Bert Combs

Bert Combs
Combs in 1960
Judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
In office
April 5, 1967 – June 5, 1970
Nominated by Lyndon B. Johnson
Preceded by Shackelford Miller, Jr.
Succeeded by W. Wallace Kent
50th Governor of Kentucky
In office
December 8, 1959 – December 10, 1963
Lieutenant Wilson W. Wyatt
Preceded by Happy Chandler
Succeeded by Ned Breathitt
Personal details
Born Bertram Thomas Combs
(1911-08-13)August 13, 1911
Manchester, Kentucky, U.S.
Died December 4, 1991(1991-12-04) (aged 80)
Powell County, Kentucky, U.S.
Resting place Beech Creek Cemetery
Manchester, Kentucky
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Mabel Hall (m. 1937–69)
Helen Clark Rechtin (m. 1969–86)
Sara Walter (m. 1988–91)
Alma mater University of Kentucky
Profession Lawyer
Awards Bronze Star Medal
Military Merit Medal of Philippines
Military service
Allegiance   United States
Service/branch   United States Army
Years of service 1943–1946
Rank Army-USA-OF-02.svg Captain
Battles/wars World War II

Bertram Thomas Combs (August 13, 1911 – December 4, 1991) was an American 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 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 following 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 former governor and U.S. Senator 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 reclaim 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 Lieutenant Governor 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 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 and was killed.

Early life

The Combs family was one of the oldest European families in the United States. John Combs, the family patriarch, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, and in 1775 Benjamin John Combs came westward from Virginia into Clark County, Kentucky. He was followed into Kentucky in 1790 by two of his brothers, including Jack Combs, Bert Combs' great-grandfather. [1]

Bert Combs was born in the Town Branch section of Manchester, Kentucky on August 13, 1911; he was one of seven children of Stephen Gibson and Martha (Jones) Combs. [2] Combs's father Stephen, a part-time logger and farmer, was active in local politics, despite being a Democrat in a county where a large majority of residents were Republicans. [2] His mother was a teacher, and she impressed upon her children the importance of a good education. [2] Bert's first school was the two-room Beech Creek grade school. [2] When he reached the seventh grade, his parents sent him and his sister to Oneida Baptist Institute in nearby Oneida because its school term was 8 to 9 months long, as opposed to the 5- to 6-month terms at Beech Creek. [3] Later, Combs and his sister began riding a donkey every day to Clay County High School. [2] Combs excelled academically and skipped some grades, graduating as valedictorian of his class in 1927 at age 15. [4]

Unable to afford college tuition, Combs worked at a local drug store and did small jobs for various residents of his community. [4] In 1929, his mother arranged for him to work at a coal company in Williamsburg and attend Cumberland College (then a junior college). [4] The coal company job did not materialize, but Combs was able to afford three semesters at Cumberland by sweeping floors and firing furnaces in campus buildings. [2] [5] In mid-1930, he began working as a clerk for the state highway department. [6] This was one of several patronage jobs that were usually awarded by the governor, but the Democratically-controlled state legislature had stripped Republican Governor Flem D. Sampson of his statutory appointment powers, giving them instead to a three-man highway commission composed of Democratic Lieutenant Governor James Breathitt, Democratic Highway Commissioner Ben Johnson, and Dan Talbott. [7] This allowed Combs, a Democrat, to secure the position. [8]

Combs worked for the highway department for three years in order to earn enough money to attend the University of Kentucky College of Law in Lexington. [6] While at the university, he was managing editor of the Kentucky Law Journal. [6] In 1937 he graduated second in his class, earning a Bachelor of Laws degree and qualifying for the Order of the Coif, a national honor society for the top ten percent of graduating law students. [6] [9] He was admitted to the bar, and returned to Manchester to begin practicing law. [10] It was also in 1937 that Combs married Mabel Hall, with whom he had two children, Lois Ann Combs and Thomas "Tommy" George Combs. [11]

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