George, who had been hospitalized at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler hospital, was 70.
She died Thursday from complications from a blood disorder she had developed in her mid-30s but had managed for many years, Brown told The Courier Journal on Saturday.
“Phyllis was a great asset to Kentucky,” said Brown, who said he had maintained an amicable relationship with his ex-wife. He said he especially valued their four years as governor and first lady.
“We had a great partnership,” he said. “I think we enjoyed every single day.”
Brown said the couple’s two children had been with George in recent weeks providing care and support.
“We’re sorry to lose her,” he said. “She’s been a big part of our lives.”
George, a Texan, rose to prominence after winning the 1971 Miss America title at age 21 and relocating to New York where she said her “Texas personality” helped her land her first television assignments.
Named Miss Congeniality in the Miss Texas pageant, George described herself in a 1998 Courier Journal interview as a small-town Christian girl “very close to my family” who entered the Miss America pageant determined to win.
“I was focused,” she said. “I was prepared.”
In New York, after appearing in commercials and some minor roles, George’s first major break was as a commentator with CBS Sports. George joined Brent Musburger and Irv Cross in 1975 on “The NFL Today.” Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder later was added to the cast.
“Phyllis George was special. Her smile lit up millions of homes for the NFL Today,” Musburger tweeted. “Phyllis didn’t receive nearly enough credit for opening the sports broadcasting door for the dozens of talented women who took her lead and soared.”
ESPN sportscaster Hannah Storm remembered George as “the ultimate trailblazer” who inspired other women by showing that careers in sportscasting could be within their grasp.
“A lot of times when you’re dreaming of something as a career option, you have to see it in order to believe it,” she said. “And someone has to be first, and that was Phyllis.”
Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, called George’s hiring as part of “The NFL Today” team a “groundbreaking decision” that “changed the face of sports television.”
George spent three seasons on the live pregame show, returned in 1980 and left in 1983, winning plaudits for her warmth of her interviews with star athletes. She also covered horse racing, hosted the entertainment show “People” and co-anchored the “CBS Morning News.”
She came to count among her friends Norman Vincent Peale, who officiated at her wedding to Brown, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George and Barbara Bush and Sir Elton John.
But it was her 1979 marriage to Brown, a self-made millionaire and Kentucky Fried Chicken magnate, that brought her to Kentucky and thrust her into the political spotlight when he decided, just 10 days after their New York wedding, to run for governor in his home state.
Though it would later end in divorce, the marriage of the handsome couple with “his and her matching dimples” brought a splash of celebrity and national attention to the race that swept Brown into office as Kentucky’s 55th governor.
The Washington Post described them as “Phyllis of the multimillion-dollar smile, and John Y., of the multimillion-dollar checkbook” in a 1979 story about Brown’s campaign.
And while Brown’s personal fortune helped him win a crowded Democratic primary and go on to win the 1979 general election, observers credited George’s radiant charm and celebrity appeal for giving Brown the edge in his first bid for public office.
“She won it for him, there’s no doubt about that,” said Terry McBrayer, who was among the Democrats who lost to Brown. “They beat me fair and square, but it was her glamour and his as well.”
The couple barnstormed the state by helicopter on a “honeymoon campaign,” according to The Courier Journal, a race that attracted widespread national attention.
A New York Times story about the race described it as “the kissing campaign.”
“John Y. Brown Jr., Kentucky’s Democratic candidate for governor, and his wife of seven months, Phyllis George, constantly hug and kiss like newlyweds on the campaign trail,” the newspaper reported. “And everybody in Kentucky, it seems, wants to kiss the former Miss America turned television personality.”
A Washington Post story headlined “Phyllis George and the Kentucky Fried Candidate” described the pair as “a campaign manager’s dream of media heaven,” with George, as the adoring wife, warming up crowds followed by Brown with his sales pitch to be governor.
George, in a Courier Journal interview, gave Brown the credit for his win though she acknowledged she may have helped boost his confidence.
“John was handsome, charismatic, successful, entrepreneurial, a visionary,” she told The Courier Journal in 1998. “But he’s a little shy.”
Sometimes Brown just needed encouragement, she said, recounting one incident where they arrived at a campaign stop and she greeted some bystanders enthusiastically.
“Phyllis, don’t bother them,” she recalled him saying. She replied, “John, if you want to be governor, you gotta come over here.”
Despite her popularity, George also drew criticism from being overly involved in the campaign and having too prominent a role at at time when most candidates’ wives stayed in the background.
“John wants me to do all these things,” she told the New York Times, “and you can’t expect a person like me who’s been an achiever to stay in the background. They used to say, ‘Behind every strong man there’s a strong woman.’ Well, I like to say, ‘Beside every strong man there’s a strong woman.'”
During her four years as first lady, George also oversaw and helped raise money to renovate the aging Governor’s Mansion on the grounds of the Capitol.
Brown and George divorced in 1998.
A native of Denton, Texas, George was a student at North Texas State University when she won the Miss America title that would change her life, leading to dozens of national appearances during her one-year reign before she settled in New York to try to break into television.
In 1972, she joined the cast of “The NFL Today,” co-hosting pregame shows. In early 1985, after her four years as Kentucky’s first lady, she became a co-host with Bill Kurtis of “CBS Morning News,” a disappointing run for George that lasted only eight months.
After taking off about 10 years to raise the couple’s two young children, Lincoln and Pamela, Brown would return to television and cable work, hosting interviews, shopping shows and promoting crafts.
She told The Courier Journal she was happy with the new roles and her new life in New York, where she lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park.
“I’ve gone through a lot,” she said in the 1998 interview. “I’ve had a lot of life experiences. … From here on out, I want every day to count.”
She once said that her favorite place on Earth was “Kentucky in the fall” and had moved back to Kentucky in recent years, settling in Lexington, where John Y. Brown Jr. and their son, Lincoln Brown, a technology entrepreneur, also live. Their daughter, Pamela Brown, a CNN news reporter, lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
SOURCE: USA Today, Deborah Yetter