Ned Died Peacefully with Son at His Side (From Obit Prepared by Family)

(Note: This obituary was distributed by the McWherter family late Monday afternoon.)
Ned McWherter, who was born a sharecropper’s son in the Great Depression and went on to a career as a successful businessman, House speaker, Tennessee governor and confidant to presidents, died today at age 80, his family announced.
McWherter, who had battled cancer in recent months, died peacefully at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville at 1 p.m. today with his son, Mike McWherter, and his longtime personal physician, Karl Van Devender, at his side.
Services arrangements were incomplete. Members of the McWherter family said they were planning a public memorial service in Nashville and a private funeral in McWherter’s hometown of Dresden in West Tennessee.
McWherter’s life in many ways was the quintessential American success story. He learned to read in a one-room school with a wood-burning stove, bussed tables for his family’s restaurant, and began his career as a traveling shoe salesman. He parlayed a strong work ethic, a large physical presence and an engaging personality into a career that included several successful businesses and nearly three decades as one of Tennessee most prominent leaders in state government.
Asked years later the secret to his accomplishments, McWherter answered with typical simplicity, “My parents and the people I came in contact with growing up gave me the foundation to be successful, and I took it from there.”


His first endeavor in politics was serving as a driver and informal aide to Congressman Robert “Fats” Everett, who served the Weakley County area. “I licked stamps and drove the candidate around,” McWherter said in McWherter, a biography written by his friend and former adviser Billy Stair.
McWherter was elected unopposed to the House of Representatives in 1968. In his third term he was elected speaker in dramatic fashion, defeating incumbent Jim McKinney of Nashville by one vote in the Democratic Caucus and prevailing again by a single vote of the full House. The new Democratic speaker established his reputation during his first term, leading an effort to build a medical school in Johnson City over the strenuous opposition of the Republican Governor Winfield Dunn.
Despite this victory, McWherter developed a reputation for bi-partisan cooperation. In January 1979 he joined Senate Speaker John Wilder in the removal of Democratic Governor Ray Blanton three days before his term ended amid a scandal over the sale of pardons in the prison system. He refused in 1981 to punish Republicans during the redrawing of House and Senate districts. In 1984 he joined Republican Governor Lamar Alexander to support a sales tax increase and a controversial education package.
McWherter retired from the legislature in 1986 as one of Tennessee’s most influential state House speakers, having presided over a shift in power that saw the legislature become a more equal partner with the once-dominant executive branch. Under his leadership, the House opened the legislative process, adopting rules that prohibited closed committee hearings and that required that most state records be available to the public. The rural speaker appointed the South’s first black committee chairman, Ira Murphy of Memphis. Reflecting McWherter’s Depression-era philosophy, the legislature during this period enacted a number of conservative fiscal policies, including a requirement that the issuance of state bonds be accompanied by the first year’s debt service and that changes to the state pension fund be approved by a committee comprised of the legislature’s fiscal leaders. The result of these and other fiscal policies was a low state debt and a high bond rating that saved Tennessee taxpayers millions of dollars in interest costs.
McWherter’s election as governor in 1986 began with a difficult three-candidate primary and ended in the general election with the defeat of popular former governor Winfield Dunn. His 18-month campaign included hundreds of events, each ending with the folksy promise that he would only need four vanilla wafers and a cup of coffee before starting ready work as chief executive. The message was based on McWherter’s 14-year tenure as House Speaker and the belief that the 270-pound candidate would pause only for a few cookies before he got down to work.
The transition from speaker to governor was gradual. McWherter’s history was one of receiving rather than initiating legislation, and during his first year he preferred to focus on the less glamorous job of managing a sprawling government bureaucracy. He disappointed Democrats by immediately cutting his first state budget instead of hiring large numbers of political supporters. He made an early priority of regaining control of the state prison system that he had been taken over by the federal court. His most significant legislative initiative was a successful effort to establish new standards for the state’s nursing homes and civil penalties for serious violations.
McWherter’s priority was what he called the 95-County Jobs Plan, a reflection of his belief that Tennessee’s economic growth needed to be distributed beyond the state’s metropolitan centers. Over his two terms the plan shaped most of his administration’s major policy initiatives–including education, roads, health care and waste management–in an effort to attract jobs and reduce chronic unemployment in 42 rural Tennessee counties that had suffered double-digit unemployment for more than a decade.
A road construction plan to link rural communities to the interstate system exceeded a billion dollars annually. Regional agreements were established for 35 counties that had no program of solid waste disposal, and an interstate compact was signed with Kentucky, Alabama and South Carolina for the treatment and disposal of hazardous waste.
After defeating token opposition for re-election in 1990, McWherter’s most ambitious legislative accomplishment occurred in 1992 with passage of a sweeping education package that equalized state funding for schools, raised graduation standards, abolished elected school superintendents, and implemented a “value-added” evaluation system for teachers that later was adopted by a number of other states. Funded by a half-cent increase in the sales tax, Tennessee’s expenditures for K-12 education from 1992-1998 grew more than any state in the country.
The sales tax increase followed McWherter’s unsuccessful effort to fund the education plan with a four percent tax on income accompanied by a reduction of the sales and excise tax and the elimination of the sales tax on food. The defeat of the income tax was the only unsuccessful administration proposal during McWherter’s two terms as governor.
The final component of his 95-County Jobs Plan was an effort to provide primary health care to the 500,000 uninsured Tennesseans, many of whom lived in the states’ rural communities. McWherter’s answer was TennCare, a radical plan designed to expand coverage and lower costs by placing the state’s massive Medicaid program for indigent care under the management of the private sector. The plan worked initially, saving more than $2 billion and giving Tennessee the highest percentage of insured citizens in the country. Over time, a combination of lawsuits, mismanagement and increasing costs forced succeeding governors to greatly reduce TennCare’s scope.
By the close of McWherter’s administration in late 1994, Tennessee’s economic growth ranked among the nation’s highest. The state’s unemployment was the lowest in history, and–most important to McWherter–the number of counties with double-digit unemployment had been reduced to two.
The progress drew national attention. City and State Magazine twice named Tennessee the nation’s best managed state government. In 1994 McWherter was named by Governing Magazine as the nation’s most outstanding governor.
After leaving public office, McWherter enjoyed interspersing relaxation with involvement in political campaigns, civic causes, business ventures and spending time with his family.
In addition to his son, Michael Ray McWherter, the former governor is survived by his daughter-in-law Mary Jane Wooten McWherter, two grandchildren, Walker Ray McWherter and Mary Bess McWherter, a stepdaughter, Linda Ramsey and two step grandchildren Matthew Ramsey and Brett Ramsey.

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