In 1978 a New Jersey-born and California-raised kid landed in Tennessee. I was a deceitful, recovering heroin addict and a school dropout, thief and former childhood run-away when I met The Honorable Lois M. DeBerry in Crossville, Tenn. at the Annual Legislative Retreat of The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators.
Rep. DeBerry transformed this stranger through increased exposure and raised expectations.
She invited me to join her at public and private meetings with leaders in Tennessee and across America. Folks were not reluctant to say, "You ain't from around here!" Or ask, "Who are you?" "How did you get here?"
Rep. DeBerry encouraged me to stay in school, register to vote, study issues and dare to dream. Intensely mission-focused and purpose-driven, she believed in me. I took her support and encouragement to heart.
I was a student at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville then. I registered to vote and began registering people to vote. Knoxville's unjust electoral system led me to help establish Citizens for Fair District Representation.
I joined The Afro-American Student Liberation Force to ask The UT Board of Trustees to divest itself of its holdings in corporations doing business in South Africa. In 1979, three students were arrested for protesting. In 1980, eighteen students were also arrested. During this struggle, two UT administrators nearly died – one had a heart attack, the other collapsed. Rep. DeBerry happened to be in Knoxville and saw us on the evening news.
Along with Reps. Clarence Robinson of Chattanooga and Harper Brewer of Memphis, Rep. DeBerry came to campus that night and brought us dinner. Around midnight, she summoned UT Knoxville Chancellor Jack Reese to a meeting. The issues went unresolved, yet Chancellor Reese honored Rep. DeBerry's request: respect our right to protest for right, guarantee our safety, and restore power and water.
I witnessed Rep. DeBerry's strong and active faith speaking to power on our behalf, and our nation's most cherished ideals and principles.
Years later, I was elected to political office. I also led a statewide voter registration effort that paced the nation registering new voters. Today, I am the father and husband of five children and seven grandchildren.
Rep. DeBerry is The Founder of The Annual Legislative Retreat (1975); Founding Member of The National Black Caucus of State Legislators (1977); President Emeritus of The National Black Caucus of State Legislators (1999); Speaker Pro-Tempore Emeritus of The Tennessee General Assembly (2011); and chairman of the board of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, which is comprised of every major state legislative leader in America.
On Jan. 8, 2013, Speaker Pro-Tempore Emeritus DeBerry was sworn in for her 20th term: she is the longest serving Speaker Pro-Tempore in Tennessee; the longest-serving member in The 108th Tennessee House of Representatives, and the longest-serving woman in the Tennessee General Assembly's history.
Speaker DeBerry is a devoted public servant known all over the world – especially among the powerful. Less well known is that a foundation of her call to serve is her dedication and devotion to young people.
I keep her picture on my desk. Every day I thank God that Madame Chairman, Speaker and President DeBerry entered my life when I was lost, confused, rejected and abused.
(David C. Mills is associate director, State Policy and Legislative Affairs, Vanderbilt University.)