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1990-09-12 Interview with John J. Isler, September 12, 1990 Leg001:90OH212 Leg 14 01:51:39 Kentucky Legislature Oral History Project Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries Legislators -- Kentucky -- Interviews. Kenton County Democratic Club (Covington, Ky.) Mass media -- Law and legislation -- Kentucky. Teachers -- Pensions -- Kentucky. Minimum wage -- Law and legislation -- Kentucky. Kentucky. Governor (1955-1959 : Chandler) Kentucky. Governor (1959-1963 : Combs) Chandler, A.B. (Happy) Combs, Bert T campaigning L&N Railroad Kenton County Democratic Club Great Depression political philosophy Hislope, Leonard Clements, Earle Committee on Enrollment Landon, Hobart Cornett, William (Banjo Bill) Waterfield, Harry Lee Legislative Research Commission (LRC Prichard, Edward (Ed) censorship minimum wage Term/District:House (1956-1962), 60th district, (1963-1980), 65th district Counties in District:Kenton County (Ky.) John J. Isler; interviewee Jeffrey Suchanek; interviewer 1990OH212_LEG014_Isler 1:|18(7)|23(13)|31(8)|39(10)|48(17)|63(3)|74(14)|97(3)|130(14)|157(9)|172(7)|185(2)|192(13)|209(2)|234(14)|255(10)|274(14)|295(2)|308(4)|315(8)|335(6)|347(12)|359(2)|370(15)|385(14)|410(10)|422(15)|438(4)|456(12)|472(8)|489(4)|512(4)|521(16)|527(16)|539(9)|551(10)|566(11)|583(20)|604(5)|642(7)|665(3)|682(1)|691(1)|711(2)|720(3)|730(3)|749(8)|771(6)|799(10)|819(7)|847(9)|873(2)|903(5)|918(3)|936(7)|950(15)|969(14)|978(9)|1011(13)|1026(2)|1044(17)|1060(3)|1074(12)|1107(2)|1135(6)|1150(4)|1170(3)|1189(12)|1194(12)|1209(2)|1237(3)|1253(11)|1266(2)|1297(2)|1313(3)|1334(13)|1340(20)|1352(8)|1364(6)|1383(7)|1412(2)|1423(3)|1441(7)|1455(15)|1480(17)|1489(6)|1497(2)|1512(3)|1540(8)|1548(10)|1566(7)|1582(10)|1604(5)|1622(2)|1629(12)|1647(7)|1660(2)|1676(10)|1696(6)|1717(2)|1759(6)|1780(7)|1791(13)|1814(14)|1825(13)|1833(16)|1842(6)|1849(13)|1863(8)|1896(16)|1905(2) audiotrans Legit interview SUCHANEK: The following is an unrehearsed interview with former State Representative John J. Isler, who initially represented the 60th District and then later the 65th District in northern Kentucky. The interview was done for the University of Kentucky Libraries Kentucky Legislature Oral History Project. The interview was conducted by Jeffrey Suchanek on September 12, 1990 at Mr. Isler's home in Limaburg, Kentucky at 10 o'clock a.m. [Pause in tape]. Today I'm talking with Mr. John Isler. Mr. Isler, to begin I would like to know more about you and your background just for the record. First of all, what is your full name? ISLER: John Jacob Isler. SUCHANEK: And when and where were you born? ISLER: New Richmond, Ohio, October 23, 1908. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: I came to Kenton County when I was six months old, and I've lived in Kenton County all during my tour of duty as the state representative of the 60th District. I decided to go into politics when I was about 49 years old because in those days they wanted somebody at middle age. I was very successful, and I went to Frankfort in 19--, January of 1956, and Timmy Fitzpatrick was elected Speaker of the House, and in the meantime, he had assigned me to the chairman of the Enrollment Committee. Also I was on Cities for quite a few years, and then I was put on the Penal Institution, I'll never forget that (laughs). Go down there with all of them and sit in the middle of all of them when they had their boxing matches and things like that. However, I enjoyed every bit of it and I tried to make friends. But of the things that I had in mind when I left Covington to go to Frankfort in `56 was that I will represent my people, they are first. Anytime the bills came up and they didn't interfere with the people of my districts, they had no problems with me. But if they affected my people, they knew that they was going to have a long drawn-out fight on the floor. And most of them who knew me wouldn't even think about doing that because the Enrollment Committee is a very powerful committee. It controls all the bills, the bills that are introduced in the House and the bills introduced in the Senate. When the bills are passed in the House-incidentally when the bills come out of the committee they come to me and I got a committee of my own, and we go over these bills. But when the rush season comes on, they bring in twenty and thirty and forty bills. Remember, I signed for those bills, I enrolled those bills, I have to sign those bills again, and I give it to one of the pages and direct the page to take it to the Speaker of the House which is right in the front of me. But this, the page, that's the duty of the page to do that. And I have, in 1956 I had two bills, 86 and 87, obscene literature bills. One bill, 86, was controlling obscene literature. The other one was a bill, what the newspapers could print and could not print. Well, I don't like to say it, but it was a job, it was a big job. But incidentally, through the governor, I passed both of those bills. Those bills are on the statute today. Remember, I was just a junior. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: I hadn't been in the House, I guess, on the floor over a month and remember, we only held ninety days. We didn't get paid for Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. We got $25 a day and we got a little expense money, not too much, for stamps and everything. However, we were satisfied and we worked hard. We had close to 1,200 bills, approximately 1,200 bills put in the hopper. And remember, most of those bills got out. SUCHANEK: Uh-huh. ISLER: They got their first readings and things like that, and I had to sign those bills. SUCHANEK: That was a lot of work. ISLER: So I put in long hours. I put in long hours. I put in hours to two, three, and four o'clock in the morning. SUCHANEK: Is that right? ISLER: And we took and let the, let them-we recessed until we got the bills all worked out, sometimes six o'clock in the morning, and then we would have it put on their desk the next day. And I had to come in-whenever the Speaker of the House convened the house I had to be there. It was a, it was a big job for a little fellow like me. But I grew with the job, and when I grew with the job I served under Republican governors and Democratic governors. They seen that I was on that job because many and many a time they sat up in that balcony before they ever thought they was going to run for governor and they seen how I handled myself. And I was on the floor every day, every day. I think, I think that gives you an outline, just a little, fair outline after all- SUCHANEK: Sure. ISLER: we're talking about twenty-six years. SUCHANEK: Sure. ISLER: And twenty-six years now doesn't seem like a long time, but it was a long time and I'm proud of it. And I had the same seat, Number 9, Seat Number 9, and I was just that way. Now, is there anything else you'd like to ask me? SUCHANEK: Well, I'd like to go back a little bit and talk more about your days in Covington. You say you moved there when you were six months old? ISLER: Um-hm. SUCHANEK: Do you remember what your grandparents' names were? ISLER: Yeah, my-let's see, you want to shut that off for a minute? [Pause in tape]. Okay, I'll get close to her name, just a second. SUCHANEK: So we have- ISLER: See, we lost our mother and father in young age. SUCHANEK: But your, one grandparents were Elizabeth Donovan and Joe Donovan- ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: and- ISLER: They had a- SUCHANEK: you were named after your grandfather, John Jacob Isler. ISLER: Yeah. Yeah. SUCHANEK: Okay. Now, how about your parents, what were their names? ISLER: Well, that's who I'm talking about here. SUCHANEK: Okay. All right. ISLER: Well, wait a minute, no. Recent-now, this is my grandparents, and my dad's, let's see, all right, maybe it will come to me. My dad's name was Jacob Pleasant Isler. SUCHANEK: Where did the Pleasant come from? ISLER: Well (laughs), I don't know, that's P-L-E-A-S-A-N-T. SUCHANEK: Uh-huh. ISLER: Yeah. That's, and they called him Pleas. They called him Pleas, so you might put it down there, Pleas, Pleasant and then put, Pleas, P-L-E-A-S. (laughs). SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: It sounds crazy doesn't it (laughs)? Jacob Isler and- SUCHANEK: And your mom's name? ISLER: and my mother's name was Elizabeth. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: Elizabeth Donovan Isler. Donovan was her name. SUCHANEK: Where did your grandparents live? Did they live in Covington? ISLER: Yeah, the Donovans lived in Covington and the Islers lived at (laughs), right up here. I just named it a minute ago, what was it? Mary Jo-[woman in background replies, "coming"]. [Pause in tape] SUCHANEK: Okay, where were they from, Vanceburg? ISLER: Yeah, Vanceburg, Kentucky. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: And we lived, the way I understand it is, we lived up there on a farm, and we was up there about two years, and my grandfather and my mother and father and my sister, I had a sister Lil, we moved into Kenton County and that's where we've been ever since. SUCHANEK: Do you know do why your parents moved to Kenton County? Was it for a job? ISLER: My father was a railroad man on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then he met my mother and they got married and somehow or other in 1917-when we moved to Covington when I was about eight or nine years old, and then my father went to work for the L&N Railroad in 1917 during World War One. SUCHANEK: I see. ISLER: And I was about seven years old. SUCHANEK: Do you know what your grandparents did for a living? ISLER: Yeah. My one-my grandparents, on the Donovan side, he was a machinist, and on the Isler side, my grandfather he worked for Browning Lumber Company out of New York and he was a salesman, and that's the reason why he was in Vanceburg on account of that was all timber country and he had an office set up there. And, but my father met my mother in Cincinnati, that's across the river from us here, and they just got to like one another and got married after about a year. SUCHANEK: Were you close to your grandparents? ISLER: Well, no, they were up in Vanceburg, and remember, back in those days (laughs) they didn't have these expressways, and you mostly traveled by train and boat and very few people had cars. Remember, I was born in 1908 and it, it's just one of those things that come about. People didn't visit too much like they do today because we had a living room and nobody went into that room, living room unless you had visitors. That's the way it was. You didn't run through the houses like you do today. And it was really a family life, family life, nothing compared to today because everything's built around automobile. And they both worked, we could-that's one thing I can be thankful for, they were, they made good money in those days and we were a middle-class family. And