When former Gov. Ned McWherter died in April, we noted that the Dresden native had long been a true friend of East Tennessee. His history in that regard stretches back to the 1970s when, as speaker of the state House of Representatives, McWherter sided with lawmakers from the Upstate in helping to pass legislation to create a medical school at East Tennessee State University. McWherter made political enemies in Memphis when he helped to override then-Gov. Winfield Dunn’s veto of the medical school legislation.
For his part, McWherter — a West Tennessee Democrat — said he sided with his “Republican cousins” in East Tennessee because he knew it was the right thing to do.
His support of the medical school was recalled many times on the campaign trail in 1986 when he made his first bid for governor. McWherter beat Dunn — the Republican incumbent — and served two terms as governor.
After being elected, McWherter didn’t forget his friends in East Tennessee. He appointed residents from the Upstate to key positions in his administration. And he kicked off his second campaign for governor at the Rocky Mount Historic Site in 1990.
One of his administration’s greatest achievements was construction of Interstate Highway 26 through the rugged mountains of Upper East Tennessee.
It was McWherter who agreed to complete the most expensive highway construction project (at a whopping cost of $100 million) in Tennessee’s history. And it was McWherter who dogged North Carolina officials to complete their section of the interstate to Asheville.
He also did battle with North Carolina officials over a paper plant there that was polluting the Pigeon River. His critics said McWherter was late in coming to the cause, but when he did there was no mistaking his commitment. McWherter demonstrated that commitment in 1988 by denying the paper mill a renewal of a water quality variance it needed from Tennessee.
We learned last week that McWherter has done one last favor for East Tennessee. McWherter’s son, Mike McWherter, donated a $2,500 check from his dad’s leftover campaign coffers to help pay the litigation costs of a possible lawsuit against the paper mill charged with polluting the Pigeon River.
Mike McWherter told the Knoxville News Sentinel his father became a strong supporter of improving water quality in the Pigeon after seeing for himself the pollution from the former Champion paper mill in Canton, N.C. One of his father’s last public appearances as governor was at the Pigeon River.
As governor, McWherter made sure that officials in Nashville understood the state’s boundaries do not end in Knoxville. His last gift to the Pigeon River is yet another example of his fondness for our region.