McWherter loses battle with cancer
Posted: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 9:48 pm
By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, 80, of Dresden, Tennessee’s 46th governor and a Democrat whose influence extended far beyond the borders of his home state, died about 2 p.m. Monday.
Madelyn Pritchett, his longtime assistant, told the Associated Press that McWherter died after a battle against cancer at Centennial Hospital in Nashville, where he had been taken Saturday.
Service arrangements were unavailable at press time. Bowlin Funeral Home in Dresden said the family will likely discuss plans for the funeral with them later today.
McWherter, whose roots run deep in Tennessee, was the son of rural West Tennessee sharecroppers Harmon Ray and Lucille Golden (Smith) McWherter. He was born Oct. 15, 1930, in Palmersville and later moved to Dresden, where he graduated from high school in 1948. The self-made millionaire who began school in a one-room school house was awarded an honorary degree — the first Doctorate of Leadership ever handed down — from the University of Tennessee at Martin Dec. 14, 2004, during the school’s fall commencement.
He had been married to the late Bette Jean (Beck) McWherter of Union City and was the father of Dr. Linda Ramsey, who is a professor at UTM, and of Jackson businessman and recent Democratic candidate for the governor’s seat, Michael Ray “Mike” McWherter.
The former factory worker who became a millionaire businessman began his political career in 1968 with a successful run for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Two terms of service with the jovial and astute politician convinced fellow Democrats he could shoulder additional responsibilities. In 1972, he was elected speaker of the house and made history by holding that position longer than anyone else in the Volunteer State’s history: seven terms spread over 14 years.
He assumed the governor’s seat in 1987 — another precedent-setting maneuver since he moved to that job directly from the speakership — and held that office for the two terms allowed by the state constitution.
Although he returned to Dresden as a businessman when his tenure as the Volunteer State’s chief executive officer ended, he continued to serve his country. He was appointed to the Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service by President Bill Clinton and continued to hold that position until December 2003.
McWherter came to political power in an era when rural West Tennessee Democrats dominated the political scene in Nashville and he had scant problems convincing a legislature heavily weighted toward his viewpoint to support his agenda.
Media across the Volunteer State thanked the governor for sponsoring Tennessee’s “sunshine law” and for his insistence that all proceedings of the House be open to the public and the press. He also came out in support of campaign financial disclosure laws.
He will be remembered in circles championing civil rights for his appointment of the first black committee chairman in the South and for his work in elevating women to positions of influential leadership in the Tennessee legislature.
On the education front, McWherter claimed “ownership” of Tennessee’s 21st Century Schools education reform program. Through that initiative he supported efforts to put more computers and technology in classrooms, found ways to more fairly distribute school funding across the state, increased teacher pay, diminished the size of classes and gave local school boards more control. Other states took notice and incorporated chapters from his success story in their own efforts to do educational history rewrites.
National attention was focused on Tennessee when McWherter championed TennCare, his effort to replace the state’s Medicaid system. The expanded health insurance program for the poor later came under criticism and was largely dismantled, but at the time he introduced it, the concept was viewed as a hopeful model for healthcare reform.
His interest in highway construction led to a major roads program and his business background contributed, no doubt, to his acumen in snaring job opportunities from Japan, other Pacific Rim countries, Europe and domestic companies in the U.S., to the benefit of economically depressed areas in his own state.
A conservative Democrat in many respects, McWherter had the good fortune to serve during a period of record economic growth and development, and twice during his tenure Tennessee was ranked as the best fiscally managed state in the nation, thanks to his leadership.
In terms of national service, he was named to the Council of State Governments and the executive committee of the Southern Conference. He was also widely considered to have the ear of fellow Democrat Bill Clinton, a “brother” governor from Arkansas, as the latter campaigned and later served as president of the nation.
On the home front
A member of the United Methodist Church, McWherter was honored by the establishment of the Ned Ray McWherter Leadership Scholarship at Lambuth University in Jackson in 2005. The funding was made possible by those who chose to recognize the former governor’s generosity, service to the people of Tennessee and service and leadership as a trustee of the United Methodist university.
He established the statewide Ned McWherter Scholars Program, a highly competitive merit-based grant for students attending Tennessee post-secondary institutions, and he frequently referred to UTM as “my university.”
He served 21 years in the National Guard and retired with the rank of captain.
The businessman, farmer, investor and politically savvy Democrat also was involved with the Weakley County Head Start program and the Northwest Tennessee Economic Development District and had been a trustee of the University of Tennessee and a member of the University of Tennessee Foundation and the Baker Center for Public Policy at UT in Knoxville. He had also been chairman of the Weakley County Municipal Electric System for 12 of his 21 years of service with that body.
He had been a member of the board of directors of Piedmont Natural Gas Co. in Charlotte, N.C.; SunTrust Banks Inc. in Nashville; First State Bank in Union City; Centennial Medical Center in Nashville; Volunteer Express Inc. in Nashville; and Hillview Nursing Home Inc. in Dresden. In addition, he had been chairman of the board of directors of Volunteer Distributing Co. Inc. and Eagle Distributors Inc., chairman emeritus of the Weakley County Bank in Dresden and a member of the board of directors of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated in Charlotte.
McWherter had also accepted the position of commissioner of the American Battle Monuments Commission in Arlington, Va.
He was a 33rd degree Scottish Rite Mason and a Shriner and was a member of the Elks Club and Eagles Club. In addition, he was a charter member of the Dresden Lions Club and Jaycees and had been chairman of the Tennessee Heart Association fund raising campaign. He also served on the Weakley County Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee-Arkansas-Mississippi Girl Scout Council Board.
He funded construction of the library at the University of Memphis and the Learning Resources Center at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and both buildings were named in his honor.
Closer to home, he was honored with the erection of a larger-than-life bronze statue privately funded and placed on the Weakley County Courthouse grounds in Dresden to mark his 80th birthday in October.
Seeing it through
Despite a self-proclaimed net worth of about $5 million when he moved into the governor’s mansion in the late 1980s, McWherter never lost his talent for exuding a down-home “folksy” image. He proclaimed he would be ready to go to work for the people of his beloved state with nothing more to fortify him than a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers and the voters responded enthusiastically.
There were few challengers in his political campaigns and, with strong economic winds blowing his way, he might have gone on to a third term as governor had he sincerely desired it and had the state’s Constitution not prevented it. Toward the end of his service, however, an economic recession and the possibility of an unpopular state income tax to finance some of his initiatives took some of the glow off his term.
Nevertheless, McWherter continued to be the “godfather” to some young Democrats seeking office or trying to hold on to their precarious perches, particularly those from conservative Southern states where voters were right-leaning by preference but Democrat-favoring by tradition. Unhappily for him, he was unable to help his son overcome the resistance of a newly-energized Republican Party in the 2008 election cycle.
Tennesseans were unwilling to seat a second McWherter, but they will sincerely mourn the first.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at glendacaudle @ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 4.5.11