when I was a boy I had everything I wanted, ponies and everything. SUCHANEK: Oh, is that right? ISLER: Yeah. Oh, yeah, they had ponies for us, yeah. And we used to really have a big time. But still and all-well, I think we better move on- SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: because we're taking up a little too much of my family, although we wrote to one another, they did a lot of writing in those days, and we were close but we didn't see one another too often on account of transportation. So what did you say your next question was? SUCHANEK: You said your father lived, worked for the L&N Railroad, is that right? Was he gone a lot- ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: away from home? ISLER: Yeah. And my father was-if he could spend eight hours at the house, he spent a lot, but he made good money by doing that. When I said by making good money, they had to work overtime. And remember, after 1917, why, the railroads and all were organized and everything else. Well, no, that was in 1922 when the railroads were organized. SUCHANEK: Around that, um-hm. ISLER: Nineteen twenty-two, that's when the C&O had their big strike and they all benefited by that, so now when they worked overtime they really made big money. SUCHANEK: Do you remember anything about that strike? Did that affect your father at all? ISLER: No, the C&O was the only one that was on a strike. They didn't do it like today, everybody went out. SUCHANEK: Oh, I see. ISLER: They didn't do that, see. But it had been-it was competitive, remember, there was a lot of machine shops and a lot of die makers and everybody had a trade in those days. Today the young ones, they don't have no trades, they don't have nothing to look forward to but a college education. Then you have to specialize. If you don't, you are no different than a boy with a high school education. So does that answer your question? SUCHANEK: Yes. Did you have aunts and uncles? ISLER: Oh, yeah. SUCHANEK: Did they live in Covington or nearby? ISLER: Yeah, the Isler, the pardon me, the Donovans, they all lived in Covington and Kenton County and they were large families. And that's where, when we were little, when I was five, six, and seven years old, that's where we would go. They believed in picnics and everything else, and they celebrated everybody's birthdays and everything. You don't have that today. SUCHANEK: Not at all. ISLER: I wouldn't give my life up for anything. Remember, I was here before the airplanes, the telephones, you name it. I was here first, 1908. Think, 1908. SUCHANEK: In 1908, were there still a lot of people using horses? ISLER: Definitely. Streetcars were pulled by horses. Horses was the main thing in those days. SUCHANEK: And that's- ISLER: You stole a man's horse, they took you out and hang you on a tree. SUCHANEK: Even back in the 1900s? ISLER: Yeah. Sure. And it's still on the books, unless they lifted it since I left there in `81 (both laugh), but I doubt it. SUCHANEK: Where did you go to school? ISLER: I went to four years to the public school, and we lived out in Latonia. That was a little country town outside the city of Covington. And we moved down in the west end which was really a nice section of the town in those days. And my friend and I, we, the _______(??), and we're all Catholics, you know, and so I had a chance to go to two Catholic schools there, so I picked the one-we, our family, my mother picked for the family. My mother was Irish Catholic and I went to the church, St. Patrick's Church at _______(??), at Philadelphia Street down at Fourth and Philadelphia. And I went to school where my mother went too, and that's where we graduated. SUCHANEK: You graduated from high school there? ISLER: No, from the elementary. SUCHANEK: Where did you go to high school? ISLER: And my wife, she went there, too. SUCHANEK: Oh, is that right (both laugh)? ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: But you didn't know each other at that time, did you? ISLER: Well, I knew her just seeing her, like in school. Remember, the boys were all on one side of the class and the girls were on the other side, so that's where the difference was. Well, then later in years I belonged to all different kind, I belonged to all different kind of organizations, even then before I got into politics, see. And then I got married in 1934 and married Mary Jo Kern Isler, and I talked to her and said that "I've only got eighth grade education." Well, I was working with the railroad then. See, I went to work with the railroad when I was about sixteen. SUCHANEK: Doing what? ISLER: Started as a callboy, then I worked on up through the different departments. So I realized after being married, being about twenty-three or something like that, that I had to have an education. So I went to Holmes night school. I went there seven years and, why, in my seven years there, why, I come up with a high school diploma and two years of accounting. And the two years accounting was taken on Friday, Saturdays and sometimes-see, we had to go to, we had to go to get a high school education. We had to go five years to get that. And we studied the same thing they did in day, but those being we're going at night, we had to take that extra year. So then,what I'm trying to say is that Northern, you know about Northern here? Well, I was one of them that went to, back, and we got Northern, all the Kentucky delegation went out for that and we got the local group to go with us and we had enough votes to set it up, so we did. And Nunn was the governor. Nunn had the Repub--, was the governor, but he was, he was a good governor. He was fair to all of us. And- SUCHANEK: Well, do you remember any particular teacher that you can think of that might have helped influence your political philosophy? Did you have any civics courses- ISLER: No, I- SUCHANEK: or anything, or- ISLER: No, I- SUCHANEK: history courses that- ISLER: Well, I went to Millers School over there and took shorthand and typing and commercial arithmetic and stuff like that, but I took that between the ages of seventeen and twenty over at Millers over there and I come out as a steno clerk. That means that I-we didn't have these machines to take it, we had to write it in shorthand, and I can still write shorthand, and that's what I used to write on the floor. SUCHANEK: Is that right? ISLER: I'd write shorthand down and I'd had my pad there and I wouldn't even look, wouldn't worry about it because everybody said, "what in the world has he got down here?" So that was a, that was one thing that really helped me on the floor. I didn't have to worry about when I wrote something down somebody was going to read it unless they were a stenographer, you see. And then, I want to go back to two years of studying accounting. We met, I think it was on Wednesday and Fridays and Saturdays, and Mr. Jones, who was coach of the Holmes football team, he specialized in accounting, so he had, he was a teacher in accounting and he had these other subjects, too. So he decided that he would, he'd take the ones that really want to in this here, in his class, I'm just trying to think of what class it was he had. Well, anyhow, he got about ten of us, and that's where I had my two years of accounting, all the way up to general accounting. I was getting ready to go into cost accounting. See, I had another year to go but my family started growing and I couldn't do it because my family come first, just like when I was in Frankfort, my people comes first and that's the way it is. SUCHANEK: You didn't have time when you were in school to play sports or belong to any of the clubs or anything? ISLER: Well, the thing about it is, that reminds me of something here. Yes, I played, I played baseball. I used to be a catcher. And I played up until I was about eighteen years old. And then working on the railroad I had to work different hours and I just had to give it up. And I gave it up there, and then that's probably what got me over to go in for an education. I was just that way. I just want to keep moving forward, moving forward. SUCHANEK: Did your employers encourage you to continue? ISLER: Oh, absolutely. Yes, sir. They absolutely did and, incidentally, that's what maybe-when I got my accounting in, I went right, every two years I was promoted. Now, you see, you're getting, you're getting now about five years before I went into politics, see. SUCHANEK: Right. Did your parents own a car? ISLER: No, I owned the first car in the family. People didn't own cars like they do today. And if they owned cars today, I mean in those days, they didn't ride them to go across the street to go to the grocery store, they only drove them on Sunday. SUCHANEK: Is that right? ISLER: Yes, sir. You rode the old-time streetcars, and they come out with the big, long heavy streetcars, and about twenty years later they come out with the buses and you rode them up until World War Two. And what you young fellows did over there in World War Two, it really built the automobile up, and everything got built around the automobile and that's probably what done it. I was just kidding you there (laughs). SUCHANEK: I wanted to ask you about, were you old enough to remember anything about the flu epidemic in 1918 to about 1920? Do you remember anything about that in Covington? ISLER: I sure did. Yes, sir, I remember it well, but I was very fortunate, our family was very fortunate. We didn't have any problems like that, but it was all around us. And- SUCHANEK: I see. Did you have friends that- ISLER: Oh, in sch--, yeah. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: Yeah. And I will, I was never afraid that I was going to catch it because it seemed like I stayed my distance a little bit, stayed-oh, it was something. But now they, they give you shots for it, and you don't have to worry about it. SUCHANEK: Do you remember how much you made an hour when you started working for the L&N Railroad? ISLER: No, but I'll tell you what I made a day, $3.27 for eight hours. SUCHANEK: And that was when you first started, that had been 1924? ISLER: When I was sixteen. (Laughs), yeah, 1924, August 1, 1924. SUCHANEK: August the 1st, you remember that date? ISLER: Yes, sir, August the 1st, 1924. And I lived up on 22nd Street, and my dad he worked for the railroad and he had a job down-at the foot of 21st Street there was a yard there, the Covington yard. It's still down there, the Covington yard. And the yardmaster there needed a callboy and he saw me and he asked me if I want to. I said, "Oh, you have to ask my dad," see. So he did one-the yardmaster asked my dad and he said, "Well, I'll have to ask mom." So he called up my mother and I was there and mom come on over to me and said, "Would you like to work for the railroad?" (Laughs), and I said, "What is it?" She said "caller," and I said, "Oh, yeah." I said, "I see them fellows walking around here all the time." I said, "At night they carry a lantern and everybody knows that when they see that lantern that's the callboy. You better look out for him so you don't run by and you miss your trip." And- SUCHANEK: What was the callboy's job? ISLER: Just to go out and call men. See, they, they had mostly, they had regular jobs but they had a lot of extra jobs, mostly extra jobs because the business, the business was a booming business, so like in the wintertime the coal and-and they haul all their coal in the summertime. That's when you had your, forty cars was a big train. Now there are 250, yeah. