A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Woodford Judge-Executive (the Bear from Nonesuch) John Coyle dies suddenly on Sunday; he was 63

John Coyle, Woodford County Judge-Executive, died suddenly Sunday afternoon. He was 63.

‘Bear’ had served as the county’s judge-executive since 2007 and had previously served as sheriff.

Visitation will be Thursday, 3-8 p.m. at Blackburn & Ward Funeral Home, 161 Broadway, in Versailles and on Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at Versailles United Methodist Church, 230 Paynes Mill Road.

Funeral services will be Friday at Versailles United Methodist Church 2 p.m. Burial will follow at Versailles Cemetery.

Memorial donations may be made to Troy Presbyterian Church, 11021 Troy Pike, Versailles, Ky. 40383 or the Food Pantry for Woodford County, P.O. Box 1066, Versailles, Ky. 40383.

Coyle is survived by his wife, Mary Don Coyle, four sons, Andrew, John Paul, Roy, and Matthew, and three grandchildren

In 2015, Coyle was featured in a series appearing in KyForward about Judge-Executives serving on the board of the Bluegrass Area Development District. In ‘Bear’s’ honor, KyForward is sharing it again here:

John Coyle

The Bear from Nonesuch: Judge-Executive John Coyle still striving to put Woodford County first

By Kristy Robinson Horine
Special to KyForward

John Coyle sits in his office at the end of a long wooden conference table. Morning light streams in from behind him and illuminates several pictures and whatnots scattered around the large office.

Coyle sips coffee and speaks fondly of Woodford County’s “wildlife” – his friends that include a couple of bears, a moose and a squirrel.

He tells of the time when, in 1987, the second bear joined the menagerie. That was the day Deputy Sheriff Coyle took the D.A.R.E. message to an elementary school in Woodford County carrying a stuffed toy bear to engage the children. The child who had the best question got to keep the bear on his or her desk for the week.

Coyle says the bear’s uniform and hat matched his own, even down to the badge. One small child in the front row latched onto the resemblance and declared to Coyle, “You look just like him! I’m going to call you Bear.”

Just like that, Coyle became the second “bear” from the little town of Nonesuch, added to a long list of others who sported a nickname.

“If you are from Woodford County, you almost have to have a nickname,” Coyle says and then lists those who had come before him with their corresponding nicknames. Moose was Sheriff Gilkison. Even the former Kentucky governor, Woodford County native A.B. Chandler, had a Happy nickname for a lifetime.

While the image of a bear is sometimes menacing, Coyle is anything but that. He maintains an open-door policy as the current Woodford County Judge Executive and he’s quick to share a smile. His voice is low and soft, except when he raises it in greeting to the many folks who just drop in to say hello.

And while he’s spent the last 28 years in office in Versailles, Coyle’s heart is never far from the small town down the road where he grew up.

A place like none other

Nonesuch stands at the junction of Fords Mill Road and Cummins Ferry Road. It lies about 12 miles south of the Woodford County Courthouse. The small, unincorporated town takes in the smaller communities of Oregon and Clover Bottom and is known to locals as the “garden spot of the world” because crops just seem to be more abundant there than anywhere else.

John Coyle,  standing, fifth from left, was a member of the 1969 Nonesuch Cardinals county championship basketball team.

John Coyle, standing, fifth from left, was a member of the 1969 Nonesuch Cardinals county championship basketball team.

“It’s about as country as you can get,” Coyle says. “Oh, but it’s a nice little place to grow up.”

An only child, Coyle was surrounded by cousins and friends and wise mentors. Coyle’s father died when Coyle was about six months old. His mother then moved them in with the grandparents. He recalls hunting and fishing and riding ponies together and camping on the banks of Clear Creek.

“We’d bend a little sapling over and stretch a tarpaulin over it and spend a week back there in the summer after the tobacco and everything was tended to,” Coyle says. “We played every kind of sport and tacked up a goal on the side of a barn or a chicken house. And we all worked.”

Coyle and his friends were together in play, in the fields and in school. He sits at the conference table in his courthouse office and can still recite all 26 of his classmates. They went to Nonesuch Elementary School from the first through the eighth grade. In high school, they shared a 12-mile bus ride twice a day. It was an experience that bonded them and fostered a strong sense of community.

“Wherever your children are, that’s where your heart and your soul and your money and your interest is,” Coyle says, and then talks about how Nonesuch Elementary has long since closed and consolidated into a larger elementary school in the county. “I can remember growing up, we had basketball games and chili suppers and the gym would be full and people came to talk and watch and eat and have a good time. That was a long time ago.”

