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Phyllis George, former Miss America and First Lady of Kentucky, dies of rare blood disease at age 70

Staff report

Phyllis George, Miss America of 1971, a broadcast television pioneer and former First Lady of Kentucky, died Thursday at the University of Kentucky medical center of a rare blood disorder. She was 70.

George, who lived in Lexington, was married to former Gov. John Y. Brown who served as governor from 1979-1983. They divorced in 1998.

She is survived by her two children, Lincoln Tyler George Brown, a Lexington entrepreneur, and Pamela Ashley Brown, a White House correspondent for CNN. Pamela was born when John Y. and Phyllis lived in Kentucky’s Governor’s Mansion. She was also grandmother to Pamela’s two children, Benny Wright, 2, and Vivienne Wright, 8 weeks.

Gov. Andy Beshear released this statement regarding her death:

“I was blessed to know Phyllis and her family. Her connection with Kentucky runs deep. As First Lady of the Commonwealth, she was beloved for her vision and oversight in renovation and reviewing the state treasure that is the Governor’s mansion and her efforts to promote folk art in America. Our thoughts and prayers are especially with her children, Lincoln and Pamela.”

Lincoln, Phyllis George, and Pamela (Family photo provided)

George was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a rare blood cancer that was diagnosed 35 years ago.

Born in Denton, Texas, George was a trailblazer. After being named Miss Texas and then Miss America in 1971, she became the first woman to co-host NFL Today’s pregame show. She also covered horse racing events, hosted the entertainment show, People, and co-anchored the CBS Morning News show. She was married briefly to Hollywood producer Robert Evans.

She married Kentucky Fried Chicken owner John Y. Brown in 1979 and was a key player in his election as Governor in 1979. As First Lady, she founded the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, championed Kentucky’s craftsmen and artisans, set up Kentucky-made boutiques in major department stores around the county, and renovated the crumbling Governor’s Mansion. She also was a founding member of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship.

As a businesswoman, she founded Chicken by George, which was sold to Hormel Foods in 1988, created Phyllis George Beauty, and wrote six books, including Never Say Never – Yes You Can, inspirational stories from high-profile personalities in 2002. Among her mantras expressed in the book: “Say yes to yourself,” “Trust your instincts,” “Learn to laugh at yourself.”

“Just as Kentucky embraced Phyllis for the glamour and graciousness she extended to everyone she met, she wholeheartedly embraced Kentucky for its people, its artisans, and its natural scenic beauty,” a death notice by the family said. “She could just as easily sit down on the front porch swing at the house of a basketmaker on some little country road in small town Kentucky as she could host a dinner for four U.S. Presidents at the Kentucky governor’s mansion.”

Pamela Brown once told the NKyTribune: “Mom was always encouraging me to do whatever I wanted. But being around her had an influence on me, and probably helped push me in the direction I took.”

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Read the NKyTribune’s story on Pamela Brown, CNN news correspondent, here.

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  1. A natural bright light of Jesus shined in Kentucky with the presence of Phyllis George Brown and the Kentucky Gentleman John Y. Brown. They both brought presence to Kentucky in the new World of Economic growth and development of the free enterprise system. Her inner strength and faith carried her through the termoils of politics and business. Northern Kentucky was deeply involved in John Y Browns campaign for Governor through two young bright and intelligent young men one from Simon Kenton High school, Bruce Lunsford and the other Lanny Holbrook from Saint Henry’s High school both great basketball players with great competition and great desire to win and make a positive mark for Northern Kentucky and they had a seasoned political war horse as a advisor who was a no nonsense do it the right way political institution called John J O’hara Commonwealth Attorney for Kenton County and all became a powerful team in John Y Browns and Phyllis George Brown’s rise to the stars of Kentucky History. I loved being a small part of this brave new adventure and I have been friends and admired their continued growth and their devotion to Kentucky and I remember the last time I sang My Old Kentucky Home for them in Frankfort at the Dr. THOMAS CLARK HISTORY MUSEUM. TODAY I WILL SING FOR OUR FIRST LADY PHYLLIS GEORGE BROWN WHOSE SMILE WAS ALWAYS SHINING OVER THE MOUNTAINS OF EASTERN KENTUCKY INTO THE PLAINS OF WESTERN KENTUCKY AND WHOSE HEART OPENED THE GATEWAY OF NORTHERN KENTUCKY TO THE SOUTH OF KENTUCKY AND ENLIGHTEN THE BEAUTY OF THE BLUEGRASS AND THE CORPORATE CULTURE OF DERBY TOWN THE VILLE , LOUISVILLE. SHE WAS KENTUCKY AND WE LOVED HER AND WILL MISS HER BUT NEVER FORGET HER. SHE IS SMILING FOR ALL OF US IN HEAVEN RIGHT NOW. ARE YOU READY?

  2. Marie C WardI says:

    I met her in London Ky when they were campaigning for governor she came into bathroom of courthouse I ask her if could take picture and she did had on a Red silk dress God Bless You at this time a Grrat Lady

  3. Robert Lauer says:

    She was such a lovely person. She made the sun shine brighter on our Kentucky home

  4. Joan Tonini says:

    Phyllis George Family God bless you all and may she RIP, and yes forever you will miss her

  5. Craig Bradbury says:

    I once had the pleasure of meeting her with Gov.Brown when I working as attendant/valet at the Harbison downtown Louisville. She was most gracious and genuine . I thought highly of her and am saddened by her untimely demise.

  6. J keith Menees says:

    The sun does shine brighter in Kentucky because of Phyliis George Brown and the name and style she brought as First Lady. My grandfather also succumbed to Polycythemia rubra Vera and I know the toil it does to the body. God bless her and her family.

  7. Benjamin Novick says:

    God Bless Phyllis. Bet there was a brass band waiting for her.

  8. Sally Rhoads says:

    Thank you for the trails you blazed for the women in this country. You have earned a well deserved rest.

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