Gov. Ned Ray McWherter’s son Mike and his wife, Mary Jane, along with other family members, walk across the front lawn of the McWherter home in Dresden.
In the end, just as in the beginning, he did it his way.
Gov. Ned Ray McWherter spoke often of his funeral. He always wished it to take place at his home in Dresden and he wished for Frank Sinatra’s song, “My Way,” to be played. He also admitted that the size of the crowd would depend entirely on the weather. What he was never able to visualize in the planning was how much he would come to mean to so many different people from all walks of life.
Not only was the Sunday service held under a tent on his front lawn, but the sunny weather prompted an overflowing crowd. In the end, “’Ol Blue Eyes” serenaded the audience as McWherter requested.
Surrounded by family, friends and elected officials of the past and present, McWherter’s son Mike opened the memorial service by banging his father’s gavel, something he always enjoyed doing as a child, and delivering the eulogy.
“Dad felt very strongly about having this service in his hometown – where he got his start,” McWherter explained after he introduced and acknowledged family and friends.
When asked by his father to give the eulogy, McWherter contemplated several lessons he’d been taught and settled on the importance of quality. “Not material quality, but quality of life,” McWherter stressed.
“Think about how you gained his trust,” he challenged the audience members. “He sought out people who could make a difference and he put values ahead of personal gain. His personal pride lay in the fact that no one ever used his or her position for personal gain. He was a natural leader. People were attracted to his quality. He was ambitious, but never at the cost of others. He was hardworking and compassionate and he could bring out the best in his fellow man and woman. He leaves a legacy that will travel forward forever. Like a teacher, he left lessons for all of us.”
McWherter admitted that his father’s choice to have the Sinatra song played served as a proper summation of the governor’s life.
“It really sums up dad,” he remarked. “He was always able to find a solution that worked. He did do it his way and he did a splendid job for the state and nation.”
McWherter’s longtime physician and friend, F. Karl Vandevender, advised that to get to the heart of McWherter’s success, one needed to look no further than his mother, Lucille.
“Lucille loved her son. She had enough love for 10 to 12 children, but since she just had one, all the love was concentrated on him,” he explained.
Vandevender encouraged audience members, if finding themselves struggling with McWherter’s death, to picture him as a baby.
“Lucille’s pride was unwavering. When her son became a businessman, Speaker of the House and governor, it did not come as a surprise to her. His early years were ones of great abundance. He was larger than life and had extra energy, luck, charisma and heart. He was also the canniest. He had the perspective of an elder statesman before he was an elder statesman. It was a universal truth that people who met him never forgot him,” Vandevender related.
He referred to McWherter as a “front-door guy” who always came into the clinic through the front, never missed an opportunity to shake hands and always remembered names and the latest news in each and every life. Vandevender found himself often gazing on and knew that the governor was doing his own sort of doctoring – “taking the pulse of the people.”
“He was genuinely moved by the people he met. In many ways he was solid, but in other ways, he had faulty wiring. He gracefully took on his last fight and admitted, ‘I’m on good terms with the man upstairs and the man downstairs,’” Vandevender recounted.
As the doctor closed out with the Rudyard Kipling poem, “If,” he admitted the governor “changed the world by example and he would charge us to live up to that example.”
“He had an emotional attachment that defied logic,” the governor’s senior policy adviser Billy Stair remarked. “He symbolized what public service could and should be.”
Stair shared his belief that people were drawn to McWherter because of his humble beginnings – dropping out of high school and choosing to go back on the encouragement of the local Pontiac dealer. He then went on to say that his magnetism was further fueled by McWherter’s belief that Tennessee is a family.
“He seemed to stand alone at times with a sense of honor that was old-fashioned and uncompromising. When he wept over the Hatchie River Bridge collapsing and the death of 13 people, when he held the hand of a man serving a 60-year sentence, when he knelt under a tree in Hohenwald and prayed over a handicapped child…It was unrehearsed and unscripted. It drew us to him,” Stair recalled.
Last October 15 on McWherter’s 80th birthday and the Dresden statue unveiling, he struggled to get out of his chair for the National Anthem, but rallied when “his heart defied his body” to give his speech at the event.
“He spoke of values we can hand down to our children – values more important than legislature.”
At the close of his remarks, Stair related a story of the burning of the Dresden courthouse in 1948 and how several high school students planted trees to ensure that the future would endure – something McWherter must have realized in his 80th birthday speech when he gazed upon the now-towering hemlock trees on the courthouse lawn.
“One way he wanted to be remembered was as a man who did not show favoritism. He showed fairness and integrity and followed James 2:8 in ‘loving your neighbor as yourself,’” the governor’s chief-of-staff David Gregory remarked in his sermon.
“He could relate to everyone from presidents to preschool teachers. He loved our state and was deeply troubled about the plight of poor people. We’re all in a better place because of his dedicated efforts and leadership.”
“The state lost a hero,” Gregory concluded.
Audience members stood as McWherter’s family made its way out of the tent to the familiar Sinatra song.
Out of the darkness, they entered the early April sunshine onto a perfectly cut Cary Lawn. Just six months before the bronze statue of their hero had been unveiled. But the town and the county bearing signs with his name, a library with his imprint and other marks of his influence will go on with his motivating force behind them.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.