McWherter’s Memorial Service in Dresden

By Erik Schelzig
DRESDEN, Tenn. — Former Gov. Ned McWherter was remembered Sunday by the neighbors and voters who first elected him and sent him on his way to become one of the most powerful Democratic politicians in Tennessee.
A memorial for McWherter, who died April 4 at age 80, was held on the front lawn of his home in Dresden, just blocks away from where an inscription on a bronze statue of the West Tennessee political giant reads: “One of us.”
The services drew politicians, friends and supporters from around the region and state.
“He improved so many lives, and he touched my life,” said Joe Fisher, 73, of Alamo. “I got to meet him one time, and I’m going to miss him.”
Longtime adviser Billy Stair noted that McWherter’s political career was founded in his hometown experiences.
“He came from this community, from a time and a place that today echoes only faintly across the years,” he said. “A small town, where they set up bleachers outside the ice cream parlor over on East Main street to listen to the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio.
“A time when where a future governor from this town dropped out of high school, and was convinced to go back by the mechanic at the local Pontiac dealership.”
A Great Depression-era child of sharecroppers, McWherter became wealthy through various business enterprises before entering politics. He was elected to his first of two terms as governor in 1986 after 20 years in the Legislature — and 14 as House speaker. He also was a political adviser to Bill Clinton during his presidency.

McWherter’s son Mike McWherter, who was the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor last year, delivered the eulogy for his father, just as he had a Saturday service in Nashville that also included Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.
McWherter said his father “sought out those who wanted to make a difference for their neighbors, friends and families — people who put values ahead of personal gain.
Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe said he said he skipped the Nashville services in favor of Dresden because he wanted one last chance to “come and visit with Ned in his hometown.”
The two men became unlikely friends after being both being first elected to the state House in 1968, said Ashe, who has also served as U.S. ambassador to Poland.
“There couldn’t have been two more different people showing up as freshman legislators,” he said. “Myself, an Ivy League-educated, brash Republican; and he, a rural West Tennessee Democrat.”
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said he doesn’t think there will be “another one exactly like Ned.”
“He’s always been the epitome of the kind of citizen, legislator, governor and Democrat that is right at the top of the heap,” he said. “He was genuinely concerned for everybody, but especially those that didn’t have the advantages that he had.”
Karl Vandevender, McWherter’s longtime physician and friend, said he recalled once asking McWherter, who fought a series of health problems over the years, how he felt about death. McWherter said he was unconcerned.
“He said, ‘I’m on good terms with the man upstairs — and with the man downstairs,'” Vandevender said. “In short, no matter how things went, he was prepared to reach across the aisle.”
State Sen. Roy Herron grew up down the street from McWherter and was elected to his seat in the state House after McWherter was elected governor. The Democrat said while rural West Tennessee’s political clout may have diminished over the years, there are many issues that McWherter would still want to address.
“Proportionately there are fewer rural Tennesseans than there were, but their needs are even greater now than ever,” Herron said. “Particularly with the jobless numbers.”
Democratic state Sen. Lowe Finney, who grew up in Dresden but now lives in Jackson, said McWherter served as a role model to anyone interested in public service.
“Ned McWherter set the bar, and it was a high bar,” he said. “He gave good advice. He never told me what to do, but he was always encouraging.”
For more coverage: See the Commercial Appeal and the Jackson Sun.

Leave a Reply