On Monday April 4, 2011, when the word was first released on the passing of the state’s 46thgovernor Ned Ray McWherter, statements were released all across the state from those who knew this man as one of Tennessee’s greatest statesmen. The 6-foot-4 champion of the “21stCentury Classroom” and Great-Depression-era child of sharecroppers, who made it good, was truly one who Tennesseans will long remember. He often said that he knew every hog path in Tennessee, and if you traveled many of our swine developed country roads, you would find out real fast that he was very much a man of his word, because you would run into someone who would tell you they remember when “Ned Ray” came by.
Over the years working in the job that I have at Farm Bureau, I had the chance to follow the former governor on some of those roads and he was truly a governor of the people. He never missed the opportunity to talk to anyone, no matter what line of work they were in or who they were. During special banquets, he would go missing and later be found back in the kitchen thanking those who had prepared the evening’s meal. That was just the way he was. Never forgetting his roots and taking care of Tennessee.
The former governor had close ties to Tennessee’s farmers, having grown up himself in the soil of West Tennessee. As a state representative and former speaker of the House, he worked for numerous legislative efforts to help Tennessee’s farming community. As governor, he was supportive of his commissioners of agriculture and their programs. Over the years, the efforts by the University of Tennessee in reducing soil erosion and the implementation of no-till farming was one subject the former governor was very proud of. During the annual No-Till Field Days held in Milan, Tenn. on some of the hottest days in July, you would always see Ned Ray McWherter there if at all possible greeting those with state and university titles and those with the important designation of farmer.
I’ll never forget one year I made his picture at a breakfast during one of those no-till events. It was an up-close head shot and pretty good of the governor if I do say so myself. Later on in the year, I saw the governor again and asked him to sign it for me. Moving his pipe from one side of his mouth to the other and taking the photo he said, “You caught me sweating didn’t you? Look at the sweat on top of my baldhead. Nothing like a good hot day at No-Till.” After signing the picture he put that strong large hand on my shoulder and said, “Good shot young man. You got me good.” Out of many photographs I have made, that is one I will not forget.
He could always give you a story that left you thinking. One I remember well was during a talk he made to a group of farmers in Middle Tennessee right after being made governor. He said he was in his home county over in West Tennessee and stopped at a small country store for a cold drink. As he got out of the state car, he noticed an old gentleman sitting on the store’s porch watching him make his way to the store. Gov. McWherter said he spoke to the old man and went on in the store, got his drink and returned to the porch where the old gentleman was still seated.
However, this time the old man said, “Ned Ray, understand you got elected governor.”
“That’s right,” he said sort of proudly.
The old fellow then looked him right in the eye and answered, “Ned Ray, you can do a lot of great things in this old world. You can be representative, speaker of the House, and even governor, but always remember that the crowd at your funeral will always depend on the weather.”
The former governor told those farmers that day during his speech that what the old man told him on that store porch would not ever be forgotten. He would attempt to do his best each day looking after the affairs of the people of Tennessee and let the weather determine who shows at his funeral. And by what Ned Ray McWherter has given of himself for this state, in my opinion, the weather played no part in his funeral.
– Pettus L. Read is editor of the Tennessee Farm Bureau News and Director of Communications for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org