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Kentucky by Heart: Lifelong Kentuckian Tony Wilhoit holds humble view of impressive life of public service

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Anthony “Tony” Wilhoit was born in Versailles 88 years ago and has mostly lived within three blocks of his current home, a large, majestic brick house built in 1870; he’s a lifer in his town, in tune with its history. Just ask him about all the friends he has made around Woodford County.

He also has an impressive resume in the area of jurisprudence, a long-time community and state servant, and he has been in company with some of the most noted Kentucky politicians of the past half century. Those include A.B. “Happy Chandler, Bert Combs, Wendell Ford, Ed Prichard, and Hal Rogers. And beyond the state, Tony had a policy meeting with one Barak Obama, but more on that later.

Tony Wilhoit relaxing at his home (Photo courtesy Wendy Wilhoit)

But being in the limelight is not, and never has been, what drives him.

He’s most proud of his family — including 27 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren — gifted him amongst the eight children from his marriage to wife Betty (“a heck of a lady,” he emphasized). Sadly, she died in 2006. Those youngins are frequent visitors to his house, and you might call them “the apples of his eye.” He wishes he still had his wife around to share his joy.

Though growing up in Versailles, Tony received a foundational education at the Latin School in Lexington — a place he was not keen on attending at the time, but his mother “made me go,” he said. “Going there about killed me (at first) because all my buddies were going out for football in Versailles.”

That said, he admits that he received a good education by going there. “They made you work,” he said, and he was enriched by taking four years of Latin, two years of Greek, and two years of Spanish. Additionally, he was mentored by a priest and teacher at the school, Father Wilson, who had a positive influence on Tony and his young Catholic faith, of which he has held onto strongly throughout his life. He seldom misses Mass.

Tony furthered his education in Northern Kentucky at Villa Madonna College (now Thomas More University), where he achieved an A.B. degree, then graduated from UK, majoring in history, and he taught school at Maysville High for a short while. He started law school at UK, but his tenure there was interrupted by two years of service in the U.S. Army.

Tony and wife, Betty, surrounded by their eight children on a trip to Cape Cod in 1999 (Photo courtesy Wendy Wilhoit)

He considered himself luckier than some other relatives serving in the military before him. “I was in between Korea and Vietnam, and I never got stationed overseas. My mother was just sure I’d get killed because her uncle had gotten killed in World War I and her brother, my uncle, was killed in World War II,” he said.

In the Army, Tony gained a Sgt. First Class rank, and, he noted, the “Colonel kind of made me go to OCS (Officer Candidate School), but when I got out, I didn’t take my commission.” The reason had to do with his desire to start a law practice in Versailles, taking over the practice of a friend who was retiring. Before doing so, he still needed to finish his law degree from UK, and he did; he followed it with a LL.M (Law and Legal Studies Master’s degree) from the Virginia School of Law.

He was now well-prepared for a career to practice law and judgeships, and he put his preparation to work throughout his life. He did it well and gained others’ confidence. Besides his local Versailles law practice, Tony held many posts over his career. He served as a police judge, Versailles City Attorney, Woodford County Attorney, and he became, in 1972, the first chief public defender in Kentucky, being appointed by Gov. Wendell Ford. Tony noted that for the newly created state public defender program, Ford gave him “ninety days to get the system set up in all 120 counties. Wendell Ford kind of took me under his wings.”

He also served as deputy secretary of the Kentucky Justice Cabinet, and in 1976, joined the Kentucky Court of Appeals, retiring in 1997 as Chief Judge. The same year, he became Executive Director of the Kentucky Legislative Commission until he retired in 2015. In 2016, Tony was appointed to the Commission by the Kentucky Speaker of the House.

Typical of the humility of Tony Wilhoit, he didn’t bring up the fact that he was recognized in 2012 with the coveted COGEL Award, called “the highest international award given to a person working in the fields of ethics, campaign finance, and election law.” I’d say that’s something for which to brag, but I had to find that while researching him.

Here are some other items Tony shared during our interview:

Then Senator Barak Obama looks on as Tony Wilhoit speaks (Photo courtesy Wendy Wilhoit)

• His favorite career position? “The Appeals Court was probably the favorite job I ever had . . . the work and delving into the law. I loved that,” he said.

• A staunch Democrat, he particularly liked Governor and Senator Wendell Ford and also thought highly of Republican Senator John Sherman Cooper. He didn’t always see eye to eye with former Kentucky politician and Versailles resident Happy Chandler.

• After speaking on the subject of ethics in the nation’s capital, the then Senator Barak Obama, who had heard Tony speak in Washington, D.C., asked for a meeting with him to discuss such matters. Tony came away impressed with Obama, telling his wife afterward: “That’s the sharpest man I’ve met since Ed Prichard.” (Kentuckian Ed Prichard was of brilliant intellect and served in the presidential administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Prichard’s rising career was curtailed, regrettably, after poor health and being sent to prison for ballot-stuffing.)

• An avid hiker and jogger for most of his life, he has hiked throughout Kentucky and other places around the country, including Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Maine. Even at 88, he enthusiastically walks and jogs around Versailles five times a week.

• Tony shared a humorous anecdote about his wife, Betty’s remarks at the retirement dinner given in his honor after retiring from the Court of Appeals. “I’m so glad (for his retirement),” she said, “because I used to go to bed with briefs spread over me.” The audience laughed, with Betty responding, “I didn’t mean that kind of briefs!”

I’ve interviewed hundreds of Kentuckians over the years, and Tony Wilhoit has to be one of the humblest. He’s happy to share his love for family and friends and a few stories of his life and career experiences, but when it comes to bragging on himself, it just isn’t in him to do. His religious faith has taught him a positive sense of gratitude, and he likes to talk about the good people around him. And when I expressed to Tony my admiration for his humble spirit, he laughed and said: “I have a good reason to be humble.”

For this living Kentucky treasure, it would be hard to find someone believing Tony Wilhoit has a good reason to be humble.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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One Comment

  1. Kay King says:

    The Wilhoit family are all very good people.

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