John Jay Hooker dies, aged 85 (updated)

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A family friend said larger-than-life Nashville political figure John Jay Hooker Jr., who spent his last days fighting to make physician-assisted suicide legal in Tennessee, died on Sunday at 85.

Political strategist Tom Ingram said he received a message from one of Hooker’s daughters that Hooker had died in hospice. He had been suffering from metastatic melanoma.

Hooker had brilliant successes early in life as an attorney. Tapped in 1958 to prosecute the impeachment of a Chattanooga judge accused of accepting bribes from racketeers, he fell into the orbit of Robert Kennedy, who was investigating the Teamsters union. Hooker later worked as special counsel to Kennedy after he became U.S. attorney general, even living in Kennedy’s house for a time.

Hooker was one of the original investors in Hospital Corporation of America, a chairman of STP Corp., part-owner and publisher of the Nashville Banner, and briefly chairman of wire service United Press International.

He was also a socialite once named to an international list of the best dressed men in the world.

Hooker was a serious Democratic contender for governor in 1966 and the party’s nominee for governor in the 1970 and 1998 races. Many in Nashville remember him for the spectacular success and sudden failure of his Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken franchise. The company’s demise was used against him in the 1970 campaign, and Hooker was bothered for the rest of his life by the idea that some people thought fraud played a role in the company’s downfall.

Hooker, who had aspirations to become president, always blamed President Richard Nixon for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s scrutiny of his business.

In the 1990s, Hooker earned the moniker “gadfly” in the press after he began running repeatedly for political office as a platform to file lawsuits challenging campaign financing. He also began filing suits that challenged judicial appointments, keeping at it for nearly two decades despite losing battle after battle. He eventually earned a 30-day suspension of his law license for “frivolous litigation.”

Last year, Hooker was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. He said the diagnosis was a jolt that transformed his life and gave him a new sense of purpose when he took up the cause of physician-assisted suicide. He pursued the fight to make it legal both in the Legislature and in the courts but did not succeed before his death.

Former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, who was co-owner and CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken, was also Hooker’s good friend. Speaking of Hooker on Sunday, Brown said, “I think John, in so many ways, lived a life of regret. But at the same time, he had a tremendous impact on the people who came his way. He had a terrific talent and a very imaginative vibe. … He was a man always chasing whatever the next dream was.”

Further, a couple of excerpts from a comprehensive review of Hooker’s remarkable life <a href="http://“>in The Tennessean, written by Frank Daniels III:

Admirers, and critics too, cite Mr. Hooker’s ability as an orator, his ability to mesmerize a crowd, his charisma and his optimism, but it was his capacity to make friends that may have been his most admired trait.

In addition to forging a fast and lasting friendship with Bobby Kennedy, Mr. Hooker claimed many famous friends, perhaps his most recognizable are with actor Warren Beatty, and world champion boxer Muhammed Ali.

In December, during an interview for his Tennessean of the Year award, Mr. Hooker lamented the friendships he allowed to lapse during the period after his bitter loss in 1970 and the troubles he endured with Minnie Pearl Chicken.

Though he eventually made up with many of his friends and supporters from those years, he regretted the years he lost.

“I became angry with the wrong people,” he said.

“I got mad at my brother Henry. I got mad at Seig,” Mr. Hooker said. “I don’t know why I pushed away the best people in my life.

“I guess my pride got too big.”

…Mr. Hooker was diagnosed with stage four metastatic melanoma in January 2015, which galvanized him to began his fight to get Tennessee to adopt a “death with dignity” law similar to Oregon, Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, R-Ripley, agreed to sponsor the legislation and get it introduced while Mr. Hooker was alive to testify in its favor.

“When he asked me to carry the Death with Dignity bill, I had my reservations, but like the old barrister he is, John Jay brought me around,” Fitzhugh said.

“I found his love for our great state to be enormous, and unceasing. Until his last breath, he was committed to helping others, fighting for what he believed to be right, and being a voice for the voiceless.

“I’ll miss my friend, and so too will his friends and adversaries.”

Note: This expands considerably the original post.

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