Death of fmr. State Sen/Lt Gov John Shelton Wilder (D-TN)
- View SourceFmr. Lt Gov Wilder died on 1/1/2010 at Baptist Hospital in Memphis, TN. He holds the record for being the longest-serving Lieutenant Governor of any state in U.S. history at 36 years (1971-2007).
John Wilder dies: Capitol Hill loses a legend
Quirky Senate stalwart fought partisanship
By Jennifer Brooks and Chas Sisk THE TENNESSEAN January 2, 2010
The old lion of the state legislature has died.
Former Lt. Gov. John Wilder, who led the Tennessee Senate longer than anyone else in history, died at Baptist Hospital in Memphis early Friday at age 88, after suffering a stroke at his home earlier this week.
His death comes just a year after he retired from the seat he held for 44 years, 36 of them as speaker of the Senate and lieutenant governor of Tennessee.
Tennessee may never see his like again.
He was the longest-serving lieutenant governor in the nation. He may, in fact, have been the longest-serving freely elected legislative leader in the world. He was "Gov. Wilder," even after he lost his leadership post, even after he left his seat.
For four decades, he was a fixed point in a political landscape that shifted around him until it was almost unrecognizable to the old Democrat from Fayette County.
Mr. Wilder built his long career on compromise, moderation and an innate sense of fair play. He shared power with Senate Republicans when his party had a lock on power and there was really no need to do so.
He was a charming, quirky character, prone to rambling speeches and "Wilderisms" fortune-cookie bits of wisdom that left reporters squinting at their notes in confusion.
"The Senate used to go quack quack," he said once, in a sly reference to senators' old practice of hiding their vodka in Donald Duck juice cans during long floor sessions. "The Senate don't go quack quack no more."
"People know who I am," he said another time. "I don't know who I am. But I know what I'd like to be."
Tennessee's current lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, recalls another.
"One of his favorite sayings was 'the Senate is the Senate,' " Ramsey, a Blountville Republican, said Friday. "Everybody knew what that meant."
Translated, he said, the phrase admonished senators to vote on their convictions, not along friendship or party lines.
"I learned a lot from him," Ramsey said. "There will never, ever be anyone else like John Wilder."
Senate was 'big family'
Mr. Wilder wanted to be governor. He was the first, and probably the last, politician to hold the Senate leadership post without trying to use it as a springboard to higher office.
"I wanted to be governor in 1975 so bad I could die," he said last year. "And my baby said, 'I ain't gonna live in that house and have wine parties.' So that ended that."
He never got the governor's mansion but enjoyed 64 blissfully wine-party-free years with his baby, his beloved wife, Marcelle. She died in 2004. During her final illness, he shuttled constantly back and forth between the Capitol and their home to care for her.
Mr. Wilder wasn't perfect. He fought ethics reforms tooth and nail and was overly tolerant of fellow lawmakers' lapses.
"His great fault was in seeing the Senate as a big family," The Tennessean's longtime statehouse correspondent, Larry Daughtrey, wrote last year upon Mr. Wilder's retirement.
"He coddled some who stole like an errant son when he should have taken a stick to them. Several of them are now in prison. He never used an iron hand to control the Senate."
"The Senate is the Senate," Mr. Wilder liked to say. "The Senate is good."
Former Gov. Ned McWherter said Mr. Wilder believed that legislators should be trusted until they proved unworthy of that trust.
"He was a very ethical man. He believed everyone else that served with him were responsible, ethical members of each body. Until they proved him wrong, he believed that," McWherter said.
"It might be a little naive," McWherter said, "but it certainly is understandable."
But he also battled special-interest groups such as loan sharks and the price-fixing liquor lobby. A Democrat in the Jeffersonian tradition, he preached against government debt and counseled fiscal responsibility.
In 1979, as tarnished Gov. Ray Blanton was about to step down, Mr. Wilder worked a deal to swear in Republican Lamar Alexander as governor three days early. The move blocked Blanton's scandal-smeared administration from selling pardons to prisoners.
Daughtrey once asked one of Mr. Wilder's Senate colleagues for the secret of the man's success.
He was told, "We know he won't steal. We're not so sure about some of the others."
No political partisanship
In the 1960s, Mr. Wilder defied his neighbors and most of the rest of West Tennessee's agribusiness interests by encouraging the black tenants on his farms to register to vote. When other farmers drove those sharecroppers from their fields, he let them camp in his.
And when he ran for the legislature in 1967, they voted for him in droves.
It wasn't the last time he would reap the rewards of good karma. His willingness to share power with the GOP served him well in 1987, when his own party tried to oust him in favor of someone more progressive.
The Republican caucus nominated him for the speakership, returning him to power for two more decades. Until 2007, when the Republican caucus and a rogue Democrat voted him out of the leadership at last.
The Senate that Mr. Wilder left was very different from the one he had led for so long. He spent the final day of his final session in 2008 pleading with his colleagues, voice cracking as he begged them not to let his last bill die in committee.
The bill would have preserved the state's judicial selection system, one of his proudest achievements. The committee's Republican majority quashed the bill.
"Partisan politics, that's not my way," he told his colleagues. "All you know that. It's not my way. And it's not the right thing for the state.
"You know what I know. All you know that I know. It's not right. But God bless you."
Mr. Wilder again bemoaned partisanship in the legislature during one of his last conversations with McWherter shortly before Christmas.
"He told me that this was bad for Tennessee," McWherter said. "He was always opposed to that."
He was a tough man
John Shelton Wilder was tough as old leather. The World War II veteran rode his bicycle daily well into his 80s and commuted back and forth between his district and the Capitol in an airplane he piloted.
In 1991, he was on his traditional early-morning cycling ride through Nashville when he blew through a stop sign and crashed into a car, fracturing nine ribs and collapsing both lungs. It didn't slow him for long.
The next year, at 70, he hopped off the wing of his twin-engine Comanche and broke his ankle on the tarmac. Within days, he was presiding over the Senate from a wheelchair, his ankle bristling with screws.
He underwent heart surgery the same year and still bounced back to run for a record 12th term as leader.
But in recent years, Mr. Wilder began to slow down, the accidents and illnesses began to accumulate, and he seemed increasingly frail.
In 2007, he was critically injured in a fall at his home although he was able to drive himself to a nearby service station before he succumbed to his injuries. The next year, he was sidelined by pneumonia.
"Gov. Wilder was one of the toughest men I've ever known," Gov. Phil Bredesen said Friday, recalling seeing him after the 2007 fall.
"I visited him in the intensive care unit at the Med, where he couldn't talk because he still had a ventilator tube in his throat. That was on Friday; the following Monday he flew his plane back to Nashville."
Mr. Wilder used to say that he wouldn't last long if he ever left office. It was his habit to speak of himself in the third person.
"The speaker does not like to hunt. The speaker does not like to play golf. The speaker does not like to fish. The speaker likes to be the speaker," he said.
"I don't like to quit. When I quit, I'll be dead. But it'll be a short funeral. Don't expect to find me standing around the grave."
Funeral services set for former Lt. Gov. John Wilder near home in West Tenn.
By Associated Press
9:27 AM CST, January 2, 2010
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Funeral services have been set for former Tennessee Lt. Gov. John S. Wilder on Sunday in West Tennessee.
Wilder, a wily, eccentric and towering figure in Tennessee politics, died early Friday at a Memphis hospital following a stroke earlier in the week. He was 88.
The Commercial Appeal reported that visitation for family and friends will begin at 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Peebles Fayette County Funeral Home West Chapel along U.S. 64 near Oakland.
The funeral begins at 2 p.m. with a private burial at Belmont Cemetery near the Wilder family home to follow.