Gatewood Galbraith was a real character. At 6’4″ with a booming Kentucky baritone, a syrupy drawl and a signature Fedora, you could see and hear Gatewood coming from far away. He ran five times for Kentucky Governor, two times for U.S. Congress and twice each for the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Attorney General.
He was well known in Lexington simply by his first name. Gatewood, like Sting or Beyonce’. He was often described with a host of words that most politicians can only dream of: legendary, unique, one of a kind, larger-than-life and honest.
“He’s the most colorful individual I’ve known in Kentucky politics in my life,” said Terry McBrayer, a Lexington lawyer, lobbyist and longtime friend. “He didn’t have a harmful bone in his body.” *
“He’s one of the best trial lawyers I’ve ever seen,” said Kentucky State Sen. Kathy Stein. Noting that even though, “He always smelled like marijuana… we were always amazed by his ability to dissect a legal issue and clearly communicate what he thought was just to judges and juries.” She added he charmed everyone he met.
Gatewood was equally well known for glib one-liners. Calling himself, “an explorer for the truth in a jungle of political overgrowth” he insisted “If I was going to lie to you, I’d already be elected.”
“If you like what you see, tell your friends,” he told voters but with rascal’s wink would add, “If you don’t, just hush up, ok? I’ve got enough troubles as it is.”
He advocated for limited government, gun rights, legalized marijuana, and he desperately wanted to restore Kentucky’s decimated hemp industry to its former glory. He was passionate about the possibilities of hemp, and defended the environment against the “petrochemical-pharmaceutical-military-industrial-complex” at every turn. Liberals thought he was a radical conservative, and conservatives thought he was a radical liberal. Gatewood thought he was “The Last Free Man In America” (the title of his 2002 autobiography).
“We’re going to take the government out of your bedroom, your bloodstream, your brain, your bladder, your business, your billfold, your back pockets, your bingo halls and your Internet bulletin boards,” he perpetually promised. Yet despite his many quixotic campaigns, Gatewood never won an election.
He was a long-time friend of Willie Nelson, and they appeared together on the January 1991 cover of High Times. That was when legendary High Times editor Steve Bloom covered the kick-off for Gatewood’s first gubernatorial run, when the musician and the candidate drove Gate’s hemp-powered Mercedes on a tri-city campaign spin around Kentucky before concluding with a benefit concert featuring Willie Nelson & Family at the historic Louisville Garden.
“Gatewood didn’t call me,” Nelson told the press, “I called him. I said, ‘I gotta talk to this guy. I’ve gotta find out if he’s real.’…
“I found out that the man knows what he’s talking about. He knows the hemp situation from the seed to the harvest. He speaks the truth.”
* * *
I knew Gate a little bit. I met him a few times when he was in New York at the High Times office and quite a few times more on the activist road, most notably at the yearly Seattle Hempfest, the largest protestival in the world. So I wasn’t completely surprised in 2011 when one Sunday morning while reading the Intelligencer in the waterfront lobby of the Edgewater Hotel I heard that baritone boom from across the room:
“How you doing, brother?” A big bear of a man, 64 solid years in a summer weight sport jacket, a rock n roll tee shirt and his ubiquitous chapeau. He pushed his paw into mine. We were both scheduled to speak later that afternoon, and I told him I was waiting for my daughter to wake up before we walked over to Myrtle Park.
“You got time to smoke a joint outside on the patio?”
“Always.” I assured him.
The patio was where breakfast and lunch was served and where the festival goers got high in between. We had the spectacular view of the Peugeot Sound all to ourselves, the summer sun on warm water and the snowcaps on the distant mountains.
“How’s your daughter, Rick.” Pfft!
“Good. Good.” I said. “Just starting the tweens.” Pfft! Pfft!
“I got three,” he said. Pfft!
“Yes, sir…” Pfft! “All grown up now…” Pfft! “Lights of my life!” Pffffft!
“Three!” I repeated in genuine awe. “I can’t imagine! One is turning my beard white.” Pfft!
Gatewood smiling said, “I can’t imagine having any less than three.”
It went on like that for the span of a burning joint. Two reefer dads crowing about their kids. We didn’t talk about weed, hemp, Hempfest or a desperate need for law reform which was, after all, why we were there. We talked about our daughters. And you’ll never find a pair of more satisfied men.
“I’d like to meet her, Rick. She sounds wonderful.”
“She is,” I assured him. “Stop by the booth later, and I’ll show her off.”
Later that afternoon Dylan and I were working the High Times/ NORML booth when I saw Gatewood cutting through the crowd.
“I gotta get to the stage,” he called out. “I’m on in fifteen minutes!”
“Yep! I just wanted to introduce you to my daughter!”
He stopped short, spun around and said, “Well, I got time to meet Miss Dylan!” Turning to my daughter, he drawled, “Your father tells me many great things about you!”
“Hey. Let me get a picture of you two” I called out. My tweenager rolled her eyes.
“Well, I don’t know,” Gate joshed. “Young lady, would you like to take a picture with me?”
“Yes, please,” she said with impeccable manners.
They posed together, and I took the shot. Then Gatewood leaned down and whispered something that caused my kid to smile and nod her head. He turned towards me, waved goodbye and then ran off to rouse the rabble. Dylan came back to the booth, and I asked her what he said.
“He said, ‘Young lady, I am going to be the next Governor of Kentucky after this November, and upon my election, I would be honored if you would come to Lexington and have a dance with me at the Governor’s Ball.”
“Really? He said that? What did you say?”
“Yes. Please,” Her eyes were wide and twinkling.
That November Gatewood lost his fifth bid for Kentucky Governor. It wasn’t even close. Had he won, I have no doubt she would have been invited to the ball. On the day before New Year’s Eve Gatewood posted the following message on Facebook:
“Another great day in all our lives. Call up someone you love, or would like to, and let them know it! Make a resolution to lift someone’s spirit each day and follow through with it. It doesn’t take much, a smile, a kind word (words are magic and can create reality) and a desire to be loved yourself because that is what will happen to you when you give your smile. Try it and see. God Bless You All!”
Five days later he passed away peacefully in his sleep. He is survived by his three daughters, Summer, Abby and Molly and two grandchildren Connor and Ella. His youngest daughter, Molly, spoke to the local press.
“I would get … either phone calls or messages just telling me he was thinking about the people in his life who were most important to him and that he loved me more than anything. He did the most amazing job of telling us how much he loved us and how proud he was of us and that he couldn’t be more thrilled to be our father.”
Gatewood Galbraith, reefer dad, will always be remembered in our modest household with warm affection and much love.
* Kentucky Herald Leader