With last week marking the 30th anniversary of the tragic accident that claimed the life of former Kentucky Governor Bert T. Combs, the Independent sat down with his wife, Sara Walter Combs, to discuss her new book detailing not only their relationship, but also the region’s history surrounding that time.
Combs’ new book, “BERT COMBS – The Fern Hill Years” came out last month, fulfilling a promise she made to the governor many years ago.
The book runs through the time she met “Judge,” as many knew him, working for his law firm during her last year of law school, to their purchase of a piece of property in Powell County and building a home that would come to be known as Fern Hill, with the story ending shortly after his death.
The well-written memoir uses details most couldn’t remember, but Sara Combs’ memory is near-perfect concerning this period of her life, drawing the reader back in time with her.
“That was the most important part of my life, definitely,” Combs told the Independent. “I kept a calendar, and I knew I wouldn’t have him forever due to the age gap, so I preserved everything.”
Governor Combs, a man who came from Eastern Kentucky from humble beginnings, had been governor, a Supreme Court judge, and a very successful lawyer at the time of their meeting, but the relationship and Fern Hill re-energized him, something his wife attributes in the book to helping him to successfully litigate the landmark constitutional lawsuit Rose v. Council for Better Education, which transformed the funding of public education throughout Kentucky and resulted in the KERA Act, which made sure all public schools were funded at least to a minimum, arguing that it was a fundamental right set up by Kentucky’s Constitution.
The two turned Fern Hill into a sanctuary for stray animals and the former governor was known for his gardening, leading Sara to learn the art of canning. Having been from Louisville, she explains in the book how the two made it home, basing the log cabin design off of the state parks he helped build as governor.
After they built their home, the two planned to write a book together telling the story of how Fern Hill came to be, but the task of starting the book was daunting and simply just never happened before his death. In November 1991 she promised him she would have the first chapter to him by Christmas, but he passed away on December 3 when he drove into a flooded roadway and tried to swim out of it, succumbing to hypothermia as he clung to a tree.
“If I had written it before now, it would not have been very good,” Combs explained. “It would have been a totally different story. In March 1992 during a motion hour, the windows were open in the courthouse and I wrote on a yellow legal pad and tried to write, but it was just awful. I saved everything, but I couldn’t put anything down coherently.”
In February this year, she decided she needed to keep her promise.
“I didn’t break any other promise I made him,” Combs said. “I looked at myself in the mirror and told myself, ‘Girl, I’m giving you 30 days to do this job.’”
And 30 days later, while working on cases as a Court of Appeals judge, she had finally kept her promise.
She originally just shared the memoir with family and friends, with Governor Combs’ daughter giving her approval, noting the book shared a side of her dad many never knew.
After some encouragement, she decided to get the book published, going with a family-owned publishing company, Butler Books.
Sara is still close to Combs’ family, who still have family gatherings at Fern Hill.
“I don’t have any family of my own, so I’m really happy to have them,” Combs said. “I could never leave the mountains. My parents were like mountain people, but I always thought people acted like this, but it was rare. I have a chapter in my book called “No Woman in Her Right Mind,” where a friend of mine told me I wouldn’t want to stay here alone, and a few months later he told me he had been wrong and I was right, but he was right – I just didn’t take the good advice. I’m glad I stayed. I just couldn’t do it.”
“I think Judge brought me to here because he knew the people in the mountains would be good to me and would take care of me, and that’s what happened,” Combs said, explaining she still lives at Fern Hill 30 years after his death.
Along with the book being a love story, it’s also a history lesson, running through a very crucial time in Eastern Kentucky’s history, with the construction of the Mountain Parkway, expansion of state parks, and the great strides made in education, all which people may know about, but not exactly how it happened or by whom.
Judge Sara Combs details her late husband’s stance on social and moral obligations, humility, and using one’s talents to help people, humanizing a larger-than-life political figure. The book describes the moments which such detail, the reader can feel a sample of the pain, still fresh even 30 years later.
“If readers have one takeaway, I want people to know Eastern Kentucky produced a wonderous man in Bert Combs and he never forgot his people. He did his best to serve them and every one of us has that spark to carry on. Like Kennedy said, everyone can make a difference, and everyone should. Judge lived by that.”
“BERT COMBS – The Fern Hill Years” can be purchased at www.butlerbook.com, and is available at the local library.