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. So you'd walk up and down the streets? ISLER: No, I'd-when I find out where you live, of course, I'd call you, maybe, if I worked three to eleven or eleven to seven. Seven to three, that was for old-timers, and they didn't quit their jobs like they do today because they had seniority and that meant a whole lot, see. That meant a whole lot. That'd give you security. And that made your credit good, see. And- SUCHANEK: So you would call them on the telephone, is that it? ISLER: No, the caller, he, that's the chief caller. They had three of them on there and they would use the telephones, and you would go out and write them. They had a list there who they were going to call. They'd call forty and fifty men- SUCHANEK: I see. ISLER: forty and fifty and- SUCHANEK: So your job was what? ISLER: Get them. And had a book, put their name in the book, go up and knock on their door. They knew you, they knew it was the caller, they was expecting, see, and you tell them what you want him for, hand him the book and he signed the book and the time (laughs). SUCHANEK: I see. Okay. ISLER: So I had a lot of room in there to think what I wanted to do and what I, being with all the crewmen and all everything else, the railroad men and everything, and they kind of smarted me up a little bit, you know. Said, "John, you ought to do this and you ought to do that," and I, and that's what I've done. I've done it and I didn't lose any of my seniority with the railroad or anything. SUCHANEK: Do you remember the stock market crash in 1929? ISLER: Oh, the Depression? That's what it was. I certainly do. I told you I was here before the automobiles. I was here before everything. SUCHANEK: What was it like to live through the Depression in Covington? Did that affect your job any? ISLER: I was fortunate on account of seniority, see. See, I went to work in `24 so that was five years later, so I established a lot of seniority. Because most of the boys, they wanted to go into the big jobs, see, and then I was in a large family, why, a dollar meant a whole lot, a dollar was worth something in those days. And I stuck to what I was doing in-with all the things I've done to educate myself and everything, everything that I've done turned out 100 percent in my favor over a period of years. So- SUCHANEK: And you said you came from a large family, how many brothers and sisters did you have? ISLER: Eight sisters and six brothers. SUCHANEK: Wow. That is a large family. ISLER: And I was the oldest boy. SUCHANEK: Is that right? And you had an older sister? ISLER: She is a year and a half older than me. She's 83. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: Now, you can understand why I just couldn't jump around, that I had to stick with the job. SUCHANEK: Sure. ISLER: And that's really family life. You don't see that today. They want to leave and have their own apartments, which is-I don't go,of course, I'm 81 and I'm old fashioned. They better get these old fashioned ideas soon or it's going to be too late. SUCHANEK: Now, when did you get involved in the Kenton County Democratic Club? ISLER: (Laughs), I didn't think you'd knew, know that. Well, I got about in, I guess in 1955. You know, those jobs are easy to get because there's a lot of work to those jobs. And when you once get the job, and you get into politics, you're assigned to those jobs. When an election comes up, they're there to nominate you, you don't even have to ask for them. And I was there for-now, let's see. Well, I think I was on, in there until about `85, `85. SUCHANEK: When was it, then, that you became interested in politics? ISLER: You see, when I got up into, when I was about twenty-five or thirty years old I moved up in the clerical line, in my seniority, in promotions, see. And because the company knew that they had, they had my personal file, they had my personal file. And they knew by looking at my personal file all the things I did. Like I said, I was in all different kinds of organizations, and all the organizations I belonged to when I got elected, right now I still pay them up because they did their job and now it's my time to do my job, that's the type of man I am. And I got, I had a job, they put on a job to move me into transportation as contact man, and my job there was to see that the employees had different kind of entertainments, excursions and things like that, picnics and all that. That was part of my job with this job that I was moved into, contact man in the trainmaster's office. And things, one thing brought on another that we made such a big- it was successful. We used to bring in sleepers from Pennsyl--, from New York on the Pennsylvania Railroad and put them out here in Latonia _______(??) station and, boy, the people, the railroad employees, they'd get off, we'd give them plenty of time and we would go and that was more like a holiday. And we've done that every year. And we get big dinners every year, Thanksgiving dinners, and things like that. SUCHANEK: And that was paid by the railroad? ISLER: No, the railroad never paid nothing. No, they give us permission. They backed us up, they furnished the cars, which they get-they did their share, I'll say that. People tend to look for anything like that, not money, because after all, none of us made big money even with the railroad. And I got a telephone call one evening and it was from a judge, and he asked me if I would-well, first of all I ran for city commissioner, see. SUCHANEK: What year was that? ISLER: Well, let's see, I guess in 1922, and I got beat by a few votes, not too many. SUCHANEK: Was that your idea to run for that office, or did somebody- ISLER: Yeah. Well, it was through the Democratic Club, you see. SUCHANEK: Is that one of the organizations you belonged to? ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: And they, they got behind me and they all worked hard and everything, but the fellow I ran to was pretty strong. But anyhow, he ran for state representative, and somehow or other I decided I'd run against him, see. And- SUCHANEK: This is- ISLER: incidentally, he beat me by another small margin. Well, anyhow, he got, they trans---the judge, let's see, the city judge, he was city judge of Covington- SUCHANEK: Do you remember his name? ISLER: Yeah, Joseph P. Goodenough- SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: his son is a, is a circuit judge right now (laughs), that's the way it is. And he asked me if I wanted to run for state representative and- SUCHANEK: Were you surprised? ISLER: Well, yes, I was. I never even thought about it because I was going in for something else. I'd probably went to college or something at night. I'd have done something. And I said, he said, "Oh," he said, "you won't have no problems." He says, "Go ahead and run." So I ran and I won and I never-I used to go out and see him every once in a while when he was sick, I went out and seen him, but while he was in office, I didn't. And incidentally, I haven't been in that courthouse, the old one and the new ones, more than three times in my twenty-six years. Because I figured that I had the vote and they had to come to me. Me going to them wouldn't help. And remember, here I am at Frankfort in state politics and they're in city politics, and the General Assembly made the cities according to their population, so there's no reason for me to go to them, they're supposed to come to me. If they don't recognize that then they're in trouble. SUCHANEK: Did they come to you? ISLER: Oh, a lot of times. They'd come to me and see me at Frankfort. SUCHANEK: So- ISLER: I had no problems with them. SUCHANEK: I'm just trying to get the chronology correct here. You ran for state representative and lost one time, is that it? ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Okay, what year was that? ISLER: Well, I went for city commissioner in- SUCHANEK: And that was what year? ISLER: Wait a minute, now. See, it's two years difference- SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: That was in, I ran, that was in `22 that I lost state representative. SUCHANEK: Twenty-two? ISLER: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, now you're getting me- SUCHANEK: Yeah. ISLER: I went there in `56 didn't I? SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: All right. Then you take, that would be `54 and `52. SUCHANEK: Okay, `52. ISLER: Fifty-two and `54. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: In other words, I lost one. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: And in my twenty-six years, I had five consecutive terms I had no opposition. SUCHANEK: Right. Right. We'll talk about that later. And the judge called you to run for representative, the term you won, is that correct? ISLER: Yes. SUCHANEK: Okay. What made you decide to run for representative in `52 when you lost? Did anyone approach you and ask you or was that your idea? ISLER: Oh, it was after I lost for state representative. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: And that's all, that's all he asked me, he said, "Would you like to run for it?" SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: And, incidentally, he was a good friend of my father's, too. SUCHANEK: Okay. But what made you want to run for state representative in `52? ISLER: Well, cities got a lot of problems, so the problems I would have back in those days where we only had sixty days, you see, that's all I would have to do. Well, that, it was that way for quite a few years, then it start changing. It start changing when Bill Kenton was Speaker of the House and he introduced that bill that reorganized the General Assembly, and their power and authority. And what they got right today, he's the boy that'd done it and I helped him get his bills passed. I'd be in, the chairman in Enrollment Committee kept the ones off of him and things like that. It's a big job. You have to be alert at all times. SUCHANEK: Right. And I see you got married in 1934. How many children do you have? ISLER: Two boys. