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‘A Leader for Everyone’: Bourbon judge-exec keeps focus on working together, serving all


Bourbon County Courthouse in Paris (Bourbonky.com photo)

Bourbon County Courthouse in Paris (Bourbonky.com photo)


By Kristy Robinson Horine
Special to KyForward

Mike Williams sits for a while after the meeting ends. He watches and he listens. Not only is this part of his job, it’s also a part of his nature. 

It’s one reason why some folks believe he was destined to be a leader.

“I just want folks to understand we can work together. Whatever our differences are, we need to come together and not leave anybody out. I want to be a leader for everyone.”
— Mike Williams

Around him, in Paris’ Church of the Annunciation Parish Hall, business leaders shake hands and make small talk. A group huddles around a table, eager to sign up for various committees. Another group forms a queue near the refreshments.

Williams catches pieces of conversation here and there — “increase employment … stimulate the economy … help our people … this is gonna take some work.”

After a time, he rises, tucks his notebook under his left arm and approaches the chamber director with a smile and a hand shake.

At nearly 7 feet tall, Williams towers over her. His voice rumbles out a low assurance that the meeting went well; that, already, he’s hearing mostly positive feedback.  When he leaves here, he will go home and tell Rita, his wife, about the gist of the Work Ready program, about who he saw at the meeting, about what his next steps might be.  They’ve been married for 46 years now; mutual support and belief have brought them to a comfortable point on their journey together.

As Bourbon County judge-executive, Williams knows his next steps will need to be deliberate and sure, liberally seasoned with experience and wisdom, yet moderate enough to be controlled and considerate. There are, after all, many different people in his county, just as there are many different steps that have brought him to this place.

A certain path   

Williams grew up in the Ruddles Mills area, a small agricultural community just north of Paris proper in Bourbon County. He didn’t live on a farm, as his parents and grandparents operated a small country store in Ruddles Mills, but he had the experience of working on the rolling farmland.

After graduation from Bourbon County High School in 1969, he married his high school sweetheart, Rita, and ventured into the hallowed halls of learning at Morehead State University. He studied art and history.

 (Photo provided)

Rita and Mike Williams (Photo provided)

“I wanted to teach, even back then. I was interested in politics, that was part of my interest in history,” Williams says. “If I had graduated from college, I would have gotten my teaching certificate. It didn’t work out. Other priorities came up.”

Those other priorities were his family, specifically his two sons, Michael and Rodney. He knew, even then, that leading a family by providing for them was one of the best goals he could achieve.  He took a job for Chevron Oil Co. in Lexington, driving 8,000 gallons of gasoline all over the state for six or seven years. After that, he started work at IBM, in the factory.

“About a year in, I went over to data processing, operations in particular,” he explains and then looks at the computer on his desk and thinks about how times have changed. “Of course, that was back in ancient days when the computers were huge and had to be water cooled on a raised floor.”

After working in operations for a while, he became involved in customer support at IBM, and, for the last 20 of his 30 years there, he worked in management. He retired from IBM in 2007, but his days of serving were far from over.

Williams worked various jobs over the next few years, such as event staff for the University of Kentucky athletics department, a stint with Ead’s, a Paris hardware company, and Lowe’s in Georgetown. The next step, however, brought him much closer to where he felt he needed to be, he worked for then-County Clerk Richard Eads for a year and a half before deciding to run for county judge.

“I had thought about running for the last 20 years off and on, as something I would like to do,” Williams says. “My work experience had prepared me for a leadership role in any environment. Not only in my work, but also in my church, and in other areas.”

Williams has been a part of the Ruddles Mills Christian Church congregation “since my mother carried me in the door in 1951.” He has served in leadership roles there, and in the community at large, with 12 years on the Bourbon County School Board and as an officer and director of the Bourbon County Alumni Association since 1996.

“All of those experiences prepared me to be here,” he says. “I have dealt with people, been in situations where I had to make tough decisions, and with folks unhappy with those decisions.”

Through it all, Williams says he has developed skills that he can use to help his community.

It all leads home

Not too long ago, a family knocked on Williams’ office door. They were in dire straits – no jobs, no money, no rent and no food.  They came,  seeking hope and help. Knowing he didn’t have the authority to use funds on his own to help the family, Williams made sure they were connected to a local group who could supply them with basic needs.

It’s this  unexpected scenario that helps to keep things in perspective.

“Respect for every individual was certainly something I was taught at IBM,” he says. “Be a leader for teams, but respect the individual. I think I have some natural ability to do that. I grew up with a sense of security and realize the value of that.”

Williams didn’t ask if the family members had voted for him in the last election. He didn’t seek out their party affiliation. He saw a need and figured out the best way to fill that need while helping the family members maintain dignity.

“Everyone deserves respect and opportunity. We have to step up,” he says.

Williams is the first Republican judge-executive to be elected in Bourbon County since 1973. Last fall, he won by a 16 percent margin over a four-term Democrat. In Bourbon County, the registration breaks down to one Republican for every four Democrats.


The population, around 20,000, has remained the same as it was about a hundred years ago. Being close to Scott and Fayette counties, two counties which have seen explosive growth in the last few decades, Williams understands that controlled growth is  the key.

Williams and other leaders could have moved ahead with expanding the industrial park. This would have definitely brought jobs and boosted the local economy, but it could have also put undue pressure on an immature infrastructure. Williams looked to professionals who could tell him what could help the community grow and be healthy at the same time.

“One of the encouraging things is to develop a few hundred acre recreational complex that will include baseball fields, soccer fields, lacrosse fields, an amphitheater, walking trails, all those things combined,” he says. “Folks who look at our community are going to look at things like the quality of life.” 

In addition to improving the quality of life, and the eventual, controlled expansion of the industrial park, Williams says he is working to lead by example.

According to the bylaws of the local Economic Development Authority, a joint city-county venture, both the county judge-executive and the city mayor, Mike Thornton, were voting members.

“We asked to be signified as ex officio members, not voting members, to allow two others to come on board who had a stake in the environment,” he says. “I’m not a business person, but the mayor is. We just decided to take the politics out.”

The EDA agreed and Drew Perrout and Matt Cook, both young agricultural community members, filled their places.

“Those are the people we want to keep here. We want to keep their children here, so these are the people we want to keep involved,” he says.

When Williams goes home at the end of each day, he considers the past and thinks toward the future.

“I miss some things, just like everyone does. I miss seeing the tobacco field outside my back window, but we have to change. We have to be a part of the world and live here.

“There’s a way to do it and I think of myself as a resource that people can use to get there,” he says. “I just want folks to understand we can work together. Whatever our differences are, we need to come together and not leave anybody out. I want to be a leader for everyone.” 

Kristy Horine is a freelance writer based in Paris. She wrote this story for the Bluegrass Area Development District.

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One Comment

  1. David Ritchey says:

    I worked with 6’8″ Mike at IBM for a few years. Mike was such a soft spoken nice man and Bourbon County is lucky to have him.

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