By Mark Story – Herald-Leader Sports Columnist
A prominent University of Kentucky sports figure — who is also a high school legend in the commonwealth — dips his toe into the political waters.
After he enjoys initial electoral success, the Republican Party puts the former sports star forward for higher office.
Richie Farmer in 2010?
But way back in the 1950s, it was Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones.
Farmer, the starting shooting guard on the Kentucky basketball team that lost the epic 1992 NCAA Tournament shootout with Duke, announced last week that he was running for lieutenant governor.
The second-term Kentucky agriculture commissioner is No. 2 on a ticket with GOP gubernatorial candidate David Williams, the Kentucky state Senate president.
Like former Clay County High School basketball hero Farmer, Jones was a mountain icon.
He was in 11th grade when he carried the Green Dragons of Harlan to the 1944 Sweet Sixteen title.
At UK, Jones was a far more accomplished athlete than Farmer.
A powerfully built 6-foot-4, Jones starred as an end for Bear Bryant’s UK football team. He was the starting power forward on three different Adolph Rupp-coached basketball teams that won national tournaments — the 1946 NIT and 1948 and ’49 NCAA tourneys.
The 1948 team — with Cliff Barker and Jones at forward; Alex Groza at center; Ralph Beard and Kenny Rollins at guard — lives in UK lore as “The Fabulous Five.”
Sports to politics
In 1953, Jones had only been out of college for four years. Yet the 27-year-old was recruited by local Republicans to run for Fayette County Sheriff.
During a less-culturally sensitive era, Wah Wah’s most successful campaign tactic against Democrat William K. King was distributing Indian headdresses that bore the message “Vote for Wah Wah.”
“We had every kid in town wearing one,” Jones said Thursday.
Part of a GOP sweep of every Fayette County office, Jones was elected sheriff by 88 votes (11,827 to 11,739).
“We won ’em all, but my race was the closest one,” Jones said.
In spite of the narrow victory, the Republican hierarchy saw big things ahead for the former sports star.
“I hadn’t been in office that long,” Jones said, “and they came and started talking to me about running for Congress.”
For the 1956 election, Wah Wah became the Republican nominee against incumbent 6th District Congressman John C. Watts, a Democrat.
With a popular GOP president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, slated to seek re-election, it seemed like a prime time for a Republican to be on the ballot.
Said Jones: “I thought I had a good chance to win.”
At that time, Lexington was a two-newspaper town. The editorial page of the morning paper, the Herald, tended to support the Democrats. The opinion page of the afternoon paper, the Leader, was more aligned with the Republicans.
During the campaign, Jones said he, his wife Edna and a reporter from the Lexington Leader got up early each morning and went to visit one of the 19 counties that then made up the 6th Congressional District.
The former star athlete’s bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives attracted attention in high places.
“I got to go to Washington and meet President Eisenhower in the Oval Office,” Jones said. “That was an experience.”
Alas, Mr. Jones did not go to Washington.
On election day 1956, Eisenhower won Kentucky by almost 96,000 votes over Democrat Adlai Stevenson. (Four years earlier, in a matchup between the same two candidates, Stevenson had carried the Bluegrass State by 700 votes.)
Wah Wah carried Fayette County by almost 6,000 votes and also won the counties of Casey, Estill, Garrard and Lincoln.
Watts, however, was victorious in the other 14 counties in the district and retained his congressional seat by some 7,000 votes.
“The Democrats beat me down around Frankfort,” Jones said. “It was still a great experience, to go to all those counties and meet the people.”
I asked Jones, who turned 84 on July 14, if he felt a kinship to Farmer as another Eastern Kentucky sports icon who became a political aspirant or if he had any advice for him.
“He’s done better than me, he’s already won (two) statewide elections,” Jones said. “I’d just tell him to keep doing what he’s doing.”