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: John and Bill. SUCHANEK: Now was your wife active in politics at all? What did she think of your getting involved in politics? ISLER: She didn't say yes, she didn't say no. No, she didn't say yes, she didn't say no, and for quite a few years. See, when you really want to get elected in office and stay in office, you got to go to all the picnics and all the meetings, and some picnics are three and four for on Sunday and maybe one on Saturday in the morning or something like that, you have to do that. But after I was in there about, I guess, seven terms or eight terms, why, the Twin Oaks Country Club, they always had this big dance there and I asked her, always asked her, and she said to me, "I think I will go." I said, "Wonderful. Wonderful. Wonderful." SUCHANEK: She never went before? ISLER: Everybody thought I was single (Suchanek laughs). No kidding. SUCHANEK: Let me turn this over just for a second. [End of Tape #1, Side #1] [Begin Tape #1, Side #2] SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: So the day come, that Saturday comes for her, asked me, she said, "You know," she said, "I've been thinking it over." She said, "I won't know nobody there." Now remember, this is, people she hadn't met in ten years. Said, "I won't know nobody." I said, "When you go in with me they'll start talking. They'll want to know who you are." And so anyhow, I talked her into going and she went there. Well anyhow, it was in the fall and we had our topcoats and everything. I took her coat, you know, like a gentleman does, and I took my coat over, checked them out and everything, of course everybody there I knew, and I looked around for Mary Jo. And I said, "Where in the world could she'd gone off? She's in the lady's ward, restroom." So I waited again. So I walked over and there's the hall, the big hall, it was full and it was kind of a little dark light for me and, of course, my eyes were 20/20, I had 20/20 vision till I was about seventy-eight years old. Well, anyhow, there she was talking to all her friends there (Suchanek laughs). I don't mean one, all of them, all the Irish from the west end that's been seeing me all the time, they knew I was married to Mary Jo and here stand around there. Well, anyhow, she had the time of her life. Well, it was about ten o'clock so I tapped her on the shoulder. We danced, we danced quite a bit and she went around and I introduced everybody at Twin Oaks Country Club, which was a beautiful country club in those days. And incidentally, it's still there. And we went around and met everybody, and how they were so tickled to death to meet her and everything, and I had to keep moving her on, you know. And I said, "Now, babe," I said, "it's ten o'clock." "Ten o'clock, what about it?" I said, "I always leave around ten o'clock." She said, "Yeah, you do, you get home at eleven." Said, "I know that." She says, "Why do we have to leave?" I said, "They'll start drinking beer and they'll start shooting them questions at me, and now if you want to answer the questions you can stay here," I said (both laugh), "but this is our time to get out before they get their nerve up." And that, incidentally, that's what happened in those days. You had to gauge yourself and everything or you could get in a lot of trouble because there's a lot of people come there because of so and so and maybe they don't like you. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. Well, let's talk- ISLER: And what I mean by "don't like you," your politics, you see. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: But I mostly, I had mostly all friends because I balanced things out for them. Some way or other I'd done something for them. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. What I wanted to ask you about now is reading the newspaper the Kentucky Post, you don't really get a real good sense of Kenton County politics or Covington politics. Were there factions in the Democratic Party in Kenton County or in Covington? ISLER: Let me say it this way, there's factions in all organizations, even down to your Masons, your Elks, or your Eagles, they're all factions. Yeah, there's factions in them. SUCHANEK: Okay. Were the differences between the factions philosophical, would you say, or was it just more a matter of the ins versus the outs? ISLER: Well, you're talking about the newspapers? SUCHANEK: Well, I'm talking about- ISLER: The news medium? SUCHANEK: I'm talking about the faction of, say, the Democratic Party in Kenton County or in Covington, you know, did they have philosophical- ISLER: Well- SUCHANEK: differences or did they follow leaders based on personality? ISLER: Well, they generally if, like when I was secretary I assumed me doing all the work that I've done-remember, we had to write, we had at times 2,500 of them, and I used to have to write them cards by hand. They didn't furnish any equipment till later years. And then they furnished all the equipment in later years which made it much easier. And they always backed me up. So, I guess, that is a faction and the, like I said before, if you was in public office they put you on these jobs- SUCHANEK: Um-hm, um-hm. ISLER: They'd nominate you from the forum, and you had to get up and refuse the nomination, and you're not going to do that. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. You were secretary of- ISLER: Democratic-Kenton County Democratic Club. SUCHANEK: Oh, okay. And you joined that club when? That was way back in the '20s, wasn't it? ISLER: Yeah, I belonged to the Democratic Club. I can't recall the date but- SUCHANEK: Were you a member during, say, Al Smith's campaign? ISLER: Oh, definitely. SUCHANEK: Oh, okay. ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Do you remember Al Smith's campaign? ISLER: Well, he didn't come down around us, but Kennedy did, John Kennedy. He come down there and we had him right at Third and Court down there. We had, oh, we filled that place. SUCHANEK: Did you meet John Kennedy? ISLER: Right up on the stage. He was here and I was sitting right here. [Woman in background: "Can I get you a drink or anything?"]. [Pause in tape]. SUCHANEK: Go ahead. ISLER: Yeah, when John Kennedy come down here that was a big thing for northern Kentucky. And when Stevenson ran we had him down here. We had him down in Ludlow, down there. We used to throw a big campaign for whoever was running, for Stevenson. We used to throw them down there. We brought him in from Chicago and- [Pause in tape]. SUCHANEK: Go ahead. ISLER: yeah, we brought Stevenson in here and we thought sure he was going to win because he invited all the Democratic Party and the members to go to Chicago, and we were up there and we had a, we was a delegate. There was five of us, I believe, and we were delegates, and it was really something up there, I'm telling you. SUCHANEK: In Chicago? ISLER: In Chicago. SUCHANEK: What year was that? ISLER: Oh, oh you're going- SUCHANEK: You got `52? When he ran in `52? ISLER: No, it was, I think it was a little later. SUCHANEK: Fifty-six? ISLER: I'd say maybe-no, I'd say maybe in `60 or something like that. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: I can't be sure of that. Remember, you're taking me into twenty-six years (laughs). SUCHANEK: I realize that. ISLER: And most of my files, I didn't realize that you were going to do this or I would have given you quite a load of stuff (laughs). SUCHANEK: Sure. Now there's a long time Democratic judge in Kenton County who seemed, at least by newspaper accounts, to be a strong force in local politics. His name is Judge William Wehrman. [Woman in background: "Oh, Wehrman!"] ISLER: Wehrman, Bill Wehrman? SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: Yeah, he was county judge. SUCHANEK: Did you know him well? ISLER: (Laughs), he lived on Euclid and I lived on Jefferson. SUCHANEK: What can you tell me about Judge Wehrman? ISLER: Oh, he was a wonderful judge, wonderful. SUCHANEK: Was he a force in political scene in the Democratic Party? ISLER: Whenever you wanted a bill, why, all you had to do was get on the phone and call him and he'd be there. Yeah, but the party he left-remember, he dealt with all, he was the judge, they were judges then. And he didn't, you know, unless you want him he would be there. But the judges in those days, they had to repre---had people come before them, Democrats and Republicans, so they didn't get into things like they do for the big jobs, like the state jobs. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: But he was wonderful, and he's got boys. One of them that's named after him is a lawyer. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: Yeah, they're all wonderful. And they were good to me, too. SUCHANEK: And then there was another judge, or another Democrat anyway, that seemed prominent in the party and that was George Kruempelman? Is that how you say his name? ISLER: Yeah, he was there. George, George Kruempelman. Now let me see, I don't know if he was a judge. If he was, it was before my time. SUCHANEK: Oh, it might not have been- ISLER: He might, he probably was a county commissioner- SUCHANEK: Right. I believe you're right. ISLER: County commissioner. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, he had his own race to run and he had to do the same thing that I'm doing, you see. You don't get in the other man's race, you see. You don't want to do that, and you never mention your opponent's name. But they do that today. They write page after pages on their opponents. They're only advertising their opponents. I don't do, I didn't do that. SUCHANEK: Okay. So, I mean, here you were, forty-seven years old, and you get this call to ask if you want to run for the state representative. Now, how did you go about telling people in the party? Did they all know that you were going to, that you were interested in running for the representative? You know, who did, who did you go to see about organizing a campaign? ISLER: Well, I had a fellow with me, Theodore Bresser- SUCHANEK: How do you spell his name? ISLER: B-R-E-S-S-E-R. Theodore, T-H-E-O-. And he was kind of my in-man, he ran things for me. So I, we went both to the same church (laughs) and, incidentally, Timmy Fitzpatrick and I go all to the same church. SUCHANEK: Oh, I didn't know that. ISLER: Yeah (laughs). And he was the Speaker of the House. Remember- SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: I was telling you he was Speaker of the House. SUCHANEK: Yes. Yes. ISLER: And so Theodore and, Theodore and I, we talked it over a little bit, and he was retired. He was an insurance salesman and he had a, he was about ten years or maybe fifteen years older than I, and he said, "I'd like that." He says, "You're working and I'll do all the footwork and everything." And that's what he wanted. He was with me for quite a few years, and that's the way we got started. And he used to help me in the Democratic Club too, was there. SUCHANEK: How did you campaign? Did you- ISLER: House to house. SUCHANEK: House to house? ISLER: Knocked on the doors. Every two years I went to every house, knocked on the doors [knocks on the table] and put out my vouchers, and I had the school kids to put them out too. But I went every year, every two, every other year, every two years I knocked on their doors. I never called them on the telephone. And most of them really- one fellow out in Latonia, I went there, I guess about, I was in office about the sixteen years and he come up on Dakota and Three L(??) he said, "John," he said, "do you know I've been coming up here at this time every other year and," he says, "you're here." He says, "How do you do that?" I said, "Well, I put up my signs and I got certain sections that I work, and that's when I see you." And I gave him cards, yeah. Would you want me to tell you something about how I controlled some of the votes- SUCHANEK: Sure. ISLER: in the saloons? SUCHANEK: Sure. ISLER: You know, there was a saloon on every corner. SUCHANEK: I didn't. ISLER: Well, Theodore come out and told me, says "John," he said, "you know, so and so." "Yeah." He said, "He's worked for us all these years but," he said, "he's talking altogether different." I said, "He is?