Governor Keen Johnson was born in a two room cabin at Brandon’s Chapel in Lyon County in an area that is now part of “The Land Between the Lakes”. He was the son of Methodist Circuit Rider, Rev. Robert Johnson and his wife Mattie Holloway Johnson. He was the only son with two sisters Catherine and Christine.
Johnson was educated by his father and in the public or “common “ schools of western Kentucky. He attended the all male Vanderbilt Training School in Elkton before enrolling in 1914 at Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri. He was seeking a degree in journalism at Central Methodist until his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. He signed up for the Army in May 1917. A month after enlisting in the Reserve Officer’s Training he married Eunice Lee Nichols of Higbee, Missouri on June 23, 1917. Their only child, a daughter Judith was born in 1927. Judith’s sons Bob and Keen Babbage. Bob Babbage served as Kentucky’s state auditor and secretary of state.
By March 1918, Keen Johnson was a 1st Lieutenant and in June 1918 he was deployed to France with the American Expeditionary Force until April 1919 and was honorably discharged from the Army in October 1919.
Service personnel returning from World I were not given the benefits their children had after World War II. As a result, with financial assistance from his father, Keen Johnson purchased a newspaper –The Elizabethtown Mirror. He built up the struggling paper and soon sold it for a profit to a competitor. He used the profit to complete his journalism degree at the University of Kentucky (U.K.). While at U.K., he worked as a reporter for Lexington’s morning paper—The Lexington Herald. He received his B.A. in journalism from U.K. in 1922.
After graduation from U.K., Keen Johnson became a half-owner of “The Anderson News” in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. In 1925, he became a partner in the purchase of the Richmond Daily Register. With that purchase, Johnson became the paper’s editor and publisher. He continued to publish the Register until he ran for Kentucky Governor in 1939. He continued to write editorials for the Register until the 1960s.
It was while he was the editor and publisher of the Register, Johnson became involved in Kentucky politics. He became a member of the Kentucky Democratic Party’s State Executive Committee in 1932.
In 1935, Keen Johnson sought the Democratic nomination in the August Primary. He was one of three candidates. He received the most votes in the August Primary over J.E. Wise and B.F. Wright. In the September 7th Run-Off Primary, he defeated Wise to become the Democratic Candidate for Lt. Governor. This was at the same time Happy Chandler sought the Democratic nomination for Governor over Thomas Rhea who had been endorsed by incumbent Democratic Governor Ruby Laffoon. Prior to the Run-Off Primary, Johnson had supported Rhea over Chandler for Governor. After the Primary, Chandler and Johnson overcame their differences to win the November 1935 General Election over Republican King Swope for Governor and Republican J.J. Kavanaugh for Lt. Governor.
As Lt. Governor, Johnson was supportive of most of Chandler’s initiatives including the government reorganization program. As Chandler was term limited, Johnson became a favorite for the Democratic nomination in 1939. He was opposed in the Democratic Primary for Governor by former U.S. Congressman John Y. Brown (father of Governor John Y. Brown, Jr.). Brown was a bitter foe of Chandler and the primary campaign was somewhat bitter. Brown was supported by U.S. Senator Alben Barkley who Chandler had opposed in the 1938 Primary Election. Despite this support, Brown was defeated by Johnson.
A month prior to the November 1939 General Election, Kentucky U.S. Senator Marvel Mills died in office on October 3rd. On October 9th, Governor Chandler resigned as governor. Lt. Governor Johnson then became governor. Governor Keen Johnson’s first act as governor was to appoint Happy Chandler to the U.S. Senate.
During the General Election, Keen Johnson was elected to a full term as governor over Republican King Swope.
One of the memorable phrases of Johnson’s inaugural address was that he promised to be “a saving, thrifty, frugal governor”. This was a promise he kept. His policies and increased Federal Aid with the implementation of FDR’s New Deal helped eliminate the $7 million state debt and create a state surplus of $10 million by the end of his term in 1943. This was the first state surplus since the first administration of Gov. J.C. W. Beckham in 1903. Governor Johnson’s critics often thought he was too frugal as seen in the saying, “Old Keen frugaled here and frugaled there till he damn near frugaled us to death”.
Despite his frugality, Johnson’s administration was able to begin the funding the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System which was created under Chandler. He was responsible for pushing the General Assembly to pass the enabling act to join with the Federal Government in providing TVA electricity to rural Kentucky (over the objections of conservatives who did not believe in government generating and distribution of electricity).
Other accomplishments during the Johnson Administration included pensions for judges of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, increase of a one million dollars in aid for Kentucky’s elderly, creation of soil conservation districts and banning the sale of marijuana in the state.
After leaving office in December 1943, Governor Johnson joined Reynolds Metals Company in an executive position. He would stay with Reynolds until his retirement in 1961. He took a leave of absence in 1946 and 1947 to serve as Under-Secretary of Labor under President Truman.
Johnson ran for the U.S. Senate in 1960. He won the Democratic nomination over John Y. Brown, Sr. and lost the General Election by failing to unseat incumbent U.S Senator John Sherman Cooper.
Keen Johnson was honored with the naming of Keen Johnson Building on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.
Keen Johnson died on February 7, 1970 and is buried in the Richmond Cemetery.
Governor Keen Johnson
KY Historical Highway Marker near the site of Gov. Johnson’s
Birthplace in the Land Between the Lakes.