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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 KyForward: “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 KyForward’s story on Pamela Brown, CNN news correspondent, here.

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