Lexington, KY – By the time a crowd of more than 20,000 heard his stirring rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" on Senior Day in 1988, A.B. Happy Chandler's status as a Kentucky legend was steadfastly secure.
Albert Benjamin Chandler was born on July 14, 1898 in the small Kentucky community of Corydon in Henderson County. He describes his childhood as difficult, having his mother abandon the family before his fifth birthday, and enduring his younger brother's accidental death.
It was while attending Transylvania University that he picked up the nickname "Happy" because of what his teachers and classmates described as his general jovial attitude. He went on to excel on the school's baseball, basketball, and football teams.
In the late 1920's Chandler's political career path would lead to a seat in the Kentucky Senate, and from there a tumultuous term serving as Governor Ruby Laffoon's Lieutenant.
In 1935, voters elected 37 year old Happy Chandler to the top spot where he quickly garnered another nickname he didn't like so much: boy governor. Nevertheless, Chandler forged a reputation as a frugal, fiscally responsible governor of the Commonwealth.
When he did spend money, it was on things like road improvement, rural electrification, and increased support for education. If you've ever attended a Derby Day Breakfast at the state capitol in Frankfort, you have Happy Chandler to thank for that. He started the tradition in 1936. Chandler also helped direct relief efforts in the wake of the great Ohio River Flood of 1937 which left a path of destruction throughout Kentucky and neighboring states.
In 1939, Chandler accepted an appointment to the U-S Senate to fulfill the unexpired term of the late M.M. Logan. He served in that capacity throughout World War II and departed Congress to become commissioner of major league baseball in 1945. Two years later, he shocked the baseball world by allowing Jackie Robinson to break the long-held color line.
After angry baseball owners forced him from office, Chandler got back into Kentucky politics and won a second gubernatorial term in 1955; where his administration continued the themes of improving education and public works. Upon leaving Frankfort, Chandler helped oversee what he believed was his greatest accomplishment: the establishment of the University of Kentucky's medical center; which now bears his name.
Like many a southerner of his time, Chandler would be dogged by allegations of racism and bigotry. He supported Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond for president in 1948, but 8 years later as governor, he used National Guard troops to enforce racial integration of Kentucky public schools. In 1968, he was on the short list of possible running mates for third party presidential candidate George Wallace. That is, until members of the John Birch Society reminded the hopeful about Chandler's role in the Jackie Robinson decision.
In his later years, Chandler drew the ire of several University of Kentucky student groups with his utterance of the "n" word during a board of trustees meeting. Chandler used the racial epithet in describing the social and political makeup of the South African nation of Zimbabwe; a remark for which he later publicly apologized. The episode may have served to tarnish the legacy, but it could not diminish the long list of accomplishments, that merit Chandler's inclusion among the top ten of Kentucky's greatest statesmen.
A.B. Happy Chandler died on June 15, 1991. He's buried in the Pisgah Church cemetery in Versailles, Kentucky.