Former Kentucky state Rep. Brent Yonts died Friday morning after he had been hospitalized for several weeks due to a COVID-19 infection, family and colleagues said.
Yonts, 72, was a Democratic representative from Greenville who from 1997 to 2016 served House District 15, which covers Muhlenberg County and part of Hopkins County in Western Kentucky. He was also an attorney in Greenville.
Yonts had been fully vaccinated since February and had no preexisting conditions, his daughter, Ellen Yonts Suetholz, told The Courier Journal.
But the father of three still caught the coronavirus and was initially treated at a Greenville hospital starting Aug. 2 before moving to the regional hospital in Owensboro, where he was treated in a COVID-19 room and intensive care unit for about the past two weeks, Yonts Suetholz said.
Yonts was placed on a ventilator Sunday before dying early Friday, his daughter said.
Yonts Suetholz said her mother, Janice Yonts, the mayor of Greenville, is also fully vaccinated and was around her husband when he first experienced mild symptoms but has since tested negative several times for the virus.
“It’s a difficult situation to understand why someone like my dad who was fully vaccinated ended up dying from the virus,” she said, but the family still wants “everyone to understand that the vaccine does work.”
n Frankfort and at his Greenville law office, Yonts always made time for constituents and clients, “even if he knew going in that he wouldn’t be able to help them,” his daughter said.
Yonts likely helped hundreds of miners over the years through his legal work in black lung cases that pitted him against some large coal companies, said Yonts Suetholz, who is also an attorney.
Yonts was active in the Greenville and Owensboro communities, serving on the boards of theaters, arts organizations and with his local Lions Club, in addition to being a member of First Baptist Church of Greenville, according to Yonts Suetholz.
He enjoyed visiting his children and grandkids and spending time at a lake house with his wife, Yontz Suetholz said.
“He was really just a good man that we were fortunate to call our father,” she said. “… We do want to make sure people in our community know how much their support means to us.”
Former state Rep. Jeff Taylor, a Hopkinsville Democrat who served in the Kentucky House from 2016 to 2018, called Yonts a “mentor and a friend of mine” who was “instrumental in helping me launch my political career.”
Taylor told The Courier Journal he shared an office with Yonts in the State Capitol Annex and served on several committees with the man he also knew from growing up in Muhlenberg County.
Taylor also said Yonts and his twin granddaughters knocked on doors for Taylor during his campaign for office, noting some often joked the young girls helped him win election.
“He had a heart of gold. He was a true Kentuckian,” said Taylor, who serves in Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration as the commissioner for business development. “He loved his state. He loved his constituents and his family.”
Yonts was “somewhat of a living legend” for his “fabulous coats” and blazers he wore while in Frankfort, Taylor added.
“I just hope this is a lesson for everybody. We’ve got to mask up whether you’ve been vaccinated or not,” Taylor said, referring to “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases that have impacted fully vaccinated people amid the spread of the delta variant.
“We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge said “Brent will forever be remembered for his colorful sport jackets, his tireless support of Labor, his hard work on tough subjects — like criminal justice, pension reforms, mine safety and rural water access — and his desire to make Kentucky a better place.”
“We have not only lost a good Democrat, but an even better person, and I, like so many, have lost a friend and mentor,” Elridge said in a statement.
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce noted Yonts worked on numerous key issues during his time as a legislator, including corrections and pension reform.
The chamber also said Friday he had received its MVP Award three times for his work on pro-business legislation.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of former Rep. Yonts,” Kentucky Chamber President and CEO Ashli Watts said in a statement. “When I started at the Chamber in 2012, the first bill I worked to pass was a bill sponsored by Rep. Yonts. He helped me every step of the process and together we were able to get the bill signed into law.
“He was a good friend to the Chamber, often appearing at our conferences in his colorful jackets and helping us on legislation-particularly criminal justice reform. My deepest sympathies to his wife, children and all those who loved him.”
State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, also mourned Yonts.
“Saddened to hear of the loss of Rep. Brent Yonts,” Westerfield tweeted Friday. “Please keep his family in your prayers.”
Kentucky’s governor also recognized Yonts in a Friday morning tweet.
“Today the commonwealth mourns the loss of Brent Yonts, a leader who worked to better the lives of Kentuckians across the commonwealth,” Beshear said. “Britainy and I extend our deepest sympathies to Jan and the entire Yonts family as we hold them close in prayer during this difficult time.”
Former state Rep. Jim Wayne, a Democrat from Louisville who served in the legislature from 1991 to 2019, remembered Yonts as his “friend and fellow legislator” in a Facebook post.
“May his death send a clear message: stop the anti vaccine and anti mask stupidity,” Wayne said. “Get vaccinated and wear your masks. We are a community of humans who take care for one another, not a mass of selfish individuals ranting about out ‘rights.’
“And pray for our leaders who are trying their best to protect our safety.”
House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, said in a statement on behalf of the Kentucky House of Representatives that “our prayers are with the Yonts family as they grieve the loss of their husband, father, and friend.”
“We hope they are able to find comfort in his many accomplishments and the knowledge that Kentucky is a better place because of his service,” Osborne’s statement said. “Brent Yonts was a respected colleague who made many friends while serving in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He was well-known for his colorful attire and clever wit, but the true hallmark of his character was his devotion to his family. May God be with them as they celebrate his life.”
State Reps. Joni Jenkins, Derrick Graham and Angie Hatton, the leaders for the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement Yonts had a “long record of accomplishments that will benefit the commonwealth for many years to come.”
“He also did a phenomenal job chairing the House State Government Committee, where he helped guide several critical laws strengthening our public retirement systems,” the statement said. “On a more personal level, those of us who knew him will never forget his warmth and kindness, his commitment to making Kentucky an even better place to live, and of course his colorful jackets and a legislative office that was as much a museum as it was a place to work.
“On his behalf, we urge eligible Kentuckians to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they have not yet and to take whatever other steps are necessary to put this terrible pandemic behind us. The virus has taken so much from so many, and the breakthrough case of Brent, who was vaccinated, is another tragic example of that.”
COVID in Kentucky
Kentucky continued a concerning trend Thursday, when the state reported 4,836 new COVID-19 cases and nine additional virus-related deaths.
Hospital officials around the commonwealth have expressed concerns this week about nearing or reaching capacity limits due to an influx of COVID-19 patients, many of whom are unvaccinated.
There have been over 530,000 total coronavirus cases and 7,477 deaths in Kentucky since the start of the pandemic last March, and 55% of the state’s population has been vaccinated, according to public health data.