It was also a long time ago when Coyle says he learned some of the most important early lessons that would later feed his sense of community and his commitment to the people of his county. Again, he rolls off a list of folks who came alongside his growing up years.

Nonesuch was home to an elementary school, a fire department, several churches and a grocery store. The store that Coyle remembers most is the place where he worked from the fifth grade to his high school graduation: Gregory’s Shopworth on Fords Mill Road.

Arthur Gregory was the first bear from Nonesuch, and the quintessential country store keeper. Gregory’s Shopworth sold everything from vehicles to fence wire, from insurance to groceries.

Gregory’s wife, Margaret, also worked in the store and every Saturday night, when Coyle was on duty, Margaret would go across the street to her home with some ground meat and come back with two burgers wrapped up in Reynold’s wrap for Bear and two burgers for Coyle.

“I don’t know what she did to those burgers, but they were the best hamburgers I ever ate,” Coyle says and rubs his lips at the memory of the taste. He also remembers something else. “A lot of the customers could come through and would write down what they needed. A gallon of milk, five cans of pork and beans. They signed the ticket and I think Bear carried a lot of customers year round until they sold their cattle or tobacco.”

It was that sense of generosity and honesty that Coyle carried with him well after he graduated from Woodford County High School in 1973. By then, he had already been raising a three-acre tobacco crop for two years. Unlike most of his classmates who bought a new car when they graduated, Coyle purchased a brand new tractor and cultivators. For 15 years, Coyle farmed in and around Nonesuch. He married Mary Don Withers in 1976. Throughout the next several years, they added four children to their family.

Being a farmer and being raised to be honest and to work hard, Coyle realized he was gone from dawn until dusk or later. His wife missed him. His boys missed him. And while he was successful as a farmer, he missed his family as well. Something had to change. The wind of that change came in the form of a squirrel.

From the field to the badge to the judge

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“The voters and the citizens have been good to me my entire political career,” John Coyle says.

The Squirrel’s real name was Loren Carl, running for sheriff. He had asked Coyle once before if he wouldn’t mind being deputy. The first time, Coyle turned Squirrel down. The second time, Coyle said yes. On Jan. 6, 1986, Coyle donned the uniform of a Woodford County sheriff’s deputy. He wore the deputy uniform from 1986 to 1996, then ran for sheriff, unopposed, and repeatedly won that position where he served from 1996 to 2006. In 2006, Coyle decided it was time for another change.

“Toward the end of my last sheriff’s term, the county judge had announced he would not seek re-election and I thought that there was no better time. If I was ever going to run for judge, this was it,” Coyle says. Coyle had opposition in both the primary and in the fall. Still, the second Bear from Nonesuch made his way to the top of the vote.

The transition from sheriff to county judge was a smooth one. Coyle had attended the fiscal court meetings as sheriff and knew how the system worked, and everyone knew who he was as well.

“Putting Woodford County first was my tagline and I still mean it today,” he says, now in his third term. “The community and the citizens who have conversations and business with me, they know my door is always open. If I can help them, I will. If I can’t, I will tell them and I will certainly listen.”

While there haven’t been any crisis issues that Coyle has had to handle, he is proud of making sure that basic issues, like planning and zoning, sewer, proposals for land use, and the general service of county officials and employees are working for the people of Woodford County.

“The voters and the citizens have been good to me my entire political career,” he says.

“I do love Woodford County and the people who are here.”

His commitment to the county enabled him to convince the county to save the local food pantry – a project he says he is probably the most proud of. In addition, he’s not had to raise taxes on his watch, and the county has been able to build a stand-alone space for the county coroner.

Coyle is proud of his responsibilities as a board member of the Bluegrass Area Development District and the value-added for his county.

For example, the BGADD and Woodford EDA worked cooperatively recently to bring AHK to Midway, with a $13.1 million, 60,000-square-foot facility that will create 54 full-time jobs.

“This project will bring needed manufacturing jobs to our community and tax base that allows us to better serve our citizens,” Coyle said.

“We are moving right along,” Coyle says. “Woodford County is open for business.”

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One Comment

  1. george allen says:

    I knew john only since moving here in 2000 our property joins his we had several talks both here and in his office and other places like the food bank we both support.
    all those talks were always a enjoyable I considered him a good friend and from our talks I could tell the “bear” always wanted to do the right thing for me and with me for woodford co.

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