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Did you give him some cards?" He said, "Yeah, but he's not passing out your cards. He's passing out so and so, your opponent's cards." I said, "Well, we'll take care of that." So I gave him about twenty cards and put a five-dollar bill around it. I said, "When he gets in the saloon on a Saturday night, you walk in and give it to him." So he did. He walked in there and gave him-he called me, I said, "Did he accept it?" "Yeah, he accepted." So anyhow, I happen to go in the saloon, Theodore he did the drinking for me, I didn't drink. See, that's one thing I didn't do. The most I ever drank would maybe a highball and then a half a highball with my partner, we split them up, that's all we ever did. And he said, I says, "What did he say?" "Oh," he says, "between," he says, I'm for John now, but," he says, "between the two evils, I'll take John." (Both laugh), it actually happened. SUCHANEK: Is that right? ISLER: Yeah. That actually happened right then. Oh, I'd forgotten, it was on Jefferson right down here. And that actually happened, that's a true story, because that's the only thing, I tell the truth. You know, when you tell the truth you don't have to worry. SUCHANEK: That's right. ISLER: Because that will come to you- SUCHANEK: That's right. ISLER: but when you lie, it won't. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: So- SUCHANEK: Right. You forget, you forget the lies. ISLER: Yes, sir. You tell the truth, that mind takes care of it. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: And so what else did you want to- SUCHANEK: Was campaigning expensive back then? ISLER: No. I can say one thing, I didn't accept no donations from no organization, because anybody who would send me anything I'd send it back, said, "I got, I got my campaign set up and all the appropriations are made," and I says, "give it to somebody who really needs it." And I really didn't need it. SUCHANEK: Did you use your own money then? ISLER: Oh, oh, yeah, if you got money from outside it was fraud. It's only been in recent years that they got all this money. Now these guys up in Washington come out, they go out there with nothing and they come back millionaires with money donated to them. That's wrong. Even today I wouldn't accept it. SUCHANEK: Did the party help you at all either in manpower or, I guess not in monetary fashion? ISLER: The [coughs]-I handled my own campaign. I had my own workers over a period of the years. We worked on schedules. In a certain time we would put up all the signs. And one fellow said after the election was over, he says, "You know," he says, "they said John is not taking too much interest in this election, but," he says, "you know what? When he hit me with all those signs and all those circulars and all those adds in the paper," he said, "I couldn't do nothing." He said, "I was helpless." And he says, "John, nobody will beat you." (Both laugh), no kidding. SUCHANEK: How many people would you have working for you in a campaign? ISLER: Well, I had my two boys and I had Theodore, and I used the Boy Scouts a lot, and I used the little kids around the neighborhood. SUCHANEK: To put up signs and- ISLER: No, the signs were put up by me and Theodore. We used to put up about a hundred of them. SUCHANEK: Is that right? ISLER: Every year I had signs. I didn't-when I put a sign in your yard, I'd come up and pick it up. I never left no sign and I put the ground back the way it was and everything. I had as many Republicans as Democrats putting up my sign. SUCHANEK: Is that right? ISLER: But I had one ruling that I said, "If you put my sign up, I don't want you to put nobody else's sign aside of mine." I said, "I don't want that because that fellow beats me with him." Now, that's Democrats and Republicans, and they didn't do it. SUCHANEK: You would have to ask people, would you ask people if you could put up your sign in their yard? ISLER: I always asked them. I'd go around and, like I said, I'd go around and talk to them. I didn't have any, no problem. "John, you could put your sign up. We won't let nobody else put their sign up here." And I picked out very important spots for traffic all the time, out in the counties and everything I put it, put it up. I had no problems. And I took them down, and then I'd go around and give the little girls a box of candy or something like that (Suchanek laughs). Well, that, that's- SUCHANEK: Sure. ISLER: just a little box-a lady down on 10th and Madison, a little candy store there, and she made them special for me. And then, I guess I spent around $100, but $100 was a lot of money then. But others were spending more than that. SUCHANEK: I think I saw one place in the newspaper where someone had spent $100, $106 and some odd cents and I thought times sure have changed. ISLER: Yeah. And the last time, the last two times I ran we had billboard signs. I was in with Gus Sheehan. He and I ran billboard signs and we went half on that. SUCHANEK: Who did you lose to in `52, in the `52 election? Do you recall? ISLER: Jim Dressman. SUCHANEK: Jim Dressman? ISLER: Um-hm. SUCHANEK: Okay. Well, was that the same Jim Dressman that- ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: that beat Judge Wehrman in `61? ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Okay (Isler laughs). So he was, he was a force in the Democratic Party then, is that right? ISLER: Oh, yeah, all them judges like that, yeah. When you're coming up you're, you get into them. You have to, but then when you get in there, why, you say, "well, I have to represent Republicans and Democrats so-" SUCHANEK: Yeah. ISLER: You go on special occasions they make you, when you got a job like that you're the principal speaker. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. Would you say you were closer to Judge Wehrman than you were to Jim Dressman, then, as far as, you know, like factions of the party in the county? ISLER: Well, if you recall, I said that the twenty-six years I was in office, I was only in the courthouse three times. I spoke highly of all of them and everything but I- SUCHANEK: So you were basically independent? ISLER: Known as an independent Democrat, independent Democrat, you're right. SUCHANEK: And I think you were known as that in the legislature too, weren't you? ISLER: I absolutely was. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: I vote on the issues. SUCHANEK: Right. Did you have an opponent in the election in `55? ISLER: Fifty-five? SUCHANEK: When you were elected to, when you finally got elected to the General Assembly, do you recall who it was? ISLER: Yeah, the first (coughs), the first five terms that I ran I had opposition, Democrats and Republicans. SUCHANEK: Do you recall who ran against you in `55? ISLER: No, there were so many I can't. SUCHANEK: Okay, that's fine. Now, as you prepare to go to the General Assembly for your first time, I think you made it pretty clear that you felt that-your philosophy was that you felt that your constituents came first, and when it came to an issue that would benefit your constituents but perhaps be detrimental to other parts of the state, your constituents came first, is that right? ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: Yeah, that was proven on the sales tax. When the sales tax come up, this has been, I guess, about twenty years ago from the time I retired in `81 and they needed the votes to pass this tax, and the governor brought me in and asked me about it. And I said, "Governor," I said, "I'm sorry." I says, "but I just cannot go for your tax." I said, "My people don't like it." I said, "My people are working people, they're not business people, they're all working people," and that's what they are and they're still that way today, the district. Of course, I moved out here in Boone because my boys are all out here and I wanted to get close to my family. SUCHANEK: As I mentioned to you before we started taping, I saw a picture of you in the Courier-Journal, you and Vernor Cottingim- ISLER: Cottingim. SUCHANEK: hoisting Thomas Fitzpatrick on your shoulders and carrying him, carrying him to the speaker's chair. He had been elected speaker, selected Speaker of the House by the governor- ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: and that must've been, you're all smiles, that must've been quite a day for you? ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Can you- ISLER: It was. SUCHANEK: can you remember your first day in the legislature when you finally got there? ISLER: Well, oh- SUCHANEK: What was that like? ISLER: well, it was a whole new world. Incidentally, I went by Frankfort about fifteen, we went to Nazareth, Kentucky, and we went there and, of course, they tore down, they had a big flag stand there, a beautiful place there, but they tore that down. But we had our picture taken there, my wife and I and her father and mother and her brother, and I never dreamt that some day I'd be sitting out there in that dome for twenty-six years. I never dreamt about it. And, of course, I was happy in those days. Now, you're talking about-I can't, let's see here. We had a bill that's come up in the, in the House, and they kind of got me a little bit worked up over it, so I-when the bill come up on the floor it was a tie. I can't recall the bill, but anyhow, it was a very important bill. So anyhow, they-it won't come to me. Theodore worked with me on that and finally, why, Gus Sheehan, Senator Gus Sheehan come to me and asked me, he said, "John, why don't you break that tie?" And I says, "Okay," I says, we talked it over and everything, I says, "two o'clock I'll be on that floor and," and I said, "I don't want nobody bother me, I'll come on that floor." And that's what I done. I come on that floor. When I come on the floor, Cottingim, Timmy Fitzpatrick, they had this chair here (Suchanek laughs), and I think everybody in the House had a belt, and they put this belt, all the belts around me and they took some (laughs; unintelligible), there and they carried me in there so I broke, and broke the tie. But I don't know how I voted though (both laugh). So you're going to have to ask Gus how I voted. SUCHANEK: Oh, we can look in the journal and find out how you voted if we knew what the bill was. ISLER: Yeah. If you knew what the bill was. And I haven't got that down there. Nineteen sixty, that was in 1960. SUCHANEK: Now, the evening before the legislature met in `56, the Democratic caucus was held to select the legislative leaders. Do you recall in `56 where the caucus took place? It didn't say in the newspaper where it took place. ISLER: Well, it always takes it on the second floor down there in the, been that way for years. SUCHANEK: Okay, because I know the Republicans used to meet somewhere else for their caucus. ISLER: Yeah, they had about two or three of them then (laughs). SUCHANEK: Yeah. Right. ISLER: You're talking about 1960 and- SUCHANEK: Sure. Yeah, they used to meet, I think, at the capital at the time- ISLER: They're doing a little bit better now. SUCHANEK: Right. Well, the papers also don't say whether "Happy" Chandler was there at the Democratic caucus. Was it customary for the governor to go to those things? ISLER: No, sir. No, sir. