Note: A memorial service for former Letcher County coal operator William B. Sturgill was scheduled for today (Wednesday) at 1 p.m. at the Second Presbyterian Church in Lexington. The following report appeared Monday in the Lexington Herald-Leader.
William B. “Bill” Sturgill, an eastern Kentucky native who played basketball under Adolph Rupp, chaired the University of Kentucky board of trustees for a decade, and was a wealthy and powerful figure at the center of the state’s three signature industries — coal, tobacco and horses — died July 19. He was 89.
During the early 1980s, Mr. Sturgill served in Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.’s administration as secretary of a combined Agriculture and Energy Cabinet, at a salary of $1 a year. He was also a chairman of the Kentucky State Racing Commission.
He served 18 years on the UK board of trustees and was chairman for 10 years. He was a generous benefactor to UK, and the Sturgill Development Building was named for him. UK also presents the William B. Sturgill Award annually to a graduate faculty member for outstanding contributions to graduate education at UK.
Lexington developer Dudley Webb said Mr. Sturgill’s legacy extended from central to eastern Kentucky.
“ He was proud of his roots,” Webb said. “He did great things for the university. He was a big supporter of the university. … He’ll be missed.”
In 1989, Mr. Sturgill was the head of the search committee that eventually recommended Rick Pitino to replace Eddie Sutton as UK men’s basketball coach. Mr. Sturgill’s association with UK basketball went back to 1945 and ‘46, when he was a 6-foot-2 guard who played for Coach Rupp.
William Bartram Sturgill’s name was most closely associated with coal.
Dave Drake of Lexington preceded Mr. Sturgill as the state’s first energy secretary and also worked with him during the Brown administration.
“ He really impressed me,” Drake said. “He was a member of the coal industry looking beyond the next pay day. He was looking at the long-term problems of being able to use coal in an environmentally acceptable manner, and was very interested in the advanced technologies we were working on to gasify coal, liquefy coal, and those kinds of things.”
A native of Floyd County, Mr. Sturgill joined with long- time coal operator Dick Kelly in 1959 to form Kentucky Oak Mining Co. Together they introduced strip mining and reclamation techniques to eastern Kentucky. Mr. Sturgill was often the subject of criticism from environmentalists, who decried the damage caused by strip mining.
Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, wrote that Mr. Sturgill owned “the largest coal auger in the world at the time, with a seven-foot blade that could penetrate 100 feet into a seam and dig 4,600 tons in 10 hours. Although local people protested the noise, the blasting, the landslides and the flooding caused by denuding of the steep slopes, and the ruining of their roads by overloaded coal trucks, their protests were to no avail. The governors heard the complaints but heeded Sturgill, who characterized the critics as ‘emotional’ and the floods as ‘acts of God.’”
When the Herald-Leader did a series of stories on Caudill’s life and legacy in 2012-13, Mr. Sturgill repeatedly declined to speak to reporters. However, in a 1988 interview for the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at UK, Mr. Sturgill said: “In the early ‘60s, we knew that we were doing things wrong.
“ We would come to Frankfort and beg (state surface mining regulators) Jack Matlick and Henry Ward to give us some guidelines and some regulations that would protect the environment. We didn’t know what they were. We did everything by trial and error.”
In 1970, Mr. Sturgill and Kelly sold holdings in Kentucky Oak Mining to Falcon Seaboard Oil Co., although Mr. Sturgill stayed on as president until 1972.
He returned to the coal business the next year and over the next eight years he would develop Letcher County-based Golden Oak Mining Co., which he sold in 1981 to a Tulsa-based oil company. He joined with First Chicago Venture Capital and bought the company back in 1989.
His business interests extended beyond coal. He was a former chairman of the board of Central Rock Mineral Co. in Lexington, the Fourth Street and Gentry Tobacco warehouses.
He served on corporate boards, including the boards of CSX Railroad and the East Kentucky Economic Development Corp.
He also served on other boards and commissions, including Cardinal Hill Hospital, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Spindletop Research, Appalachian Regional Hospital, and Mc- Dowell Cancer Research Foundation.
During the late 1950s, Mr. Sturgill organized and was president of the Hazard Independent College Foundation, and he made major contributions to set up the community college system. He also served as a trustee of Pikeville College and was chairman from 1990 to 1995. He received honorary doctor of law degrees from UK and Pikeville College.
Mr. Sturgill was also a member of Bluegrass FLOW (For Local Ownership of Water), the volunteer group that coalesced in 2002 around the cause of ratepayer ownership and control of the Lexington water system.
His wife of 61 years, Eloise Williams Sturgill, died in October 2011. Survivors include a daughter, Mary Hartley; and a son, Richard Sturgill. Another son, Paul Jennings Sturgill, died in September 2004.