By Tony McVeigh, Kentucky Public Radio
In conjunction with the centennial of the state Capitol building, WFPL and Kentucky Public Radio are spotlighting some of the Kentucky’s top statesmen and women—influential political leaders who have served the commonwealth in Frankfort or Washington—or both.
Today, this profile of the only woman thus far to hold the office of Kentucky Governor, Martha Layne Collins:
In 1985, during the administration of Governor Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky celebrated the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the commonwealth’s historic State Capitol. A few weeks ago, Collins was back in Frankfort to help announce plans for the building’s centennial celebration.
“Thank you, very much,” said Collins. “I am delighted to be here today. This is a very special day for us. One hundred years! I remember 25 years ago when we celebrated the 75th…”
In 1936, Martha Layne Hall was born in the small farming community of Bagdad, Kentucky, in rural Shelby County. That’s where she spent the first 12 years of her life.
“We moved from Bagdad to Shelbyville when I was in middle school, and that was quite an adjustment, because I was from the country and I went to town,” said Collins.
Martha Layne Hall went on to become a beauty queen, student leader, graduate of the University of Kentucky, wife of Bill Collins, mother of two children and a Jefferson County school teacher. Later, when the family moved to Woodford County, Martha Layne Collins began dabbling in Democratic politics – and former Gov. Julian Carroll says she was very good at it.
“Very much a charismatic politician,” said Carroll. “She found it easy to talk to people and people found it quite easy to talk to her.”
“I think that had a lot to do with it,” said Collins. “I listened. People want to be listened to.”
In 1975, Collins defeated Republican Joseph Lambert to become clerk of the Court of Appeals – at the time the highest court in Kentucky. In 1979, she defeated Republican Hal Rogers to become lieutenant governor. Four years later, she defeated Republican Jim Bunning to become the state’s first female governor. Former Gov. Carroll remembers Collins initially struggled in her early dealings with an increasingly independent-minded General Assembly.
“She said the problem I have in talking to legislators is ‘I can’t curse!’” said Carroll. “And so I really, quite frankly, knew what she was talking about. She was a lady!”
After lawmakers balked at her education reform legislation, Collins withdrew the package and hit the road.
“I took Gov. Carroll and I took Gov. Nunn with me,” said Collins. “So, it was a bipartisan situation. And then I called a special session and that’s when they passed the education package.”
“She worked very hard in starting to build a foundation to change the way we educated our kids,” said Gov. Beshear. “And I think that carried right on through, so that in the next administration, they ended up passing the KERA reforms and we took off from there.”
Gov. Steve Beshear, who was lieutenant governor back then, says Collins also will be remembered for securing $125 million in state incentives to help convince Toyota to build an automotive manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Kentucky.
“Because of her success, we now have thousands and thousands of Kentuckians in good paying jobs,” said Beshear. “All kinds of Japanese-owned companies are now in Kentucky, to work with Toyota. They also now work with Ford and work with Corvette, down in Bowling Green. So, her legacy is a very strong one.”
“Very good money spent,” said Collins. “People keep saying, would you do it again? I’d say, in a split second, because we got our money back. We got it all back in a very few years.”
Limited to one term, Collins returned to her first love, education, after leaving the governor’s office. She was president of Saint Catherine College for six years and currently is an executive scholar in residence at Georgetown College.
“I enjoy that,” said Collins. “I love working with the kids.”
Martha Layne Collins – country girl, beauty queen, teacher, wife, mother – and the 56th governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.