclaim and bitter criticism.
In January 1986, then Gov. Martha Layne Collins appointed Nunn and Breathitt, his old nemesis, to the board of regents at Morehead State University, where replacement of the president was deemed necessary.
Three years later, Collins successor, Wallace Wilkinson, asked Nunn to take control of the board at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Nunn agreed and brought several members of the Morehead board with him, including Breathitt. Again, they oversaw a presidential transition.
Breathitt died in October.
But it was as a Republican governor with a legislature controlled by Democrats that Nunn forever made his mark.
He manipulated and maneuvered, bullied and bluffed. And his frame fit his style at 6 feet 3,