By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It was in the early 1960s when former Northern Kentucky state Sen. Art Schmidt first knew that Republican Louie Nunn would one day become governor of Kentucky.
"I knew it because Louie told me so," Schmidt said Friday morning after hearing that his friend and political comrade had died, apparently of heart failure.
"I was state chairman of the young Republicans, and we were in a room at Dupont Lodge in Cumberland Falls," Schmidt recalled. "Louie just told me he was going to be governor.
"And I believed him because he had it - had what it took to be governor," Schmidt said. "You met him and you just knew he was governor material. He knew people, he knew how to work a crowd and he knew how to get things done."
Nunn, 79, died Thursday night at his home in the central Kentucky community of Versailles.
He lost the 1963 governor's race to Democrat Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt by just 13,000 votes, then went on to win the 1967 gubernatorial election by beating Democrat Henry Ward.
One of Nunn's greatest legacies was pushing legislation and funding in 1968 that turned Northern Kentucky Community College into Northern Kentucky State College, the precursor of Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights.
"At the time, that was a huge political gamble because the University of Kentucky and other universities around the state didn't want Northern Kentucky to have a university because they were getting our students," said Schmidt, the House Republican leader during Nunn's administration.
"But Louie campaigned on it and he made it happen," said Schmidt, who then went on to become a state senator.
Nunn's four-year administration saw Kentucky take strides in its care of the retarded, the mentally ill and juvenile delinquents. Nunn later called revamping the state's mental-health treatment system his proudest accomplishment.
Also during his term, discrimination in housing was outlawed.
"He was a man who loved Kentucky and Kentuckians," said his son, state Rep. Steve Nunn.
But Nunn, facing a budget shortfall when he took office, pushed through a sales tax increase that proved to be detrimental to his future political aspirations.
He lost a U.S. Senate race in 1972 and a second try at governor in 1979.
"Louie knew raising the sales tax was not a politically smart thing to do; but, as far as what was best for the state, it was at the time the right thing to do," Schmidt said. "But he suffered for it."
Boone County Republican Kenny Brown campaigned with Nunn last year during Steve Nunn's unsuccessful race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
"Wherever we went - a courthouse, a firehouse, a restaurant, a party gathering - people came up to him and remembered him as a friend to Northern Kentucky," Brown said Friday, his voice breaking with emotion. "I was honored to know him."
A native of Barren County in western Kentucky, Nunn was a lawyer who received his undergraduate degree in 1945 from the University of Cincinnati.
He launched his political career in 1954, winning election at the age of 29 as Barren County judge-executive. Throughout his career he was known as a tough and shrewd campaigner who would challenge and attack Democratic opponents as well as members of his own party if he disagreed with them.
"Kentucky lost a true statesman," said U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Louisville Republican.
"Gov. Nunn was a masterful orator and will be remembered as an icon of the Kentucky Republican Party."
The Associated Press and Louisville Courier-Journal contributed. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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