Bert T. Combs, Governor

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Bertram Thomas "Bert" Combs

Birthdate: (80)
Death: 1991 (80)
Immediate Family:

Son of Stephen George Combs and Martha Jones

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About Bert T. Combs, Governor

Bertram Thomas Combs (August 13, 1911 – December 4, 1991) was a jurist and politician from the U.S. state of Kentucky. After serving on the Kentucky Court of Appeals, he was elected the 50th Governor of Kentucky in 1959 on his second run for the office. Following his gubernatorial term, he was appointed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Lyndon B. Johnson, serving from 1967 to 1970.

Combs rose from poverty in his native Clay County, Kentucky, to obtain a law degree from the University of Kentucky and open a law practice in Prestonsburg. He was decorated for prosecuting Japanese war criminals before military tribunals during World War II, then returned to Kentucky and his law practice. In 1951, Governor Lawrence Wetherby appointed him to fill a vacancy on the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Later that year, he was elected to a full term on the court, defeating former governor and judge Simeon S. Willis. Kentucky's Democratic Party had split into two factions by 1955 when Earle C. Clements, the leader of one faction, chose Combs to challenge A. B. "Happy" Chandler, who headed the other, in the upcoming gubernatorial primary. Combs' uninspiring speeches and candidness about the need for more state revenue cost him the primary election. Chandler, who went on to win the governorship, had promised that he would not need to raise taxes to meet the state's financial obligations, but, ultimately, he did so. This damaged Chandler's credibility and left Combs looking courageous and honest in the eyes of the electorate. Consequently, in 1959, Combs was elected governor, defeating Harry Lee Waterfield, Chandler's choice to succeed him in office, in the primary. Early in his term, Combs secured passage of a three percent sales tax to pay a bonus to the state's military veterans. Knowing a tax of one percent would have been sufficient, he used the excess revenue to enact a system of reforms including expansion of the state's highway and state park systems. He also devoted much of the surplus to education.

Following his term in office, Combs was appointed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Johnson. He served for three years before resigning and running for governor again in 1971. He lost in the Democratic primary to Wendell H. Ford, his former executive secretary. In 1984, Combs agreed to represent sixty-six of the state's poor school districts in a lawsuit challenging the state's system of financing public education. The suit, Rose v. Council for Better Education, resulted in the Kentucky Supreme Court declaring the state's entire system of public schools unconstitutional. In response, the Kentucky General Assembly drafted a sweeping education measure known as the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1991. On December 3, 1991, Combs was caught in a flash flood while driving home from his law office. His body was found in the Red River near Rosslyn, in Powell County, the following morning. The coroner determined that he died of hypothermia.

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Bert T. Combs, Governor's Timeline

Age 80