Simeon Slavens Willis was born in 1879, in Ohio. Willis, however, grew up in Kentucky; his family moved to the state when he was just ten years. Willis was admitted to the Kentucky Bar in 1901 and started his own law practice in Ashland. While he served the people of Ashland, he worked to land a place in politics. He was unsuccessful until 1927. He served on both the Kentucky Court of Appeals and the Kentucky Supreme Court, and then returned to his law practice in 1932.
Despite past challenges, Willis was successful in the 1943 gubernatorial election. However, as a Republican, Governor Willis, experienced sizable opposition from the General Assembly, as both houses had a Democratic majority. The state had a large budget surplus at the end of World War II. But the abundance of funds was not celebrated, agreements on the application of the finances could not be reached and Willis was unable to fulfill the campaign promise that secured his victory – the elimination of the state income tax.
Even with the failed campaign promise, Willis did lead the construction of five tuberculosis hospitals across the state. Kentucky created a tuberculous commission in 1912 but sought to eradicate the disease after World War II. The project started toward the end of his term in 1946 and was completed in 1950. Each of the hospitals included one hundred beds and marked a transition in Kentucky healthcare. During the 1940s, Kentucky shifted from county-operated hospitals to district-centered sanatoria. And because these hospitals were government-funded, the services had to be offered to all people, regardless of race or class status.
Newspaper records indicate that hospitals were built in Ashland, Glasgow, London, Madisonville, and Paris (as a hospital already existed in Hazelwood). An article from the Madisonville Messenger, dated September 27th, 1950, reads: “We Welcome A New Landmark Dedicated to Mercy! No finer tribute could be paid to Madisonville and Hopkins County than to be selected for District One’s Tuberculosis Sanatorium. We extend congratulations to the entire management and staff, and to all those whose efforts made this great monument to the future possible. Best Wishes from Another Who is Proud to Have the Sanatorium in Our Midst!” Each hospital was built in a standard layout, including the main hospital, residences for the doctor, nurses, and staff, and a boiler and laundry building. Two architects from Lexington, John T. Gillig and Fred J. Harsten, headed the project with the help of the J. T. Wilson Construction Engineering Firm of Louisville. This program instituted by Governor Willis made tuberculosis treatment much more accessible for all Kentuckians. According to state records, tuberculosis deaths fell almost 70% in a decade; from 1,073 cases (1950) to 335 cases (1960). Since the 1970s, the hospitals have been torn down and renovated to meet modern medical standards.
Marker #1815 was dedicated in 1987 by the Kentucky Historical Society and the Kentucky Department of Highways. It reads: Gov. Simeon Willis (1879-1965). Judge on Kentucky's highest court 1927-1933; Governor 1943-1947. His administration extended State Park System, increased funding for education, expanded TB hospitals, ended most toll bridge charges, founded Postwar Planning Comm. and Comm. on Negro Affairs. Born in Ohio, he moved to Ky. as a child and later practiced law in Ashland, living at 1608 and 1612 Bath Ave.
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