Stephen Reeder says 10 Kentucky governors knew him by his first name, “and that’s probably rare. But obviously out of respect, I didn’t call them by their first name.”
The Henderson native who turns 69 Aug. 31, worked 40 years in state government as a non-merit employee, and the last 10 as executive director of the Kentucky River Authority before his retirement last fall.
He also was general counsel to the Transportation Cabinet for 20 years and held various administrative jobs there. He also worked for the governor’s office and the Legislative Research Commission.
Stephen enjoyed meeting a lot of famous people through the decades, but he’s always preferred being around common folks.
“I’m not a country club man,” he says. “People I hang out with these days are farmers, firefighters, mechanics and car salesmen.
“When I get old, and I’m not old – I feel like I’m 49 – I might move to Two Creeks just so I can walk to the restaurant every night or take a golf cart so I won’t have to drive a car. That would be my only motivation for hanging out with the country club people; not for any status, that’s for damn sure.”
MORE TO HIM THAN POLITICS
Before heading to the University of Kentucky where he earned a bachelor’s in business and history, Stephen got a state championship football ring from Henderson City High School, which later merged with Henderson County. Henderson City defeated Fort Thomas Highlands in the title game.
The Reeders lived in the city, but Stephen’s main memory of high school was working hard every day on his father’s 500-acre farm in the county. Now Stephen owns a thousand acres in Western Kentucky where corn and soybeans grow in “good sandy soil right on the Green River.”
He also has a 35-acre farm in Anderson County where he lives with wife Linda, who’s retired from the state Department of Motor Vehicle Enforcement, now a part of Kentucky State Police.
He’s an animal lover, and several cats and dogs have found a haven at his farm near Lawrenceburg. Six mules including four rescued from Nevada also live at the Anderson County farm, as well as cows owned and managed by someone else.
Stephen also drives to Franklin County almost daily to feed another group of cats close to the Kentucky River.
“I’ve always bonded with animals,” he says. “Poisonous snakes are the only beasts I don’t like, and they’re all over the place in Western Kentucky – cottonmouths, copperheads and rattlesnakes.”
Stephen is also a collector of old cars and fire trucks.
The car best known to Kentuckians is a 1963 Imperial on display at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History. It was bought by the state during Gov. Bert Combs administration, kept in Gov. Ned Breathitt’s term and into Gov. Louie Nunn’s administration.
“I bought it for $1,125 in 1969 at a state auction when I was working for LRC,” Stephen says. “Robert Kennedy rode in it on a poverty tour to Eastern Kentucky. Lady Bird Johnson rode in it when Lyndon was president, and Ronald Reagan rode in it when he was governor of California.”
To prepare for a long career in state government, he attended Henderson Community College, “the best school I ever went to,” for two years before transferring to UK’s main campus in Lexington.
After getting his bachelor’s, Stephen applied for law school at the University of Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and UK, and was accepted at Notre Dame and UK.
Watching a home ND football game in snow and ice on TV one weekend was the clincher for him to stay at UK to study law.
His law degree was “very beneficial” for his work in state government, “but I didn’t care too much for law school.”
HE'S LIKED THEM ALL
By the waterfalls in the lobby of the Capital Plaza Hotel one summer afternoon recently, Stephen gave a few comments on all the governors he worked for. He said he liked all of them.
“I wouldn’t pretend to start rating them because they’re all different. They’re apples and oranges, but they were all good in their own way.”
>Wendell Ford: “He was a master politician, the best I ever saw of the whole bunch. While he appeared to be on the outside Mr. Democrat, he really dealt with everybody. He had a Republican base that you wouldn’t believe.
“Ford had a very small office and he was hands on with everything. Ed Logan and I doubled as his attorneys and administrative assistants. He worked us to death. He was a slave driver. I stayed down there until midnight returning calls.”
>Julian Carroll: “He believed in more delegation than Ford did. He had a bigger office, more people, and he spread the work out. Although it was less hands-on with Julian, a lot of times he would fool you.
“Like the Turnpike Authority, he insisted on going to the meetings himself because he liked that kind of stuff. He was very academic in the way he approached things.”
>John Y. Brown: “He was an untraditional governor who did things in a completely different way. He was a brilliant guy.”
Stephen said Brown and Frank Metts, his Transportation Cabinet secretary, “were kind of hard to work for in a lot of ways.” He recalled once being in New York on a business trip and getting a call from Metts saying Stephen needed to go to Palm Springs, Calif., the next day to give a speech at a highway contractors convention.
“So I had to fly home in the middle of the night, pack a bag and catch a commercial plane to California. I handled a lot of that stuff for them. It was a hard experience, but they taught me a lot.
“Around Frankfort, I probably stirred up some ill feelings just because I associated with them and they were so unpopular. But out in the state they were very popular. If Brown had had two administrations – succession wasn’t in place then – he would have changed the face of state government a whole lot.”
Stephen said he wrote the Transportation Cabinet’s first ever Six-Year Road Plan during Brown’s administration.
“Brown wanted something that would have fiscal accountability with expenditures. When he became governor, there were a lot of different plans and half of them weren’t funded. Brown said, ‘We can’t just throw a plan out unless we have the money or some mechanism to get it.’
“It’s been tweaked and messed with, and I don’t know what kind of shape it’s in now. But at least it’s better than what they had.”
>Martha Layne Collins: “I had known her from way back when she was a school teacher, and I was her highway commissioner. She was an education governor, but she won’t be remembered as that. She’ll be remembered hands down as the best economic development governor ever because of Toyota, and not only Toyota.
