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Tom Chaney: Wilson W. Wyatt

Of Writers And Their Books: Wilson W. Wyatt, Sr. is a review of Whistle Stops: Adventures in Public Life, Wyatt's memoir of his public life. This column first appeared 2 March 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: "Dark as the Inside of a Badger"

By Tom Chaney

Wilson W. Wyatt, Sr.

Wilson Watkins Wyatt, Sr., age 80, published a memoir of his public life [Whistle Stops: Adventures in Public Life, The University Press of Kentucky, 1985].

In that memoir of some half-century of public service Wyatt hues carefully to the line between excessive modesty and over weaning arrogance. Too much of the former and we would not have a vital account of a man who strode large on the local, state, national, and world stage from mayor of Louisville in 1941 to being chosen special envoy to Indonesia for President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Too much of the latter and we have the self-serving egotism of an Albert Benjamin Chandler.

At this point in writing this piece, a friend came in and asked, "Who is Wilson Wyatt?"

That, my friends, is reason enough to write of a book written nearly a quarter century ago and to recall the career of a Kentuckian with Hart County roots who helped shape our world during and after World War Two.

Wyatt was born to Mary Watkins and Richard H. Wyatt in the Highland section of Louisville in 1905. His grandparents lived in Watkins Bend of Green River "near Rio." An uncle, Henry A. Watkins, was Hart County Judge from 1891 to 1895. He spent childhood summers with his grandmother, a maiden aunt, and a bachelor uncle.

Wyatt's first brush with political activism came with the "Brown Derby Parade" in Louisville with democratic presidential candidate Al Smith.

With his election as Louisville mayor in 1941 Wyatt was thrust into the role of war time mayor of a major industrial city. He organized the Louisville Metropolitan Area Defense Council and was its chairman.

Before the cheering subsided at his inauguration Wyatt appointed the first city fire chief from the ranks and not from the stable of political cronies. These two early acts typified his administrative approach to government.

By the time the state legislature met in January 1942 Wyatt had eleven "Louisville Bills" ready for consideration. All passed, eight without dissent -- a tribute to the close and diplomatic care given to his dealings with the members of the legislature.

Wyatt's tenure as mayor spanned almost exactly the war -- Pearl Harbor was bombed a week after his inauguration and victory over Japan was achieved three weeks before his term ended. He was offered several positions in Washington, but turned them down to re-establish his law practice. At that point President Truman called to insist that Wyatt help with post war housing. Current housing stock was not sufficient to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers.

Wyatt was charged by Truman "to make no small plans." Under his leadership a goal of 1,200,000 new housing units was set for 1946 and 1,500,000 for 1947. 1946 ended with 1,003,600 units -- not the full number of the goal but far more than the 200,000 of the previous year.

At the beginning of 1947 Wyatt again returned to Louisville and his practice of law.

In 1948 at the Democratic convention he headed an Alben Barkley for vice president drive in the face of a Wyatt for vice president move originating from the White House. Wyatt avoided the conflict, nominated Barkley, and history tells the rest of the story.

Four years later Wyatt helped organize the Adlai Stevenson draft and managed his presidential campaign in the face of the Eisenhower landslide. He brought his organizational abilities yet again to Stevenson four years later.

In 1958 Wyatt began to campaign for governor of Kentucky in the election to be held the following year. At first the primary contest was a three man race with Wyatt, Bert Combs, and Harry Lee Waterfield, "Happy" Chandler's lieutenant governor and anointed heir. Realizing that a three horse race would almost certainly result in the election of the Chandler man, Wyatt and Combs joined forces with Combs running for governor and Wyatt for lieutenant governor "to bring unity to the Democratic Party."

Combs agreed to adopt Wyatt's platform. Together they laid out a rather progressive agenda for a Combs-Wyatt platform. Combs won by 33,001 votes -- helped by the large Louisville vote which would have gone to Wyatt. Wyatt won the lieutenant governor nomination with a plurality of 191,000.

Wyatt entered the race for senate in 1962 and was defeated by Thruston Morton.

But there was one more job for Wyatt in the political world before his final retirement to private life.

Friday evening the 17th of May 1963, President John F. Kennedy's acting secretary of state called to summon him to Washington for an urgent meeting with JFK. An oil crisis was afoot in Indonesia. The government of that oil-rich Pacific state had issued a decree "that unless agreement was reached before that date [June 15] the oil companies either would have to make a decision to pull out or to operate under whatever conditions Indonesia might impose."

All attempts at agreement had failed. Indonesian President Sukarno was leaving on a world tour.

Wyatt put personal and governmental affairs on hold and began a hectic week of negotiating. He and Sukarno came to terms in a Tokyo hotel aided by Kennedy's offer to visit Indonesia -- a visit which was in the planning stages when Kennedy was murdered in Dallas the following November.

This, then, is Wilson Wyatt. His memoirs are a delight. Fortunately some years after the publication of Whistle Stops Wade Hall convinced Wyatt to sit for interviews for a second book, finished just before his death in 1995. That book, Complete Conviction: The Private Life of Wilson W. Wyatt, Sr. finishes the tale of this brilliant Kentuckian astride the world's stage.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-03-03 06:05:36
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