NASHVILLE - Tennessee Rep. Lois DeBerry, one of the longest-serving women lawmakers in the nation and a powerful influence in state politics, died Sunday after a nearly five-year bout with pancreatic cancer. She was 68.
The Memphis Democrat was surrounded by family and friends when she died at a Memphis hospital, her nephew, Gary DeBerry, told The Associated Press.
First elected in 1972, DeBerry was the longest-serving member of the state House of Representatives. Nationwide, only two other female lawmakers elected in 1972 are still serving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
She also was the second African-American woman to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly.
As the first female speaker pro tempore in the House, she was respected by her colleagues, who gave her the honorary title of speaker emeritus. Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle sought her support on key legislation.
State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said "it will be impossible to replace" DeBerry in the Legislature, calling her "a true icon in the state of Tennessee."
A nurse, Favors said she first met DeBerry when visiting the Legislature in the 1970s to advocate on behalf of nurses and community health centers.
Favors recalled when she herself got elected to the state House, DeBerry "provided me a lot of guidance through the political process and helped me. ... She was a great inspiration and a great resource."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he was "deeply saddened" to learn of DeBerry's death. "I had the distinct privilege to serve with Lois in the House of Representatives for nine years, and I enjoyed our friendship. Her knowledge, experience, and delightful personality will surely be missed. My thoughts and prayers are with her family."
DeBerry was a close friend of former Vice President Al Gore for more than 30 years and gave a rousing presidential nominating speech for Gore at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
"The Gore campaign at that time needed a sparkplug, someone to stand up and give a ... call to action," recalled Rep. John DeBerry, a distant relative who served with her for more than 20 years.