“I don’t think even she and her people envisioned so much spin-off, all these satellite factories all over the state because of Toyota.”
Stephen says Toyota put a demand on the state to have a Georgetown road, Cherry Blossom Way, built within a certain time.
“It couldn’t be done under conventional ways, and I was told to come up with a way. So I said we’ll run it through the Turnpike Authority if the governor will sign this stuff because the Turnpike Authority is a quasi-organization and we don’t have to fool with the model procurement code or any of the rest of that stuff.
“We built the road in record time in an unorthodox way. Of course we got sued, and it was a famous case. (Former Gov.) Bert Combs and I tried the case and handled it all the way to the Supreme Court. The other attorneys were (former Gov.) Louie Nunn and Joe Arnold, law partners in Lexington.”
Stephen says he was a “peon” when Nunn was governor, “but I got to know him real well before he died. I liked him. He was quite a character and a pretty good governor, too.”
>Wallace Wilkinson: “The biggest thing he should be remembered for was the Education Reform Act. I don’t think he went into office with any intention of doing that, but he backed it to everybody’s surprise. And he became the education governor instead of Collins.
“He was a hands-on guy like Ford. I liked him. I had known him a little bit before he was governor. When I was highway commissioner I built a road he was interested in that opened up Lawrence and Martin counties. It was a good project.”
>Brereton Jones: “He’s an extremely nice individual. I think he’s one of those guys who would have been a great governor if he had run again.
“He wasn’t from Kentucky. He was the head of the House of Representatives in West Virginia. But that’s not the same as here. He had the disadvantage of not having been a Kentuckian long enough.”
>Paul Patton: Stephen retired from the state at the beginning of the Patton administration, but Patton encouraged him to return as director of the Kentucky River Authority and he was hired by the board.
“I had previously worked with Patton. We were both deputy secretaries of transportation under Brown. When he was governor Patton wanted some activity on the river, some building and infrastructure. All that mess with Lexington, those water deficits, I didn’t know much about it at the time and it took me a while to decide if I wanted to take the job.
“I eventually did and I remember asking (Patton) if he had an agenda for this. He said, ‘No, just go to work like you always did and see what you can make of it.’ He was a good guy to work for.”
>Ernie Fletcher: “I liked Ernie. I hope history is kinder to Ernie than the press and everybody else was. He was a much better governor than people give him credit. Ernie did a lot of little things that were good for the state (like requiring owners of big houseboats to start paying a license tax). He was a fiscally responsible governor.”
While he feels the press was unfair to Fletcher, Stephen says he always respected good investigative reporting.
“And one disturbing trend is we have a scarcity of good investigative reporters now. In the past they kept people honest. They made us in the highway department – particularly where it was so political – overcautious.
“That was good because you didn’t do anything stupid. You didn’t come up with some durn change order that was bigger than the contract.”
>Steve Beshear: At first, Stephen said he didn’t want to comment on Beshear “simply because he’s still in office.
“He’s got a chance to be a great governor or a poor one. He may make the worst mistake on earth or he may get the biggest credit later on down the road and be the best governor in the history of the state.”
AT THEIR SIDES
While he admired all the governors, Stephen says one of the greatest statesmen of Kentucky is Frankfort’s John Palmore, a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court.
“He was as much responsible for overhauling the judicial system as anybody. He took lay people out of being judges.”
And what were Stephen’s biggest contributions to state government?
“I was a counselor to whatever boss I had, and I learned to be a professional at it,” he says.
“I was sort of like the consigliere in the mafia, like the role played by Robert Duvall in the ‘Godfather.’ I was always the one sitting at the guy’s side telling him what to do.”
Like the six-year highway plan, Stephen says he wrote a similar guide for the River Authority.
“If they follow that plan water supply ought to be pretty stable from now on, unless there’s some kind of earthquake or something we can’t foresee that kills us.”
Stephen says he took heat on the new Kentucky American pipeline, which runs from Monterey through Franklin and Scott counties to Lexington.
“But I think the proof’s in the pudding because during the drought this summer Lexington didn’t have to go on restrictions.”
If a pipeline to the Ohio River in Louisville, which was talked about, had been built, “somebody would have paid a pretty exorbitant price on the water bill for hook-up,” he says. “And the River Authority could not have taxed that water.
“I think a lot of people’s irritation was not the pipeline but that Kentucky American, a private company, was doing it. If the city of Lexington had owned it, I don’t think it would have been a lightning-rod issue. We didn’t care. They all paid us the same.”
At the River Authority he was instrumental in getting funding to improve Kentucky River View Park in Frankfort. He also worked with others to get a successful watershed management program organized.
Earlier in his career at the Transportation Cabinet, he won a federal case to keep a minority business enterprise program alive.
“The highway contractors association sought to get rid of it,” he says. “I kind of nurtured that program and it was always controversial.”
After almost a year in retirement this time, Stephen says he doesn’t think he’ll stay retired. But he doesn’t want to work full time for the state again.
“I don’t know if I’ll be a lobbyist or a lawyer or sell cars. If any governor needed some help for a temporary period, I might be interested in that. But I wouldn’t want to sign on for the long term.
“Right now a great day is getting up and feeling good and being able to accomplish something on the farm. I’m still trying to catch up on a lot of personal business I neglected – barns and building repairs, and clean-up work. And I’m flooded with paperwork.
“I like helping somebody that truly needs help, or something that can’t help itself like these cats.”
And he’s not talking about the UK Cats.
“I’m not a big sports guy per se. I’m a casual observer. If the basketball team loses, I’m not going out and jumping off a bridge.”