LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Former Kentucky first lady Martha Wilkinson, who championed efforts to reduce adult illiteracy and ran a brief campaign to succeed her husband as governor, has died. She was 72.
Her husband, Wallace Wilkinson, had an eventful term as governor from 1987 to 1991. Voters approved creation of the Kentucky Lottery, which the Democatic governor had pushed as an alternative to higher taxes, and lawmakers overhauled public schools.
Doug Alexander, who was press secretary during Wilkinson’s administration, said Martha Wilkinson died of natural causes Wednesday at a hospital in Sarasota, Florida. The Wilkinsons’ two sons were at her side, he said Thursday. She had been living in the Sarasota area in recent years, he said.
Wallace Wilkinson died in 2002 at age 60.
Gov. Steve Beshear, a one-time political rival of her husband, remembered Martha Wilkinson as “a wonderful ambassador for Kentucky and a steadfast advocate for education, especially for improving literacy in our state.”
Wallace Wilkinson won a crowded Democratic gubernatorial primary that included Beshear in 1987.
Democratic Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo Thursday called Martha Wilkinson one of the state’s “most memorable” first ladies.
“I thought she was a perfect match for Gov. Wilkinson, because she was just as passionate as he was when it came to improving Kentucky’s schools, and she also didn’t hesitate to let you know what she thought,” Stumbo said in a statement.
“She is a key reason why our adult-education programs are now among the best in the country.”
Martha Wilkinson created “Martha’s Army” to help guide high school dropouts toward attaining their General Educational Development certificates.
Country music singer Waylon Jennings was among those motivated to earn their GEDs as part of the initiative.
Wallace Wilkinson tried but failed to get a measure on the ballot that would have allowed himself and other constitutional officers at the time to run for a second term. Martha Wilkinson ran a brief campaign for governor herself, promising to continue her husband’s policies.
With polls showing her trailing Lt. Gov. Brereton Jones, she pulled out of the race before the 1991 Democratic primary.
A Casey County native, Martha Stafford and Wallace Wilkinson were high school sweethearts, and they married in 1960.
She played a key role in the early development of a self-made, prosperous and far-flung business enterprise.
Her husband saw a market for used books and opened a store that grew into a national company. The family’s business empire later included a charter flight company, commercial real estate, control of a string of Kentucky banks, large-scale farming and investments in coal and timber.
His business empire later collapsed in bankruptcy. His main companies were liquidated and many of his holdings were auctioned.