Ex-Sen. Ray Albright dead at 83

Ray Albright

Former Republican state Sen. Ray Albright, who spent 26 years as a state legislator working to improve Tennessee's environment and its education system, died Monday at age 83.

Albright announced in November he had mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by asbestos. He said he was exposed to the deadly mineral in the 1950s and '60s when working to support his family at Combustion Engineering. Later he joined Union Planters Bank and rose to vice president before he retired.

He ran for and won a seat in the Tennessee House in 1968 on a promise to battle pollution and bring clean air back to a city dubbed in 1969 as having the dirtiest air in the nation.

Elected to the Senate in 1970, he was proud of sponsoring the bill that made Chattanooga State a technical community college. The first building on the Chattanooga State campus, the administration building, was renamed the Albright Omniplex in his honor.

photo Ray Albright

Former Times Free Press publisher Tom Griscom covered the Legislature as a reporter in those days.

"I think Ray clearly recognized early on that a community college, for a lot of people, would be a significant opportunity," said Griscom, who now serves on the Tennessee Board of Regents.

"To see how Chattanooga State has evolved over the years, the impact it has had in workforce development, I know Ray saw that," he said.

Albright was chairman of the Senate Education Committee and Billy Stair was a senior adviser to Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter when McWherter pushed through the Basic Education Program funding formula, the money to pay for it and the value-added testing provisions in 1991 and 1992.

"What many people did not know was that Ray grew up in a poor family, and for that reason he felt strongly that Tennessee's school funding should not favor the wealthy systems over the less wealthy," Stair said.

He called Albright's support "invaluable" to the governor's education reform.

"You always knew [that] if Ray was committed to a bill you never had to look over your shoulder to see if he was still there. No matter how rough it got, he never flinched."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, now the Senate speaker, served with Albright for about eight years and remembers his "excellent" service as Environment Committee chairman.

"He was easy to work with. He had a real good personality, very thoughtful as far as a legislator," McNally said.

Albright was "very respectful of all the members" as a committee chairman, but didn't hesitate to voice his opinion during discussions or debate, McNally said.

"The dealings I had with him was, he was very forthright," McNally said. "If he didn't like something, he told you."

Albright friend and former legislative colleague Bobby Wood also credits him with getting state Highway 58 four-laned throughout Hamilton County.

Wood said he, Albright and former state Rep. Paul Starnes graduated together from Central High School in 1953. He thinks it's unusual that all three also served in the General Assembly.

Albright was already in the Legislature when Wood was elected in 1974, he said.

"I feel like he helped me get my feet on the ground coming to Nashville," Wood said Wednesday. "He set a good example and gave me a lot of good advice."

He also was a "very effective legislator, well-liked and respected," Wood said. "I think he had the ability to work together with both sides, which we're sorely lacking now and need so much."

After leaving the Legislature in 1994, Albright was a lobbyist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and for the Small Schools Systems Association, which sued the state for inadequately funding education and won. He was named in 2007 to serve on the Erlanger Health System board.

A private memorial service will be held.