Mike Berry served with the Kentucky Derby Festival for 33 years and retired in 2019 after serving 22 years as its president and CEO. He says he was prepared to start his second career — retirement — when he was asked by then-Governor-elect Andy Beshear to serve as Secretary of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet.
Pre-COVID 19, what were your plans for the cabinet?
My intention was to visit every state park, but that was put on hold, and instead I was tasked with closing the state parks along with the Kentucky Exposition Center (in the middle of a dog show), Kentucky International Convention Center, the Kentucky Center, and Kentucky Crafted Market.
Is this your first job in government?
I worked in the office of Gov. Martha Layne Collins from 1983 to 1987. Gov. Collins was the first to make tourism its own cabinet office. Now there are 13 different agencies that fall under Tourism, Arts & Heritage.
What did you plan on doing in retirement?
I thought I would get involved in volunteer activities, spend time in Florida, and have time with my grandchildren. I was hoping to do more traveling, but trips I had planned for 2020 — one to Africa and one to Switzerland — got canceled.
What were your early plans for yourself?
I wanted to be in politics. In grade school, I worked as a page for the State Senate when Julian Carroll was lieutenant governor and also when he was governor.
Something that’s not on your resume?
I am a theater buff. As recently as five or six years ago, I performed on stage with Music Theatre Louisville in the musical 1776. I also performed in Oliver! and Brigadoon.
What was your worst job?
As a fundraiser for the fraternity I was in at Georgetown College, we hung tobacco. We had to bring it in from the field, unload the wagon, and hang it in the barn to dry. The leaves would cut you, and I would come home with tobacco gum all over my skin.
A defining moment?
It was a bittersweet moment. I was VP managing director of the Derby Festival under CEO Dan Mangeot. In 1997, he died suddenly about 100 days before the festival was to start, and I was offered that position. His death reinforced my belief that people in your life never really leave you if they have imparted their knowledge and courage. They become part of your life and who you are.
The best way to get along with people?
There are times when disagreement is the order of the day and you can agree to disagree and not be disagreeable. Communication can be a salve for anything.
Bigotry of any kind. We’re all in this together, and it takes a lot of different colors and fabrics to make a quilt.
What is on your mind right now?
What’s happening in Louisville — the protests and demonstrations — breaks my heart, but I believe we will come out of it through our collective love of the city. Our neighborhoods make Louisville a great place, but we also have a responsibility for the success of this city as a whole.
Best advice you’ve received?
It was from my grandfather: “Always tell the truth, but just don’t always be telling it.” I use that to keep myself from talking too much.
What skills should every man have?
Be able to sew on a button; know how to can fruits and vegetables; and know how to braid a ponytail. My granddaughter got out of the pool one day and wanted her ponytail braided and no one — not her father or her brothers — knew how to do that. I did. That made me her hero.
BY LUCY M. PRITCHETT
ILLUSTRATION BY DAN KISNER
P.S. Find out about UofL Professor and Archaeologist John Hale’s most exciting discoveries.