The many comments I heard and read last week on the passing of former Tennessee House Speaker Pro-Tempore Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, were heartfelt and very personal. Some of the most touching came from her Republican colleagues here in East Tennessee.
DeBerry, 68, who died of pancreatic cancer on July 28, had served in the state General Assembly since 1972. She was a fierce and loyal champion of the poor, children and the elderly, but her legislative colleagues also remember her as their friend.
State Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, often took positions opposite of DeBerry when he served in the House. Nonetheless, he was one of the first GOPers to express his sadness at her passing.
Nicely’s post on Facebook read: “Her courage through her recent illness is an example to all how to forge ahead with optimism and faith. Thank you, Madame Speaker DeBerry. You’ve earned your rest.”
State Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, also wrote on his Facebook page: “Thoughts and prayers for the family of Tennessee State Representative Lois DeBerry.”
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (and former Chattanooga mayor) released a statement early Monday noting DeBerry was a “tireless advocate for community,” and she would be missed by all of Tennessee. The Republican senator worked with DeBerry when he served as state commissioner of finance for Gov. Don Sundquist in the 1990s. Corker’s former boss told me last week that he considered DeBerry to be a close personal friend.
“I will miss her,” said Sundquist, a former West Tennessee resident and congressman who is now enjoying his retirement in East Tennessee. “Lois was a good and decent person, and I think she served her constituents well for 40 years.”
Without DeBerry’s help, it is highly unlikely Sundquist would have been able to pass what many consider to be one of the greatest achievements of his two-term administration — reforming the state’s welfare system. Families First made Tennessee one of the first states in the nation to (as former President Bill Clinton famously put it) “end welfare as we know it.”
The former Republican governor said DeBerry helped his administration craft a bill that could pass a House then dominated by Democrats. She insisted on provisions such as child care, transportation and job training to help Tennesseans transition from the welfare system. The result was a program that saw Tennessee reduce its welfare rolls by 60 percent.
“I always found Lois to be very reasonable,” Sundquist said. “She did the things she needed to do, but after the politics were all said and done, she was there to do the heavy lifting.”
Some of my most vivid memories of reporting on the General Assembly for this newspaper are of the times DeBerry presided over the House. I don’t think I ever heard anyone bring down the gavel with as much passion as she could.
I also recall DeBerry as having little patience for the Tommy Toppersons and the Nora Knowitalls (you know the types — people who waste too much time trying to impress others with their perceived wit or intelligence). DeBerry was more interested in results than rhetoric.
State Rep. Kent Williams, an independent from Elizabethton, noted it was her straightforwardness and her work ethic that often set her apart from her colleagues.
“She was all the things a legislator should be,” Williams told me. “Lois was down to earth and she was someone who would not quit. She also looked after her district very well.”
Williams remembers joining DeBerry on a legislative fact-finding trip to Oregon to study how that state had developed long-term care options for its residents. DeBerry insisted the Tennessee task force gather as much information as it could.
“It wasn’t a party when you went anywhere with Lois,” he said. “We were there to work.”
Williams and DeBerry got to know each other even better when he served a term as speaker of the House and she continued in her role as speaker pro tempore.
“We might have disagreed on some social issues, but I think we had a pretty good working relationship,” Williams said.
The Carter County lawmaker said therapy for her cancer forced DeBerry to miss some floor sessions of the House this year. When she was at her desk, Williams said she was sometimes wrapped in a blanket with a heater near her feet.
“She would just keep going,” Williams said. “What a great lady.”
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.