Harlan Mathews — former U.S. Senator, state treasurer, deputy governor — dies at age 87

Former U.S. Sen. Harlan Mathews, who also served as Tennessee’s state treasurer, deputy to Gov. Ned McWherter and mentor to many Democratic political figures for decades, died Friday at age 87.

Mathews, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, died at Alive Hospice in Nashville with his wife, Patsy, at his side, according to an email distributed to media by family friends.

Mathews began a long career in the public service arena in 1950 during the administration of Gov. Gordon Browning. He continued to serve during the administrations of Govs. Frank Clement and Buford Ellington, including a long stint as state finance commissioner.

Mathews subsequently served as an assistant to longtime state Comptroller Bill Snodgrass, then was elected state treasurer in 1974, holding that position until 1987, when he became deputy governor to McWherter.

He served as deputy governor until January, 1993, when McWherter appointed Mathews to the U.S. Senate, succeeding Al Gore after Gore became vice president. He did not seek election to a regular term and stepped down in December, 1994, after Fred Thompson won the seat.

He was afterwards active as a lawyer and lobbyist until retirement. Besides his wife, Mathews is survived by two sons, Stan and Les Mathews, and granddaughters Katie Zipper and Emily Mathews. He was preceded in death by his son Rick Mathews.

The funeral is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday at Harpeth Hills Funeral Home, 9090 Highway 100, in Nashville. The service will be preceded by visitation starting at 1:30 p.m. The family requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Nashville School of Law, where Mathews obtained his law degree, and Alive Hospice.

“Harlan was the man behind the man,” said Billy Stair, a longtime friend who was senior adviser to McWherter while Mathews was deputy governor.

He was a behind-the-scenes adviser to Clement, for example, in dealing with the aftermath of the 1957 Clinton school bombing and to Ellington when state legislators moved to assert more independence from the governor in the 1960s. He counseled McWherter on many matters, including how to deal with a historic Supreme Court ruling that found the state’s education system unconstitutional.

“In all those decisions his fingerprints were not there because he never sought the limelight or acclaim,” aid Stair. “But his counsel and his advice were there in all those decisions.

“He was not an eloquent public speaker. His eloquence was in the example that he showed every day with the people he worked work. That’s what inspired us to stay in public service.”

“There is no figure in modern Tennessee history, in my opinion, who was more impactful to the citizens of Tennessee than Harlan Mathews – and I include my dad in that,” said Mike McWherter, son of the former governor, the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor and currently a member of the TVA board. “He was a highly-active, behind-the-scenes guy who has had an impact on a lot of people.”

“Except for his great friend Ned McWherter, no one had more friends around the state capitol than Harlan Mathews did. He served our state and our country with distinction. Honey and I send our sympathy to Patsy and to their family,” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican who was governor during much of Mathews’ tenure as state treasurer.

The current state treasurer, Republican David Lillard, said Mathews was “a great leader and a wonderful person” and “the father of the modern Tennessee Treasury Department.”

“During his service as state treasurer, the department established its unclaimed property program, its 401(k) and 457 plans and its chairs of excellence program, to name only a few of his many initiatives. He also managed the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, the retirement program for state workers, teachers and other public employees, in a financially prudent manner which still has a positive impact for retirees and future retirees to this day.

“Sen. Mathews has been a good friend to me personally during my service as Treasurer. His support for the Treasury Department he loved and its employees never wavered. He will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his widow and family,” Lillard said.

Born in Sumiton, Ala., Mathews came to Nashville from Jacksonville State College to enroll in Vanderbilt University, where he later obtained a masters degree in public administration. While in school, he took a job at the State Planning office and then met Clement, who hired him as an assistant.

That led to Mathews appointment in 1961 as state finance commissioner by Gov. Buford Ellington, a post he held for ten years.

In, 1971, following the electlon of Republican Winfield Dunn as governor, Mathews briefly left state government to work in the private sector. He returned in 1973 to serve as the legislative assistant to longtime state comptroller Snodgrass. The Tennessee General Assembly elected Mathews state treasurer in 1974 when his predecessor, Tom Wiseman, opted to run for governor.

He served as state treasuer until beoming McWherter’s deputy and held that position until appointed to the U.S. Senate.

From the family-approved email:

Honorary pallbearers include Steve Adams, Tom Benson, Carl Brown, Tom Cone, Nancy-Ann DeParle, John Faber, Jim Hall, Don Holt, Carl Johnson, Dr. Joe Johnson, Jeremy Kane, David Lillard, J.W. Luna, David Manning, Raymond Marston, Mike McWherter, Clayton McWhorter, John Morgan, William Nichols, Roy Nix, Parker Sherrill, Arnold Tackett, Bo Roberts, Pete Sain, Dale Sims, Captain Bobby Trotter, David Welles, Bill Whitson, and “Harlan’s Girls” – Estie Harris, Adrienne Knestrick, Katy Varney and Beth Winstead.