Former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter was a big man physically. He also had a big heart, and he did a big and successful job leading Tennessee as governor from 1987 to 1995.
Before that, he was an outstanding, admirable and powerful leader in the Tennessee General Assembly for two decades.
It is saddening, therefore, that McWherter’s long and constructive life now has come to an end at the age of 80, after a battle with cancer.
McWherter was 6 feet 4 inches tall, with a physique to match his height. But more importantly, he was a big and inspiring example of the American ideal of “coming up the hard way” to become a success in both politics and business.
McWherter was from Dresden, in northwestern Tennessee. He was a young man during really “hard times” in the country.
He began working in a shoe factory at a young age. Then he borrowed money to start his own enterprise, making children’s shoes. But that was just his business beginning. He started a truck line, operated a beer distributorship, bought and sold an oil distributorship, had an interest in a nursing home and was a stockholder in several banks in West Tennessee.
He entered politics by running for and winning a seat in the state House of Representatives. An ardent Democrat, he was chosen by the then-Democrat majority in the Tennessee House to be speaker.
Naturally unpretentious, he was open, frank and fair, always approachable by his fellow officials and members of the general public. Tennesseans always knew where he stood. He was plain and without guile.
Tennessee voters twice elected him governor, and he did a good and responsible job.
Always energetic and enthusiastic, he memorably and repeatedly said while campaigning for governor in 1986, “Just give me a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers, and I’ll be ready to go to work.”
McWherter is remembered for promoting educational improvements and a statewide highway construction program. At one time, he said, “I am convinced that providing our children with a 21st Century Classroom is the most important challenge I will ever have.”
In one of his ceremonial duties, the governor particularly enjoyed leading a delegation of Tennesseans to Groton, Conn., on a freezing day, to dedicate and launch one of the Navy’s huge nuclear submarines, the USS Tennessee.
As a traditional, old-style Democrat, he vigorously supported Democrats in national politics. Former President Bill Clinton credited McWherter with Clinton’s carrying Tennessee in his campaigns. No Democrat presidential hopeful has won Tennessee since.
McWherter, a man of good heart and good spirit, recently said: “I enjoyed my public service in Nashville, and the people have all been good and kind to me. I’m enjoying my retirement. I guess I’m a content, happy man.”
Tennesseans had many reasons to be content and happy with McWherter’s service as well.