Ned Ray McWherter, a shoe salesman and son of sharecroppers who became one of Tennessee’s most popular and powerful governors, died Monday. He was 80.
“We have lost a giant,” Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, said as news of McWherter’s death reached the legislature.
McWherter had been undergoing treatment for cancer for several months. After falling at his home on Saturday, he was taken to Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, where he died.
A leader of the cabal of rural West Tennessee Democrats who dominated the legislature for decades, McWherter was elected the 46th governor of Tennessee in 1986 after serving 14 years as speaker of the House.
“He’s been a mentor to me throughout my legislative career,” a tearful House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh said. “I tried to mold myself after the way he had taught me. Ned always thought about those people who couldn’t take care of themselves. I was with him all the time. I was one of his lieutenants. He was an icon in this state. He’ll be missed but he won’t be forgotten.”
Naifeh and DeBerry, two of McWherter’s best friends, said he kept his humor in recent months despite his illness. They recalled that the former governor was fond of saying that, no matter how popular you might become, “the crowd at your funeral depends on the weather.”
“He was a special person,” said DeBerry, who came to the legislature the year McWherter was elected House speaker. “I think people will go the extra mile for him in spite of the weather.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a McWherter friend, released the following statement: “When I became governor, Ned McWherter said, ‘I’m going to help him, because if he succeeds, our state succeeds.’ " Alexander said. "He was true to his word. That bipartisan spirit symbolized Ned’s entire career. He was one of our state’s finest public servants and a close friend. I will greatly miss him.”
Gov. Bill Haslam called it “a sad day for Tennessee.”
“Gov. McWherter was a true statesman who cared about this state and its citizens,” Haslam said. “He had a long and distinguished career in the legislative and executive branches as well as in business. I will always be grateful for his personal kindness to me and the wise advice he gave me during my first months in office.”
Beloved by voters across the state, McWherter campaigned last year for his son, Mike, the Democratic nominee for governor who lost in a landslide to Haslam.
“He came and told me ‘I’m seriously considering running for governor. I’m looking for a new challenge.’ I said, ‘You’re going to get one if you run for governor,’” Ned McWherter said of Mike’s candidacy.
In speeches, Mike McWherter frequently mentioned his father in the hope that some of the adoration for the former governor might rub off on the son. According to the story that Mike McWherter told at nearly every stop, his father bought himself a red convertible sports car for his 79th birthday so that he could look sharp riding in parades as a representative of his son’s campaign.
As governor for eight years, McWherter reigned over a legislature with lopsided Democratic majorities and routinely won approval of his initiatives with ease.
He enacted the 21st Century Schools education reform program to increase and more fairly distribute school funding across the state. He replaced Medicaid with TennCare, an expanded health insurance program for the poor. TennCare later came under criticism as wasteful and was dismantled but, in McWherter’s time, it was hailed as a model for states trying to provide universal health care.
Under McWherter, Tennessee twice was ranked as the nation’s best fiscally managed state.
McWherter was elected to the House in 1968. He was elected speaker after only two terms. He helped write the state’s “Sunshine Law” that eventually brought open meetings to the legislature. At that time, he was the longest-serving speaker in state history.
Born in Palmersville, Tenn., McWherter grew up during the Depression on a small farm. His parents were sharecroppers. Early in life, he was a traveling shoe salesman and, during his political campaigns, he frequently recalled those days. He eventually became wealthy, owning nursing homes and a beer distributorship.
Other reactions to the death of former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter:
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.: “Ned was a giant of Tennessee politics in every sense of the word. 'We Miss Ned' bumper stickers are still seen around Nashville because he was one of the best governors in history.”
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “Ned was always upbeat, looking for the best in people and situations. He was incredibly kind to me when I came in as commissioner of finance. I never forgot that and continued to seek his counsel throughout my career, as recently as the past few weeks. He was a great friend to me, and I will miss him.”
Mayor Karl Dean: “Gov. McWherter was one of the most popular and beloved political figures in Tennessee, and will be greatly missed. He was a highly successful governor who was a leader in reforming education, he set a new standard for openness and accessibility in government and he was a great manager. Most notably, he loved the state and he loved the people of Tennessee, and it showed in his work. Anne and I extend our deep condolences to Mike and his entire family.”
Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson: “Tennessee lost a true legend today. Gov. McWherter never hesitated to do what he believed was best for all Tennesseans, whether that was raising up our children through education reform, or creating jobs in rural areas through infrastructure improvements. Under his direction, Tennessee set a national standard for fiscal responsibility that endures today.”
Jim Hall, former National Transportation Safety Board chair, as well as a former top aide and campaign manager for both of McWherter's gubernatorial campaigns: “He was my mentor, my friend, and the finest public servant Tennessee produced in my generation.”
Estie Harris, a former McWherter staff member and legislative liaison who now works as a prominent Capitol Hill lobbyist: “The man was like another father to me. He gave me an opportunity that changed my life. He will be sorely missed. He was the model for what I think a politician ought to be."
House Speaker Beth Harwell: “Gov. McWherter was a true statesman. His death is a great loss.”
Harlan Mathews, former U.S. senator appointed by McWherter to fill the seat of then newly elected Vice President Al Gore and a former McWherter deputy governor: “I’m at a loss for words. Here is a man that gave his entire life for his state to make it a better place to live. Tennessee has lost the best friend it ever had."
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey: "Few men have meant as much to as many Tennesseans as Gov. Ned Ray McWherter. This state has lost a true statesman and a true original. My heart and the hearts of all Tennesseans go out to the McWherter family today."
Former U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser: "Ned was one of the great governors of the 20th century. His mastery of the legislative process was without equal. His compassion for the people of need led him to formulate the precedent-breaking medical legislation TennCare. He also was at the forefront of providing better education opportunities for all the children of Tennessee. He was a dear friend and mentor and will be sorely missed."
Ken Whitehouse contributed to this report.