Messenger Staff Reporter
Now that he’s a private citizen again, former Tennessee Lt. Gov. and state Sen. John Wilder of Somerville will have more time to fly his beloved “Jaybird.”
Yet it’s a Catch-22 situation.
“I don’t have anywhere to go any more,” said Wilder.
“Jaybird” is the name he’s given his private plane, a Twin Comanche PA-39.
Wilder, 87, became a licensed pilot in 1947.
“Jaybird” is the fourth of four Comanche planes he’s owned and flown since the early 1970s. He keeps her housed in a hangar at a private airstrip near Longtown, a small community in Fayette County.
The planes have proven to be a handy means of transportation — flying to various locales in the eight-county District 26 and, during legislative sessions, for commutes to and from Nashville.
Wilder’s record of public service includes a stint of military service during World War II and 18 four-year terms and two two-year terms as state senator. Elected time and again by his peers as speaker of the Senate, he served 18 consecutive terms as lieutenant governor.
About a year ago, he announced he would retire at the end of his term.
On Nov. 4, his term officially ended when District 26 voters elected Dolores Gresham, a Republican, as his successor. She defeated Randy Camp, a Democrat.
Wilder said he wasn’t surprised when Republicans won enough seats in the Nov. 4 elections to become the majority party in the Senate. The tally is now 19 Republicans, 14 Democrats. “They already just about had it anyway,” he said.
Although he is officially retired, Wilder has more than enough irons in the fire to keep him busy.
A graduate of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the University of Memphis law school, his business interests include a law practice; the Longtown Supply Company, a family firm founded in 1887; Cumberland Savings Bank and its several branch banks; and farming and cotton ginning.
“I’m not as busy as I’d like to be,” he said.
Meaning what? That he would like to be back in the Senate? Well, yes and no.
“I would like to be a senator if it was the Senate,” he said. “But I don’t like (it) to be divided and split, trying to destroy another (political) party. I miss it. I have missed it the last two years because it’s gone. The Senate being the Senate and family, it’s over.
“I’ve given it all I need to. I’m gone and just need to get something else going, and I’m going to do that.”
But Jaybird won’t be in the air, at least not much. Wilder said he’ll crank it up “once in a while.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go in that plane any more. Nowhere,” he said. “All I can do is get in it and fly over Fayette County airport. So I don’t need an airplane any more.”
Is he thinking about putting faithful “Jaybird” up for sale?
“No. I’m not going to sell it right now. I’ll just get somebody to ride in the right seat if I need to go somewhere. Fly on down the road,” he said.
In aviation, the pilot flies left seat in a cockpit, the co-pilot right seat.
Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) canceled his pilot license. This, after 50-plus years of personal piloting.
“I didn’t appeal the decision,” he said.
A good trip
Wilder is philosophical about his political career. He characterizes it as “a good trip, and I enjoyed it.”
“My Senate was the Senate and it was (comprised of) statesmen and not partisan politicians. It’s different (now),” he said.
Yet he admits he already misses the Senate. In fact, he began missing it — in his words, his “family” — well before the 2008 elections.
Instead of his Senate peers saying, “The Speaker ...,” meaning Wilder, they are now saying, “Speaker Ramsey ...”
In 2007, after 36 years as speaker, Wilder announced his candidacy for reelection. But his peers, who elect a speaker for each legislative session, would not have it. Wilder was defeated by state Sen. Ron Ramsey, a Republican from Blountville.
Wilder’s defeat undoubtedly opened the door for his official exit from the Tennessee Senate.
He seems to attribute his defeat to partisan politics.
“Being involved in government has been rewarding to me, to see the results we got, doing what was right for the state,” he said. “But we didn’t have partisan politics until two years ago when (former U.S. Sen.) Bill Frist had to get involved. Until then, he stayed out of it. But he had to do what they told him to do.”
Which was what? In his reply, Wilder refers to himself in the third person.
“I believe he got some senators to vote against John Wilder. I know he did. Sure did,” he said. “I gave it 44 years of my life, the best part of my life. I always wanted to do God’s will. I didn’t know what it was, but I really believe He wanted me to be there more than he wanted me to teach Sunday School class or something.”
A high calling
“I think every citizen has a duty to be a statesman and be involved in government,” Wilder said. “I think it’s a higher duty than going to war and fighting a battle. You’ve got to have statesmanship.”
And he seems to have put his money where his mouth is. He’s funded 18 scholarships — “Wilder scholarships” — at Lambeth University “to teach a person to be a statesman and serve in government.”
Most people who run for office today are politicians, not statesmen, he asserts. It’s all about control. “That’s all they’re interested in. Doesn’t matter what (political) party it is. Both (parties) want control,” he said.
Wilder said he hasn’t heard from his long-time Senate peer, former state Sen. John Ford, a Memphis Democrat twice convicted in federal court of corruption and other charges. Ford is serving two sentences in a federal prison in Louisiana. The charges stemmed from a federal undercover investigation dubbed “Tennessee Waltz.” Five state legislators were indicted and either pleaded guilty or were convicted in court.
Does Wilder foresee Ford ever returning to public office?
“If I was him, I wouldn’t want to get back into public life,” he said.
“Because I wouldn’t want to go to jail,” he said.
He pauses a moment.
“They set little traps for me, but I didn’t get in them,” he said.
Does that mean “they” set a trap for John Ford?
“I know they set a trap for him. Now, that’s a crime. When a district attorney puts money in somebody’s pocket to put them in jail, and they’re innocent, that’s a crime. But nobody knows that to be a crime. And that’s what you get for being in public life,” he said.
And that’s what happened to John Ford?
“That’s what happened to all of them, that I know anything about. I’m saying it happened to (former Gov.) Ray Blanton, too. It goes way back.”
He tells of the time his son, David, was offered $500,000 “to get me in jail.”
He identifies “they” as the FBI and TBI.
“They offered that money, but he didn’t take it,” Wilder said. “They did the same thing with (state Sen.) Jerry Cooper (of McMinnville). They were after Wilder instead of Jerry Cooper in that deal. ... It’s just part of being in politics. It’s the price you pay.
“They never got me. They worked on it a long time, but they never got me. I was the prime target of the whole durn thing.
“I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m a Jeffersonian.”
Published in The Messenger 11.17.08