Phyllis George, 1949-2020

Phyllis George.

Phyllis George, a devoted mother and grandmother who served as the nation’s 50th Miss America before shattering glass ceilings in broadcasting, politics and business, passed away on May 14, 2020 at the age of 70. Her loving children, Lincoln and Pamela, were by her side.

Known for her remarkable inner and outer beauty, her quick wit and her deep intellect, Phyllis made a place for herself in America’s homes and hearts the moment her crown fell from her head shortly after being named Miss America 1971. With the grace and practicality that would define her life, she bent over, picked up her tiara and kept walking as the crowd applauded. She was tapped as the co-host of “The New Candid Camera” in 1974 and the next year became a pioneer in broadcasting — and the country’s most famous female sportscaster — when she was hired to co-host “The NFL Today” on CBS. She would go on to co-anchor the CBS Morning News, serve as First Lady of Kentucky and create two successful companies.

Yet despite her storied career, she viewed her roles as mother, daughter, sister, aunt and “GeeGee” to her two grandchildren as the most important. She took pride in her family, whom she loved deeply. Phyllis was born in Denton, Texas on June 25, 1949 to James Robert and Diantha Louise Cogdell George. And while she eventually left her small town, it never left her. Phyllis credited her success to her loving parents, whom were affectionately known as “Bob Bob” and “Grammy”. She once explained her connection to her hometown, saying, “Who knew the little girl growing up there would do all the different things that I’ve done? I do believe it had to do with my foundation, loving parents, supportive parents, the parents who were always there for me and my brother, Robbie.” Phyllis’s father, Bob, was an oil distributor. His wife, Grammy, a homemaker and a department store bookkeeper. Phyllis said even though they weren’t rich financially, they were rich in love. They made sure she felt like she had everything and paid more than they could probably afford for classical piano lessons with the renowned pianist, Dr. Isabel Scionti. Phyllis quickly became a prodigy. By the age of 11, she was beating pianists nearly twice her age in recording competitions. Phyllis had big dreams of one day playing at Carnegie Hall. Instead, she put her musical talent to work when she entered the pageant circuit. In 1971, she won the Miss America crown playing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

Phyllis had a knack for making anyone, no matter their story, feel as if they were the most important person in the world. Everywhere she went, she built lasting friendships, many of which she maintained throughout her life. Her genuine curiosity, combined with her magnetic smile and huge heart, made everyone who was graced by her presence feel as if they were her best friend. Her love of the people she met, and her deep interest in their personal stories, shined through in her interviews with athletes, filling a void that had previously existed in televised sports coverage. She was lauded for asking questions to athletes that went beyond their performance on the field, getting them to open up in ways they never had.

It was that same dynamism that led local reporters to affectionately call her “fly paper Phyllis” when she accompanied her husband, John Y. Brown, Jr., on campaign stops during his run for Governor of Kentucky in 1979. It was Phyllis, they said, who attracted the crowds.

Just as Kentucky embraced Phyllis for the graciousness she extended to everyone she met, she wholeheartedly embraced Kentucky for its people, its artisans and its natural scenic beauty.  She could just as easily sit down on the front porch swing at the house of a basket maker on some little country road in small town Kentucky as she could host a dinner for four U.S. presidents at the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion.

As First Lady, she took great interest in the people and traditions of Kentucky. She championed the state’s artisans, founded the Kentucky Art & Craft Foundation and oversaw the renovation of the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion. She would use all of those skills to later create “Chicken by George,” a line of marinated chicken breasts which she sold to Hormel, and Phyllis George Beauty, a cosmetic line marketed on HSN.                                                   

Phyllis was never happier than when she was surrounded by her family. Her children fondly called her “Hurricane Phyl” because she was a force of nature with an indomitable spirit and zest for life. She was quick with a joke, willing to share her wisdom and always happy to give a hug. She quietly and courageously fought a rare blood disorder for 35 years, never acknowledging her pain to others, always taking on adversity with a “never say never” attitude and boundless optimism. If anyone tried to mention anything negative, she would immediately shut them down. That can-do spirit allowed Phyllis to defy the odds and live much longer than any doctor had ever expected.

In her final years, Phyllis enjoyed spending quiet time at her home in Lexington, Kentucky where she found joy in slowing down by spending time with friends, watching her daughter report on CNN and hearing about her son’s business successes. She was also a woman of deep faith, who loved nothing more than having her two grown children lie in bed with her or lounge on the couch in her “cozy nook.” She was thrilled to watch videos of her two grandchildren, Benny and Vivienne, and loved singing “You Are my Sunshine” to them over FaceTime.

Phyllis George lived a remarkable life. She gave graciously, shared unselfishly and loved completely. We have no doubt she is now watching her family from above, where raindrops will no longer keep falling on her head and her spirit will be shining brightly for eternity.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations to:

The Phyllis George Memorial Fund
Care of Bluegrass Community Foundation
499 E High St., Suite 112,  Lexington, KY 40507
or online at bgcf.givingfuel.com/phyllisgeorge

Donations will be dedicated to the causes most important to Phyllis, funding research for her rare blood disorder and children in need.