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: Unh-huh. A caucus is just what it is. A bill comes up and they're going to caucus on the bill. You go in there and listen to what they say about the bill. Nobody can get in there but members, you're talking about the House, now- SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: only members of the House. And the bill is explained and everything else, that's all. They explain the bill, and if you want to ask any question you can ask the Speaker of the House, he's sitting in there too, about it, and if you're not in favor of that bill you're supposed to walk out. SUCHANEK: Oh, is that right? ISLER: In a caucus. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. Okay. Well, in the, I guess, it would be the pre-legislative session caucus, like the night before the session actually opens-in `56, Joe Leary spoke to you, to all the Democrats, at this pre-legislative meeting. What can you tell me about Joe Leary? Did you know him well? ISLER: I knew his daddy. I worked with his father on the railroad and I did know what county he was from, but I can't recall it right now because you're going back quite, you're going back quite a few years, about 55 years. SUCHANEK: What kind of man was Joe Leary? ISLER: Joe Leary, he got, he got his education the way I did. He worked hard, got his education, everything, and he went to Frankfort. Now why, what brought him to Frankfort, I don't know, but he is a successful lawyer and a good lawyer. And John Y. Brown's father was the same way. I served with John Y. Brown, and I served, I think, two years under his son- SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: John. SUCHANEK: That's right. ISLER: And both of them, all three of them were exceptionally high standard men in principle, in character. SUCHANEK: Okay. Now, this might sound like a silly question, but just for the record, what role did Chandler play in choosing the Democratic leadership in the legislature back in `56? You know, we had- ISLER: Well, now, in `56, you remember, I'm a freshman. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: This is the first time I'm going in there. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: So you can't expect them to talk to me because what can they talk to me about? I don't have any past experience, you see? SUCHANEK: Did you realize what was going on? ISLER: Oh, definitely. I knew that through the Democratic Club. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: That was, that was an education within itself. That was an education within itself. SUCHANEK: Tell me a little bit about that. ISLER: Well, we held meetings once a month and we tried to have a principle speaker there at all times. And we would give a-the CAC down in Ludlow, we'd throw a picnic down there, and we had this here, I can't recall what it is. They made it and it took three days to make it, and they had to stir it around the clock and all that- SUCHANEK: Burgoo? ISLER: Burgoo (Suchanek laughs). Yeah. And we'd get that every year, so we brought in people from all over the state, and if we knew anybody that was interested, a Democrat interested in running for the President of the United States, we brought them in because we was very much interested in it. You couldn't beat the Democrats in Kenton County or, well, it's changing, but in those days you couldn't beat them. Couldn't beat them. SUCHANEK: Now, Kenton County was a stronghold- ISLER: It's still a stronghold for Democrats. SUCHANEK: for Democrats, but there is, it was- ISLER: This county, too. That's why I'm out here. SUCHANEK: Chandler was particularly strong in Kenton County, wasn't he? ISLER: Chandler was-started out in politics when he just got out of the University of Kentucky and he ran against Laffoon, against the sales tax- SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: and that's what elected him. And incidentally, "Happy" never said nothing to me about any sales tax because when these things come up, you see, why, he knew what he'd done and he never said nothing to me. In fact, he admired me. They come down here at the ballgame down here to a night game and it was about August, we weren't in session, and he looked around at everybody and he said to his assistant, his aide, I can't recall his name, he said, "Where is John Isler at?" "We couldn't get him, Governor." He says, "Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. You get on that telephone there and call John to see if he wants to go." Well, I was working the seven to three job and I just walked in the house when they called. That was about 4:30. And Mary Jo answered the phone call over and it was Harry- SUCHANEK: Davis? ISLER: Yeah, Harry. You know more than I do (both laugh). Yeah, Harry Davis, "Hey, John, 'Happy' was down, he's down here at Third and Court," he says, "how soon can you get down here and go over to the ballpark with us?" I says, "Well, I didn't eat." "Oh, we'll eat afterwards. Come on down." You see, "Happy" told him he better get down there or there's nobody going to see that ballgame (both laugh). So anyhow, I got down there and we got in the cars that they had lined up and we went over there. So "Happy" had a bad time that year. I would say it's his going-out year, I can't remember- SUCHANEK: Fifty-nine? ISLER: but I would say his going-out year, and the papers were hitting "Happy" pretty heavy. And at that time I knew what it was all about. But anyhow, "Happy" got ready to walk down the ramps to the box seats, he always liked the box seat that comes out where the players come out. And even Harry Davis didn't walk down with him. And I walked down with him. I'd seen "Happy" there and I walked over to "Happy" and start talking to "Happy" and so we went and sit in a box. "Happy" sat right next to where the players come out. I sat right next to "Happy." And one of the reporters come up and says, "Hey, `Happy,' how come you got Isler with you?" He said, "Listen," he said, "they wasn't always for my bills but," he said, "he's one of the best legislators up there." He said, "and now when I need a friend, he's coming to me." SUCHANEK: Well, that was real nice. ISLER: He told the papers that. SUCHANEK: Um-hm, um-hm. ISLER: This one. SUCHANEK: What did your fellow legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, think of "Happy?" ISLER: I think everybody liked "Happy." Of course, the Republicans have never changed, the party never changes. They're trying to change them now, but they won't hold still for it. So you know what I mean. Democrats are liberal. SUCHANEK: Can you remember any discussions that you had during Chandler's term with maybe John Breckenridge or Clarence Maloney, Shelby Kinkead, some of the senators, or- ISLER: Yeah, Shelby Kinkead, I know him but- SUCHANEK: Now, they were in the Clements faction of the Democratic Party in- ISLER: Oh, Clements, yeah, I-when we went to Chicago, that's who we went up with, with Clements. SUCHANEK: Tell me about Earle Clements. ISLER: Hmm? SUCHANEK: Did you know Earle Clements? ISLER: I knew him from local. The only time we've, that I have seen him was on special occasions, but I was invited to everything. You know, when you're in politics you're invited to everything. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: But I wasn't one that was, I sat in on all our meetings with him, but I was never one to advise him or anything. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: But he thought of me, he thought an awful lot of me. And the young fellow that ran for governor, down at Carrollton, I can't think of his name, he thought an awful lot of me but he didn't make it. But- SUCHANEK: So you would say that you weren't, you weren't a member of either the Chandler or the Clements faction, that you were more independent than that? ISLER: They would do everything in the world for me, but they wouldn't do anything to help me in politics because when it comes to politics, personally they liked me. They invited me to everything hoping some day that maybe I would do them a favor and probably which I've done, because if the bills were good bills, I was for them. If the bills were against my district, not the commonwealth, I couldn't be for them because they paid my salary. I worked for them, not for the governor. But the governor controlled in those days, and how I got my job as chairman of the Enrollment, I can't answer that, only Timmy Fitzpatrick was Speaker of the House, and I did, must have done an outstanding job because I remained on that for twenty-six years. SUCHANEK: Do you have any favorite Chandler stories that you can relate to us? ISLER: Well, why, I just told you one (laughs). SUCHANEK: Right. Right. Are there, did he used to call you into, over to the mansion on certain bills, or would he call you on the telephone? Did, I mean, did he ever call you and say, "John, I need your help on this?" ISLER: (Laughs), the governor don't do that, but his men do. They come- SUCHANEK: Like Harry Davis? ISLER: yeah, they come around, and John Moloney, who used to be mayor of our town here, they'd come in and talk to me and I tell them, "Well, now, I've listened to you and everything and, now, you know the reason why I can't be for the bill." And they'd ask me, I don't like to say this but since you're asking me I'll say it, "Will you please not get up and speak against the bill? That way we know you're not trying to kill the bill. If you vote against the bill and you don't explain your vote, it's all right." SUCHANEK: Um-hm. Did you speak much on the floor? ISLER: Every day. SUCHANEK: Did you? ISLER: More than anybody. But in my first eight terms I was there all the time, and I can't remember the young fellow up at Lexington, if I didn't get up, he'd refer a question to me (laughs) and he and I would debate on it, but he got a better job and he moved on, so I just kept quiet. SUCHANEK: Oh, I see. You mean he was a legislator? ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Yeah. Uh-huh. ISLER: Yeah, he was a legislator about three terms. I think he became judge in Lexington. See, they only used that as a, he was a lawyer, and they only use it as a steppingstone. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: But now, them jobs are paying so good, everybody wants it. See, when I- paid them more, they paid a little bit more than my job (both laugh). SUCHANEK: Tell me about Fitzpatrick. ISLER: Well, I can't tell you any more about Timmy Fitzpatrick than what I just told you. But they-you asked me a question there about bills, about "Happy." SUCHANEK: Yes. ISLER: In `56, when I went in there, "Happy" was governor for the second term. I had that Bill 86 and 87. Boy, I'm telling you, that was the hottest bill that ever was introduced, them two bills, were the hottest bills that ever introduced up on them floors. And every time I'd go whenever anybody wanted to me and talk, talk on the bills. And so, I got a note from "Happy" about, maybe say we were in about February, we weren't in it about too much. I introduced that bill right as I went in because they told me, said, "You're going to have a lot of problems with that bill." So "Happy" brought me in, sent me a note, says, "John, could you be in-come so-and-so for a conference." Good. I went in there and I'd never seen so many people from all over the United States in my life in there. And they were all people-magazine people, newspaper people, because I had to get, we had Bill 86 against, 86 was pornography and 87, I think, was newspapers. So they asked me a lot of questions and everything, and one of my answers was that every time I see pornography on there it comes to me. I said, "If you got a daughter and she's got a boyfriend and he goes in a drugstore to get a pack of cigarettes and looks at all that pornography stuff, and while there, probably getting what he wants, he comes through there, would you want your daughter to go out with somebody that looks at that? You know what, how young people feel, young males feel." I said, "No, you wouldn't want that." I said, "I don't believe any of you are really in favor of this bill, these two bills." So I sat down and "Happy" got up, said, "Wait a minute." He said, "I told you what his answer would be. Now, he gave his answer and I'm going to sign that bill when it comes out of the committee, and we're going to release both of those bills. Now, you got two years to fight that bill, these two bills." He said, "I know this boy." He said, "Gentlemen," he said, "I'm sorry, Kentucky can't go with you." So they passed my bills. Now, wasn't that a pretty nice story about "Happy?" SUCHANEK: That's very nice, yes. ISLER: Huh? SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: We used to go over and see "Happy," oh, I guess, at least once a month when we were in session. SUCHANEK: Let me, I'm going to have to change tapes here. [End of Tape #1, Side #2] [Begin Tape #2, Side #1] SUCHANEK: take up too much of your time today. Okay, we're talking about "Happy" Chandler and that you used to go over at least once a week? ISLER: No, we'd go about once a month while we were in session to his home and see "Happy." SUCHANEK: At the mansion? ISLER: No, no, up at Versailles. SUCHANEK: Oh, okay. Uh-huh. ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: And see Mama in- ISLER: Mama, yeah, yeah. We'd just go in and see him, stay for about an hour or so, and he's never forgotten that. And I think of him all the time. SUCHANEK: Tell me about "Happy" Chandler. Tell me, tell me about your impressions of "Happy" as a man and as a politician. ISLER: Well, back in those days they were gentlemen. In other words, whenever a fellow outstanding like "Happy" ran, why, he had no problems. And "Happy" is just what you see. He's always got something nice to say to you. Even if it's against or for, he says it in a nice way. And he thinks so much of Mama, it's really, makes you feel that you're a part of the family, that's the way it is with "Happy." And I didn't do nothing to hurt him, but I didn't give him any-he didn't really need my vote if you want to know the truth about it, because he was so well-liked and everything. And there's nothing I can say that I can say any better than he is, he is "Happy," and everybody knows "Happy" on a baseball field and everywhere else. Incidentally, we were talking about "Happy" at the ballpark. He wasn't commissioner at that time- SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: you see (laughs)- SUCHANEK: Right. Yeah, he- ISLER: he was governor. SUCHANEK: he'd been, I guess, fired by the baseball owners back in `51. ISLER: Yeah. If you could've talked to "Happy" when I talked to him back in his younger days that come up, you could understand. Even in his younger days he thought a lot about people. I think he couldn't do enough for anybody, but you have to remember that in politics you got limitations, you got appropriations, and if you don't get appropriation on a bill, in which a lot of bills are passed, a lot of people don't know or some of the representatives don't know it, that if you don't have appropriation on a bill, that's just taking up a lot of room on the statutes. Those bills will never be enforced. They just lay there. And when, I think when "Happy" came in on his third term he'd taken a lot of that out of there, all that dead wood, cleaned it up. But I don't think they could go through all of it, it's that bad or dump(??). Now, I don't know what they've done since `81, but I don't see any, I don't see anything in the papers whether they got a law like them, like I told you about stealing a horse- SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: and all that. SUCHANEK: Yeah. ISLER: They got a lot of those bills and that's in all states, not only Kentucky, you know. SUCHANEK: So you used to see "Happy" about once a month, then, while- ISLER: While we were in session, and we were in session sixty days, which spread out about ninety days. We'd go up and see "Happy." SUCHANEK: In Versailles? ISLER: In Versailles. SUCHANEK: But he wouldn't come over to the House Chamber or anything to, you know, except to, when the joint session was in to make his address? ISLER: Well, the governor speaks when we go in session in the first week, about the middle of the week he comes in and tells us his program so we'll have something to work with, you see. But you don't never go in anything like that unless you're invited, but the governor is invited on that day- SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: all sessions, but they have to live up to the regulations and they write him a nice letter. And then that's a joint session- SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: the Senate and the House. SUCHANEK: Did anyone on the Democratic or Republican side help you during your first term or kind of show you the ropes on how things work and how to get bills passed and that kind of thing? Did you write your own bills? ISLER: You know, you write to the Legislative Research and you write down there what you want, but they have to work according to the law, the framework of the law- SUCHANEK: Through the LRC? ISLER: Yeah, LRC. And then that bill, that bill is introduced by the sponsor, and I guess prior to my time you probably had to write your own. And I used to spend a lot of time downstairs on the second floor, where the Supreme Court is, in their law library. I spent a lot of time down there my first year because when I realized what Timmy did for me, I had this, get myself schooled up on a lot of things and I had to know where to look for. But, you know, anybody in high office like the governor, he don't go in unless he's invited. And incidentally, with all the governors we've had, that I served under, I believe it was seven, I had no problems with any of them. Because they knew me, they, when they got elected as governor, the first thing they had to do is find out about the Enrollment Committee, and nobody would run against me, and in fact, I wanted to give it up several times because I wanted to stretch out and do it, but they wouldn't do it. The Speaker of the House wouldn't do it. He said, "No, John, we're not-you've been on there too long and you know the job and you, the way you handle it, I don't believe anybody else would handle it like that." You know, stay there till three and four in the morning. SUCHANEK: Right. So I think prior to, as to beginning actually taping, we were talking about the pecking order in the leadership, and you were saying that the Speaker of the House was number one, followed by the majority floor leader, and you thought followed by you as chairman of the Committee on Enrollment. ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Is that right? ISLER: Yeah. Because my job really is to protect the speaker, know when to get out. Because when I have a bill in my hand and I get up like I told you before, he hits that gavel down and says, "I recognize the gentleman from Kenton 60," and then I start. Then he's got a man out there that when I start to sit down, gets up and introduces another bill, out of the orders of the day, that's the majority floor leader. SUCHANEK: Okay. And how do you mean that you help protect the speaker? ISLER: Well, he, they might want to amend that bill, and if I don't get up, there's no way in the world you can keep them from amending that bill. But when it gets rolling, I keep so many bills there that I want to enroll, that's the secret of this trade. Boy, you ought to go down there and see how they attack that speaker sometimes, but when the majority, when the enrollment clerk stands, or when the chairman of the Enrollment stands up, everything is quiet. SUCHANEK: I see. I see, so- ISLER: Because that's it. When that Speaker of the House recognizes the Enrollment, chairman of the Enrollment Committee, that stops everything because they know there's something wrong. Or otherwise I enroll the bills as they come out of the, after their third reading. SUCHANEK: Could you remember any incidents where you, where it was particular crucial that you saved or protected the speaker, where the argument was getting, or the debate was getting, or he was getting attacked? ISLER: There was quite a few of them, but I got up so many times I can't really tell you. SUCHANEK: Let me ask you this- ISLER: And I only got up-I know at one session there it seemed like, I don't know which speaker it was, but he didn't have too much experience and he wasn't, he wasn't recognizing me and they were beating him to death. Somebody (coughs), all he'd have to do is look down, because I sat right in front of him, look down at me and I would've pulled the bill up-even if you're speaking I get right up because the enrollment, the enrollment of the bills are, is the whole thing about the General Assembly. That's Number One. SUCHANEK: So you could interrupt any speaker then? ISLER: Yes, sir. SUCHANEK: And that would kill the debate? ISLER: I can't do it to the Speaker of the House. