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<br />‘Down-to-earth’ Gov. McWherter was a doer, says one-time assistant

Ned Ray McWherter was not one of those “presumptuous individuals who wanted to be what he wasn’t,” said Mark Stansbury, once a special assistant to the former Tennessee governor. Ned Ray McWherter was not one of those “presumptuous individuals who wanted to be what he wasn’t,” said Mark Stansbury, once a special assistant to the former Tennessee governor. “He was down to earth, although he was the governor.”

Ned McWherter
Ned McWherter

Born a sharecropper’s son in the Great Depression, McWherter went on to a career as a successful businessman, Tennessee House speaker, Tennessee’s 46th governor and confidant to presidents. McWherter, who had battled cancer in recent months, died at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville on April 4. He was 80.

When McWherter began his first term as governor in 1987, Stansbury was assigned to the Memphis office downtown.

“He was a great person to work for. He was always concerned,” said Stansbury, noting that McWherter preferred not to have his name noted on program, instead showing up to do what he could do.

McWherter was a doer. 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 said simply, “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.”

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.

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 Gov. 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 Gov. 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. And along the way, the rural speaker appointed the South’s first African-American committee chairman, Ira Murphy of Memphis.

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 to 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.

In 1989, while working for Gov. McWherter, Stansbury received an offer to transition to the University of Memphis as assistant to the president. Not wanting to send McWherter a message or talk through McWherter’s secretary, Stansbury drove to Nashville to meet the governor personally to tell him he had gotten a better offer.

“He said, ‘Well, Mark, you can’t go.’ I said I can’t. He said, ‘I can’t find anybody as good as you to replace you.’ We talked and talked and he said he had never stood in the way of anybody progressing on his staff, but he was serious, he was not going to let me go until I could find somebody as good to replace me.”

That challenge resulted in Stansbury working for six months doing double working for McWherter and the U of M president.

And still later, while at the University of Memphis, Stansbury took a leave to be interim president of Shelby State Community College (now Southwest Tennessee Community College). He called McWherter to thank him for his support.

“The last time I saw him was last summer when they had the dedication of the statue of him up in Weakley County,” said Stansbury.

“I had a great opportunity to meet him and a lot of the old staffers, and I look forward to being at the homegoing celebration for him.”

McWherter’s son, Michael Ray McWherter, won the Democratic nod for governor last year, falling short in his run against GOP standard-bearer Bill Haslam. McWherter said the family has been overwhelmed with the “outpouring of love” from every corner of the state.

“We are moved to know how many lives my father touched throughout his long career – people from all walks of life and from all across the country.”

A memorial service honoring the former governor in Nashville will be on Saturday, April 9, at 2 p.m. at the War Memorial Auditorium. Another will be in Dresden, Sunday, April 10, at 1:30 p.m. on the front lawn of McWherter’s home. A reception will follow each service.

In addition to his son, McWherter leaves 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.

In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be made to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society or St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Vice President Al Gore (right). Mark Stansbury and his wife, President Bill Clinton and Governor Ned McWherter (Photo courtesy of Mark Stansbury)

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