Ned Ray McWherter, a son of West Tennessee sharecroppers who became one of the state’s most respected governors, died Monday in Nashville at the age of 80. A man of towering stature, natural intellect, infectious wit and impeccable political instincts, McWherter, a proud Democrat, worked ably with men and women of all political persuasions to build a better Tennessee. His legacy is evident throughout the state he loved.
McWherter served as governor from 1987-1995 after a two-decade legislative career that included 14 years as House speaker. When he first sought the governor’s office, he pledged to provide Tennesseans with an honest and an even-handed government that protected the state’s values while meeting the demands of the future. He kept that promise, a fact that endeared him to people from all walks of life.
As governor, McWherter fought to improve the state’s education system. Long before it became popular, he battled for computers and other advanced technology in the state’s classrooms. He worked diligently to improve teachers’ salaries, to reduce class sizes and to give local school boards more control. McWherter prevailed, and the state was the better for his courageous effort.
He was adamant, too, about the need for a modern network of state roads. His ambitious plan to build four-lane roads to connect some of the state’s most isolated communities and counties to the interstate highway system was far-sighted. It continues to bear fruit today. McWherter was an early promoter of TennCare, as well.
McWherter’s personal story is as compelling as his political one. He was never afraid to work and quickly amassed a fortune through ownership of various enterprises, including a trucking business, beer and oil distributorships and interests in a nursing home and several banks. He never flaunted his wealth, though, telling people that he was one of them and that all he needed to get down to work was “a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers.” He was true to his word.
McWherter — Ray on official documents but still Ned Ray to his legions of followers — remained a man of the people who kept promises. When he ran for a second term as governor, he said that he would never again run for public office. He kept that promise, though his public service did not end when that term concluded. He remained influential in the best sense of that word in state and national politics.
President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore as well as Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker sought his counsel and valued his friendship. That’s in keeping with McWherter’s desire to keep partisanship to a minimum in his world. The common good, not political or personal gain, was his constant goal.
McWherter set a standard of public service that many hope to emulate but that few have been able to match. His death diminishes us all — and ends an impressive chapter in Tennessee history.