Phyllis George, former KY first lady and pioneer in sports broadcasting, dies at age 70

Phyllis George

FILE – In this Nov. 28, 1976 file photo, CBS sportscaster Phyllis George is seen in New York. Phyllis George, the former Miss America who became a female sportscasting pioneer on CBS’s “The NFL Today” and served as the first lady of Kentucky, has died. She was 70. A family spokeswoman said George died Thursday, May 14, 2020, at a Lexington hospital after a long fight with a blood disorder.(AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis, File)

LEXINGTON, KY (CBS/AP) – Phyllis George, who used her celebrity status as Miss America 1971 and her pioneering experience for women in sportscasting to help John Y. Brown Jr. win Kentucky’s 1979 race for governor, died Thursday at the University of Kentucky Medical Center of a blood disorder, the former governor said Saturday.

She was 70.

He said she had developed a rare blood disorder in her 30s and was told she would have problems with it as she got older.

The Browns, who divorced in 1998, had two children, Lincoln Tyler George Brown, a Lexington businessman, and Pamela Ashley Brown, who is White House correspondent for CNN.

Lincoln Brown said Saturday night that he and his sister were with their mother during her final days.

“It’s an extraordinary story what she has been through in the last seven years with this,” he said.
He said the family is working on details about a memorial service and hope to have them ready by Monday.

In a joint statement from the children, they said, “For many, Mom was known by her incredible accomplishments as the pioneering female sportscaster, 50th Miss America and first lady.

“But this was all before we were born, and never how we viewed Mom. To us, she was the most incredible mother we could ever ask for, and it is all of the defining qualities the public never saw, especially against the winds of adversity, that symbolize how extraordinary she is more than anything else.

“The beauty so many recognized on the outside was a mere fraction of her internal beauty, only to be outdone by an unwavering spirit that allowed her to persevere against all the odds.”

A native of Denton, Texas, George also was a businesswoman, author and actress.

Her mark in Kentucky was her term as first lady of the state from 1979 to 1983, and especially her role in the 1979 campaign with her newlywed husband who had parlayed Kentucky Fried Chicken into a multimillion-dollar, international restaurant chain.

The media dubbed their search for votes in the Democratic candidate’s home state as “the kissing campaign.” The glamorous couple, who got married March 17, 1979, often was seen smooching on the campaign trail.

“With all due respect to my friend, John Y., Phyllis George Brown is the one who won that election,” said former Democratic Gov. Julian Carroll, who was governor before Brown.

Carroll sided with Terry McBrayer in 1979’s Democratic primary election but he said he had attended the Browns’ wedding in New York City in March of that year.

“We knew we were in trouble when we saw Phyllis on the campaign trail,” said Carroll. “The crowds would come out to see her. You could not be around Phyllis and not have great affection for her.

“She had energy, charisma, beauty and was a strong people person.”

Brown won the nine-way 1979 Democratic primary election and defeated Republican Louie Nunn in the general election, capturing nearly 60% of the vote.

Carroll said Phyllis George was one of the first “first ladies” in Kentucky to have an office and staff in the Capitol. “She loved to promote Kentucky. She was quite beloved.”

Former state Sen. Mike Moloney, D-Lexington, was close to the Browns.

“She elected him,” Moloney said. “She drew crowds with her magnetic personality. She was beautiful. People wanted to see her.”

On a personal note, Moloney said, Phyllis George introduced him to his wife, Janette, a teacher. “You don’t forget people like that,” he said.

“Phyllis brought flash to the 1979 campaign,” said Ferrell Wellman, former Frankfort reporter for WAVE-TV in Louisville.

“When Brown appeared out in the state campaigning, as many people went to see her as they did for Brown.”

As first lady, Wellman said, she renovated the Governor’s Mansion with private funds and heavily promoted Kentucky arts and crafts.

“I don’t think most people realized the bad condition the mansion was in when the Browns came in,” Wellman said. “Some criticized them for having their private residence at Cave Hill in Lexington but Phyllis George raised the money to get the mansion renovated.”

Once Brown occupied the governor’s office, Phyllis “brought glamor to it,” said the former reporter. “She would attract celebrities to the Capitol. Andy Williams and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were at the inauguration.

“It was not unusual to walk in the Capitol and see Kenny Rogers there.”

As a promoter of Kentucky arts and crafts, said Wellman, Phyllis even got Bloomingdale’s to sell the Kentucky items. She founded the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.

George attended North Texas State University for three years until she was crowned Miss Texas in 1970. She won the national title the following year and appeared on numerous national TV talk shows.

In 1975, George joined the cast of CBS Sports’ “The NFL Today.” She co-hosted live pre-game shows before National Football League games, one of the first women to hold such a job.

In 1978, George worked on a TV news version of People magazine and in 1985 became a co-anchor of CBS Morning News for eight months. In 2000, she played a minor role in the film, “Meet the Parents.”

George also made appearances on other TV shows and became a businesswoman. In 1986, she founded “Chicken by George” chicken fillets and sold it two years later. In the early 2000s, she started selling cosmetics and skin care products.

In 1982, George wrote the first of her five books. It was titled “The I Love America Diet.” Following books dealt with crafts and inspirational stories.

George was mentioned in 2007 as a possible candidate for governor of Kentucky or for the U.S. Senate in 2008 againt Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell. She never did become a candidate.
In 2011, George auctioned off 89 possessions, most of which she had accumulated as Kentucky’s first lady. They included quilts, paintings and Derby hats.

In June 2017, George watched her daughter get married to Adam Wright at Cave Hill, the large house in southern Fayette County where the Browns lived when Pamela and her brother Lincoln were children.

Even though the Browns had sold the house to another family, Pamela said she always wanted to get married there because of her fond memories of her childhood.

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