January 12, 1896 - February 7, 1970
42nd Governor of Kentucky
Keen Johnson, journalist, politician, business executive, was born at Brandon's Chapel in Lyon County, Kentucky, to Robert and Mattie Holloway Johnson on January 12, 1896. Keen was the only son born to the Johnsons along with two daughters--Catherine (Keturah) and Christine. His father, a circuit riding preacher of the Methodist Church, was his earliest teacher and in following his profession took the family throughout western Kentucky. Johnson received his elementary education in the common schools of the region and in 1914 graduated from Vanderbilt Training School, a boy's preparatory institute at Elkton, Kentucky. In the fall and for the next three years, he pursued academic studies at Central College, Fayette, Missouri. While there he married Eunice Lee Nichols, daughter of Robert Lee and Mary (Avery) Nichols of Higbee, Missouri, on June 23, 1917. Mrs. Johnson, through her father, descended from a Barren County, Kentucky, pioneer who moved to Missouri. Her father, a physician, died when she was nine months old.
When America entered World War I, Johnson enrolled in the Reserve Officer's training Camp at Fort Riley, Kansas, May 15, 1917. He was appointed second lieutenant, Infantry, Officers Reserve Corps on August 15, 1917, and assigned to active duty with the 354th Infantry, 89th Division at Camp Funston, Kansas. Promoted to first lieutenant, Infantry, National Army, on March 29, 1918, Johnson embarked for France, June 4, 1918. He spent considerable time receiving instruction in logistical communications at the Army School of the Line and Staff College. After the armistice he remained in Europe with the Allied Expeitionary Force until April, 1919, and was honorably discharged, October 31, 1919.
Following his discharge Johnson began his career in journalism. He bought The Mirror, a weekly newspaper at Elizabethtown, and operated it for one year. Then he enrolled at the University of Kentucky completing his A.B. degree in Journalism in 1922. While attending the university, he worked part-time as a reporter for the Lexington Herald, receiving tutelage under two of Kentucky's leading journalists, Desha Breckinridge and Tom R. Underwood. Following gradution he bought an interest in The Anderson News at Lawrenceburg and published and edited the newspaper until he moved to Richmond in 1925, where he purchased half interest in the Richmond Daily Register from Shelton M. Saufley, Sr. He served as editor and co-publisher from 1925 until 1939, and continued to write any of the paper's editorials until the late 1960's.
One daughter, Judith, was born to the Johnsons on May 19, 1927, in Richmond. Now Mrs. Richard Jaggers, she is the mother of two sons Robert Babbage, Jr. and Keen Johnson Babbage.
Johnson launched his political career in 1932 by being elected secretary of the Democratic State Central and Executive Committee. Through contacts made while serving as secretary, numerous columns he wrote in the Daily Register which were reprinted in other Kentucky Democratic daily and weekly newspapers, and his lively speeches, Johnson's importance and strength in the Democratic party grew. In 1935 he ran for lieutenant governor and defeated J. E. Wise and B. F. Wright, contenders in the Democratic primary. On September 7 he defeated Wise in a runoff election, and in the November general election defeated Repubcan candidate, J.J. Kavanaugh. As Lieutenant Governor and President of the Senate in the administration of Governor A. B. "Happy" Chandler, Johnson supported many of Chandler's governmental reorganization plans and became a favorite candidate for the 1939 Democratic gubernatorial ticket.
He announced his candidacy for governor on May 17, 1939. A bitterly fought primary campaign against John Y. Brown, Sr., produced a Johnson victory in August 32,000 votes. He opened his gubernatorial campaign on October 7, 1939, in Mt. Sterling. Fate, however, intervened. United States Senator Marvin Mills Logan died on October 3 and on October 9 Governor Chandler resigned. Keen Johnson took the oath as governor and his first official act was to appoint Chandler fill Logan's unexpired Senate term. Johnson was elected for a full term on November 17, defeating Republican King Swope of Lexington by more than 100,000 votes.
Inaugurated on December 12, 1939, as Kentucky's forty-second governor, Johnson and his administration strove for modest improvements in the state's social service program, especially increased funding for public health facilities, legislative enactment of the Tennessee Valley Authority Enabling Act, and strong support of President Franklin Roosevelt's wartime domestic policies. Shortages of civilian labor and materials plus Johnson's fiscal conservatism, however, prevented the growth of state capital construction projects. Johnson did erase the state's debt and left a $10 million surplus in the treasury when he left office in December, 1943.
On January 1, 1944, Johnson joined the Reynolds Metals Company as a special assistant to President Richard Samuel Reynolds, Sr. advising him on postwar unemloyment problems. In 1945 he became Vice President for Public Relations. Because of his ability to work well with union leaders, President Harry Truman and Senator Alben Barkley prevailed upon him to accept a newly created position undersecretary of labor to secretary, Louis B. Schwellenbach. Johnson took leave of absence from Reynolds in August, 1946 to mid-1947 to work for the government. Due to the illness of Secretary Schwellenbach, Johnson attended severaI presidential cabinet meetings. Returning to Reynolds, he resumed his vice-presidency and in 1950 became a member of the Board of Directors. Johnson maintained an office in Louisville, but spent many days travelling throughout the nation and occasionally overseas promoting the company's aluminum products and organizing Reynolds sales executive meetings. He retired from Reynolds in January, 1961.
Johnson was a stalwart in the Democratic party for years, serving as a member of the Democratic National Committee from 1940 to 1948. He engaged in his last political campaign in 1960 when he ran for a seat in the United States Senate. Again he defeated his longtime opponent, John Y. Brown, Sr., in the primary but lost to the Republican incumbent, John Sherman Cooper, in the November general election.
Over the years, Johnson served with various professional, fraternal, social, and military organizations. He was president of the Kentucky Press Association and of the Kentucky Social Workers Association. He served as president of the Louisville Advertising Club and the Louisville Safety Council during his active years with Reynolds Metals Company. He was chairman of the Kentucky Disabled Service Men's Board and campaign chairman for the Kentucky Crippled Children's Society. He was a board member of the Kentucky Heart Association, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Louisville International Center, and the Richmond Methodist Church.
Johnson belonged to many clubs and organizations including the Civil War Round Table, National Press Club, Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., Public Relations Society of America, Pendennis Club, Keeneland Club, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, 40 and 8, Masonic F. and A.M., Rotary, Elks, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Omicron Delta Kappa, Sigma Delta Chi, and Scabbard and Blade.
The University of Kentucky awarded Johnson an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1940 and later a Centennial Award. He received a Distinguished Service Plaque from Eastern Kentucky University where he served for eight years a member of the Board of Regents. He was president of the University of Kentucky Alumni Association. He served on the Kentucky Council on Higher Education for many years and for two terms on the Kentucky Board of Education.
Keen Johnson died February 7, 1970, in Richmond and is interred in the Richmond Cemetery.
Keen Johnson Building at Eastern Kentucky University
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