SIMEON S. WILLIS
Term of Office 1943-1947
The only Republican elected governor of Kentucky between 1927 and 1947 was Judge Simeon S. Willis. Simeon Willis was born in Lawrence County, Ohio and grew up in Ohio and in Greenup County, Kentucky. He was the youngest of nine children born to John H. and Abigail (Slavens) Willis. His father and his grandfather fought for the Union during the Civil War. His grandfather William Willis was a captain and his father a corporal in the 5th West Virginia Infantry.
Prior to practicing law in Ashland, Willis taught school and was a newspaper reporter for newspapers in Portsmouth, Ohio and Greenup County, Kentucky. He served briefly as a principal of a three room school in Greenup County. In November 1901, he was admitted to the Kentucky Bar and began the practice of law.
His first attempt to win public office was in 1905. He ran as a Republican for Ashland City Attorney but was defeated. In 1916, he ran for the Republican nomination for a seat on the Kentucky Court of Appeals. He was defeated by future governor, Flem D. Sampson who went on to win a seat on the court in the General Election. In 1927, Governor Sampson appointed Willis to the same seat on the Court Appeals that he, Sampson had to vacate in order to become governor. In 1928, Sampson was elected to a four year term on the court. He was defeated by Democrat Alex Ratliff in the Democratic rout of 1932.
During his tenure on the court, Willis’ stature as a lawyer was notice not only through his decisions but with his writings. He revised the six volume Thornton on the Law of Oil and Gas in 1932.
It should be noted that in 1920, Willis married Ida Lee Millis. Ida Lee was active in historic preservation and was a founder of the Kentucky Heritage Commission. They had one daughter, Lesley. On a personal note, Willis liked to smoke cigars and was a left handed violin player.
Eleven years after leaving the Court of Appeals, Simeon Willis was nominated without opposition as the Republican candidate for governor of Kentucky in 1943. He defeated Democrat Lytle Donaldson of Carrollton. Donaldson had been Governor Keen Johnson’s highway commissioner. Willis was able to carry the entire Republican slate of statewide constitutional officers to victory with the exception of the Republican candidate for secretary of state. It should be noted that the Republican leadership had tried to recruit John Sherman Cooper to run for attorney general. However, Cooper was in the Army and declined to resign his commission.
Willis served as Kentucky during the last part of World War II. Because over a quarter of a million Kentuckians were out of state due to the war (including John Sherman Cooper), Willis did not dismiss many patronage workers despite the dismay of many in the Kentucky Republican Party. This disappointment included the Republican lieutenant governor and attorney general.
The General Assembly was a challenge for Governor Willis. The Democrats controlled both houses. The Speaker of the House, Harry Lee Waterfield and the Democratic leader in the State Senate Earle Clements wanted to run for governor in 1947.
One of Willis’ goals which was not realized was the repeal of the state income tax. Looking back, Willis’ accomplishments resulted due to the additional funds made available. When he took office in 1943, the state budget was about $31 million. When he left, the state budget was about $52 million.
Initiation and construction of five state tuberculosis hospitals at Glasgow, Ashland, Paris, Madisonville and London were accomplished during his term. Additionally funding was added to public education. Per capita in Kentucky was raised from $13.49 per student to $25.66 per student. Teacher salaries were raised from an average of $782 a year to $1,325 per year. The school year was lengthened from seven to eight months. Legislation was passed which allowed counties to double the tax rate for educational purposes.
In the area of Civil Rights, Willis created the Commission on Negro Affairs. He expanded mine safety laws and created an independent Game and Fish Commission. To help the state adjust to the end of World War II, a Postwar Planning Commission was created.
State Senator Earle Clements was elected to succeed Willis in 1947.
Upon leaving office, Simeon Willis returned to the practice of law in Ashland. He made one more run for public office in 1951. He ran as a Republican for the Kentucky Court of Appeals. However, he was defeated by Bert Combs in the General Election. Simeon Willis is probably the only person seeking judicial office to be defeated by two future Kentucky Governors. (Flem Sampson in 1916 and Bert Combs in 1951)
Simeon Willis served on the Kentucky Public Service Commission from 1956 to 1960 and on the State Parole Board from 1961 to 1965.
Governor Simeon Willis died at age 85 on April 2, 1965.
The Simeon Willis Memorial Bridge which connects Ashland, Kentucky with Coal Grove, Ohio is named in his honor.
Governor Simeon Willis