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: No, it don't kill the debate but it does this: when I sit down then he recognizes the-no matter, you can be standing up and the speaker has got that gavel and he says, and he'll hit that gavel and recognizes a man from district, Kenton or whatever it is, district so and so, and then they come up. Then this fellow, he, there's no chance in the world for him to get in. He might as well sit down. They will just let him stand there because the speaker will not look at him. As long as the speaker don't look at him he's not recognizing him. SUCHANEK: I see. I see. ISLER: He looks right over there and there'll be a guy over on the other side, if you get over here, there's that guy over there and they work from that side of the floor. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. I see. ISLER: And then he has to be recognized again to get up and speak. He'll get up and holler, they do that, holler, "Mister Speaker!" and all that. If he doesn't recognize him, he can't get up. SUCHANEK: So- ISLER: And if he runs up to the desk like some of them do, run up to the desk, then the sergeant-at-arms gets him and tells him he has to go back to his seat. SUCHANEK: It could get pretty wild and woolly down there, couldn't they? ISLER: Oh, they do. Lowman there, that's all he'd done. SUCHANEK: What's that? ISLER: Run up to the desk of the speaker. SUCHANEK: Oh, Harry King Lowman (laughs)? ISLER: Yeah, and challenge the speaker. Then when he got it, he didn't want them to do that (both laugh). SUCHANEK: Now, you said you got along with the Republicans in the House, is that right? ISLER: Oh, yeah. SUCHANEK: Did you know Leonard Hislope well? ISLER: I knew, like anybody else, he served with me. But I've never had no problems and no contact with him. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: But he, we used to sit, we met, you know. We'd see one another. SUCHANEK: Sure. ISLER: We're bound to. We don't have no place to go but our, in our room, you know. We used to stay in, when I first went down there we stayed in boardinghouses. SUCHANEK: Oh, I see. ISLER: I used to spend, spent five dollars a week- SUCHANEK: Is that right? ISLER: for a boardinghouse. SUCHANEK: Do you recall where it was at? ISLER: Yeah, it was Second and the street that runs into the-a frame house- what's the street that runs into the capitol? SUCHANEK: That's State Street. ISLER: State Street, Second and State Street, and the Kentucky River ran right in the back of it, over the bridge, Second- SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: Yeah. I stayed in there about three terms. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. And then where did you stay? ISLER: Oh, gosh. SUCHANEK: Different places? ISLER: Oh, yeah. I stayed there three, but I got kind of tired of, it was an old-time boardinghouse. They were all old-times. Then they started to build apartments, and then I, when they started building apartments, why, we knew people from up there that worked at-see, everybody in Frankfort works when the General Assembly is in session. They all get, they got jobs they hold every year, and they go in there, special sessions and everything, because Frankfort is a booming town now, but wasn't a booming town then. The roads were bad, even the main street, and (laughs) going back to `56, and if you had a two-lane highway you was lucky. SUCHANEK: Uh-huh. ISLER: And we, well, I rented an apartment down on-right, the street before you go into where the capitol is, I stayed there also for two terms and it was nice. Then, like I said, the people there were real estate, a lot of real estate people, and they started building these homes like twenty at the time, and they got me an apartment up there with a swimming pool, but a swimming pool wouldn't do me no good in January and February and March. SUCHANEK: Right. ISLER: (Laughs), so I stayed in there in that in the meantime, why, we got a few little raises but not too much. SUCHANEK: What did you use to do for entertainment? I know you said you were real busy during the session- ISLER: Well, the first three sessions I couldn't hardly do anything. I wouldn't leave there until late, seven, eight o'clock at night. And as it went on, I guess it got easier for me because I was pretty well familiar-well, we went to, you want my secret? SUCHANEK: Sure. ISLER: Huh? SUCHANEK: Sure (both laugh), if you want to give them to us. I'm just interested in what you'll did for leisure time, on your leisure time. ISLER: Well, we'd go, we ate in restaurants, and then from restaurants, why, if we didn't do nothing, we'd have to go back to our room or something like that. We didn't bum around too much because the news medium was, they were everywhere. And, well, we went around, go in places and then out places. We went to see who's in there. We had our reason for seeing who was in there, and if these people were, maybe, a little heavy drinkers or something like that, or maybe in, what, the fast-track, we'd say, we'd let them know that they, we were in there and we would maybe get a drink and walk out. And we'd done that, especially me, to control. SUCHANEK: I see. ISLER: In other words, if a bill is coming up and you want that bill to pass and everything, and the administration don't want the bill to pass, and I call you in and I talk to you. I don't repeat what I saw, but he knows what I saw, and he'd say, "Okay." SUCHANEK: But that's just reality, right? ISLER: Yeah. I had a fellow down in Kentucky, he had a beer agency in a dry county, and he was allowed to have the beer shipped in there providing that he didn't sell it in that precinct. Now, you see, they go by precincts, see. Kenton County has got a precinct right out here that's dry, Kenton County has. And this fellow, his judge down there told him, it was down in eastern Kentucky, his judge told him, he says, "Why don't you go up and see John Isler up there and see what he can do for you. If anybody can help you, he'll, he will." So he come up there and he saw me and he told me, said, "They're going to put me out of business, Mr. Isler." I said, "Well," I says, "we're really not up here to put people out of business, we're up here to promote business." So he gave me all the details and everything and, of course, I talked to him about an hour, that's about all I could give him, but said, "You'll be hearing from me." So I got this legislative file out, all his bills that he enrolled and everything. And remember, this is a dry county but they wanted to keep him from hauling his beer in there and sell it around in, sold it mostly to the courthouses (both laugh), would you believe that? But it's right. And so I got his bills out and everything, I said, "Now, these are the bills you introduced." I said, "This bill here," I said, "you know," I says, "I'm from a wet county." I said, "In my county they believe in practically everything if you keep it in its place, but," I said, "I don't understand that bill." I said, "Mr. so-and-so called me and told me that you were going to put him out of business," and I said, "do you think that's right to put him out of business?" He says, "Well, that's what they want down there." I said, "Who?" He said, "Well, I don't want to go into that." I said, "You don't have to because I know it, but," I said, "see these ten bills?" I said, "Which one of them bills will bring you back instead of that bill there?" He says, "If I give that bill up," he says, "you'll have to get them to come out of the committee." I says, "All right, I'll get them out." Believe it or not that's the last time I heard from the beer agent. SUCHANEK: And you got his bills out of the committee? ISLER: I got that bill out. I held that bill in the committee. SUCHANEK: And that bill was to make the- ISLER: Illegal to haul beer into this here precinct. SUCHANEK: I see. And you made that one bill stay in committee? ISLER: Oh, yeah. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: He gave it up. He surrendered the bill to me. So we just left it in the committee. SUCHANEK: I see. ISLER: I told him, I said, "You don't ask for the bill." He said, "All right." So the fellow has got his beer job, they're all happy down there and everybody is happy and they're one big happy family. That's part of the, being in, on the Enrollment Committee, I'm sorry. But you don't learn that overnight. SUCHANEK: Sure. Sure. ISLER: Huh? SUCHANEK: How well did you know Robert Humphries, who was chairman of the state Democratic Party? Do you know him at all? ISLER: Yeah. I know all of them. SUCHANEK: Um-hm. ISLER: Well, no, I didn't know him personally, didn't know him personally. SUCHANEK: Okay. ISLER: Because I really didn't have time to be running around with those fellows if I wanted to do my job right. I was very serious and conscientious about my job, at least for ten terms. I put a lot of time on it, see. Then I found out that I was going to stay where I'm at, so-I hadn't changed any. All the years I was there I haven't changed. I don't drink, I don't smoke, but if you want me to take a sociable drink with you, I'll take one drink with you and no more. That's been my philosophy for years and years and everybody knows that, all the fellows down there, the, you know, the ones that tried to get the bills out. I can't remember all of them. SUCHANEK: Well, would you like to stop now? ISLER: It's whatever you want to do. SUCHANEK: Why don't we stop here, and the next time in our, in our next session, we've got all the background material now I think that we need- ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: we can start discussing the different sessions and the different bills that you introduced and- ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: and talk about the different governors and their administrations. How about if we do that, because we've got about almost two hours now. ISLER: Yeah. SUCHANEK: Okay? ISLER: Um-hm. SUCHANEK: All right. ISLER: You will need any of this stuff? Would you want to look- [End of interview] Isler (House 1956-1986, 60th district, 65th district; Democrat) recounts his twenty six years in the legislature. Interview begins with Isler's early years in Kenton County (Ky.) and his work with the local Democratic Club. Isler discusses the sponsorship of several bills including media censorship, teacher retirement pensions and minimum wage increases. He also recounts working with Governors Chandler and Combs. Part 1 of 2. Kentucky Legislature