BERT T. COMBS
Born: August 13, 1911
Died: December 4, 1991
While he served as Kentucky’s Governor in the early 1960s, many in the early 21st Century remember Bert Combs as the lead attorney in Rose v. Counsel for Better Education which lead to Kentucky’s Supreme Court ruling that the way Kentucky’s public schools were funded unconstitutional based upon the inequities in funding. This ruling of the Kentucky Supreme Court resulted in the Governor Wallace Wilkinson signing into law the Kentucky Education Reform Act or KERA.
Bert Combs was the son of Stephen and Martha Combs. He was born in Clay County Kentucky. His father was a farmer and part-time logger and his mother was a teacher. Combs first school was the two room Beech Creek School. At about what would be middle school today, he and his sister attended Oneida Baptist Institute at Oneida, Kentucky. He went to Clay County High School, sometimes riding a donkey to school with his sister. He was able to graduate at age 15 as class valedictorian in 1927.
Unable to afford college, Combs worked at a drugstore and did odd jobs. In 1929, he was able to attend Cumberland College (now University of the Cumberlands) for three semesters.
In the mid-1930, Combs began working as a clerk for the Kentucky Department of Highways. He was able to save enough from that job that he was able to attend the University of Kentucky beginning in 1934. He graduated 2nd in his class from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1937.
In 1937, Combs returned home to Clay County and settled in the county seat of Manchester. He also married Mabel Hall, with whom he later became the father of Lois Combs (Weinberg) and Thomas Combs.
In 1938, Combs and his family moved to Prestonsburg in Floyd County. There he joined law school classmate Leroy Combs in a law firm in Prestonsburg. With the outbreak of World War II, Combs enlisted as a private in the Army. He went to Officer Candidate School and rose to the rank of Captain when he left the service in 1946. He served in the Pacific Theater. At the conclusion of active hostilities in 1945, he investigated Japanese War Crimes. He received a Bronze Star and the Philippines Military Medal of Merit for his service.
Upon returning home to Prestonsburg, Combs joined a law partnership with J. Woodford Howard. In 1950, he was elected Prestonsburg City Attorney. In 1951, he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the office of Commonwealth Attorney. The following year, Governor Lawrence Wetherby appointed him to a vacancy on the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Combs ran for a full 8 year term against former Kentucky Governor and Court of Appeals Judge Simeon Willis. Combs won that election in 1952.
In 1955, former Governor, U.S. Senator and Baseball Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler announced that he was seeking a second term as Governor. The anti-Chandler faction had been looking at Governor Wetherby’s Lt. Governor Emerson “Doc” Beauchamp. However, Beauchamp had some political baggage from his home county of Logan. The head of the anti-Chandler faction, U.S. Senator Earle Clements recruited Combs to run against Chandler in the 1955 Democratic Primary.
Combs in the campaign against Chandler, was too honest. In his first speech, Combs stated that the Commonwealth needed to raise additional revenue to raise an additional $25 million. To do so, Combs said that the state should consider a “sales tax”. With those comments, Chandler took Combs to task. In addition to criticizing Combs’ position on a sales tax, he said Combs was nothing more than a puppet of Senator Clements and Governor Wetherby. Chandler referred to Combs as a pawn of “Clementine and Wetherbine”. To make matters worse, Chandler was a better speaker than Combs.
Chandler defeated Combs in the 1955 Democratic Primary and went on to be elected Governor against Republican Edwin R. Denney. Chandler as Combs predicted had to raise taxes in order to support his programs enacted by the General Assembly.
Combs was approached by some to run for Governor in 1959. However, Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt wanted to run for Governor as well. Wyatt’s base included many of those who had originally supported Combs in 1955. With the help of former Senator Clements, an agreement was made that Combs would run for governor and Wyatt would run for Lt. Governor. Wyatt would then have the support of the anti-Chandler faction in a later election.
Bert Combs defeated Chandler’s Lt. Governor Harry Lee Waterfield and went on to defeat Republican John Robsion, Jr. in the 1959 General Election.
During the campaign, Combs believed that Kentucky needed to embrace progressivism. Combs was aware that gains had been made as seen in the state park system and Chandler’s creation of the medical school at the University of Kentucky. It had been said, Kentucky had been “too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint”. Combs believed that education funding needed to be increased drastically. Kentucky needed better highways, state parks, increased industry and airports. State employees deserved a “merit system”. Part of the financial situation was a result of the passage of a state referendum of a state’s veteran’s bonus. There was no money to finance the veteran’s bonus or the improvements. As a result, the General Assembly passed the 3% sales tax. With the funds raised as a result of the 3% sales tax and the projects built during Combs term, Kentucky had its first “billion dollar budget”.
At the time Combs took office, the Automotive Safety Foundation found that 2/3 of Kentucky’s roads were below standards for existing traffic. This included 20% of major city streets and half of the secondary roads were unfit for industrial traffic. Combs, with the approval of the legislature issued $100 million in bonds for road improvements. An example of road is the building of the Mountain Parkway from Winchester to Prestonsburg which opened up Eastern Kentucky.
During the Combs administration, state funding of public schools was increased by 50%. Additionally, Kentucky’s community college system was established under the auspices of the University of Kentucky.
Combs made reforms in state employment practices. In respect to patronage, a civil service system called the merit system was created to protect career state employees. Assessing state employees for campaign contributions was prohibited by law and made a felony.
In the area of civil rights, Combs created Kentucky’s “Human Rights Commission”. By executive order, Combs ordered the desegregation of all public accommodations in the state.
Combs was succeeded by Edward “Ned” Breathitt in 1963.
Bert Combs was appointed a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He resigned that position in 1970. In 1971, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for Governor. He was defeated by Lt. Governor Wendell Ford who was elected Governor in November 1971.
After his defeat Combs continued to practice law with the firm Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs as well as be active in civic endeavors. His interest in education resulted in his part in the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA).
Bert Combs was killed as a result of a flash flood on the Red River near his rural Stanton, Kentucky home on December 3, 1991. His surviving family includes his widow Sara Combs, a long time judge on the Kentucky Court of Appeals; Lois Combs Weinberg who unsuccessfully challenged Senator Mitch McConnell in 2004, his son Thomas and several grandsons including Zach Weinberg who currently serves as Judge/Executive of Knott County.
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