Ned McWherter, a onetime factory worker who became a millionaire businessman and two-term Democratic governor after two decades as a legislator, died Monday afternoon. He was 80.
Video: Former Gov. McWherter Dies At 80
Madelyn Pritchett, his longtime assistant, said McWherter died after a battle against cancer, at Centennial Hospital in Nashville where he had been taken Saturday.
The McWherter family invites everyone to join them at a memorial service in Nashville on Saturday at 2 p.m. at War Memorial Auditorium. Another service will be held in Dresden, Tenn.., on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on the front lawn of the former governors home. A reception will follow each service.
In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be made to the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society or St. Judes Childrens Research Hospital in Memphis.
McWherter, of Dresden, was governor from 1987 to 1995, following 20 years in the Legislature -- and 14 as House speaker. He also was political adviser to Bill Clinton during his presidency.
A child of sharecroppers, he became a millionaire through various business enterprises before entering politics.
As governor, he supported education improvements -- called the "21st Century Classroom" -- that put more computers and technology in classrooms, increased teacher's pay, shrunk class sizes and gave local school boards more control.
He was a member of the U.S. Postal Board after he left the governor's office. Mike McWherter, his son, lost the race for governor in 2010 to Bill Haslam. Mike McWherter was at his side when he died, Pritchett said.
"This is a sad day for TN -- Gov. McWherter was a true statesman. Crissys and my thoughts and prayers go out to the entire McWherter family," Haslam tweeted Monday.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
The Palmersville native grew up on a small farm on which his parents were sharecroppers.
He figured his own worth when he was elected governor in 1987 was about $5 million. His stock portfolio alone was worth more than $1 million. Yet when he opened his 1986 gubernatorial campaign, he had a folksy theme and told supporters: "I'm one of you, I'm one of you."
McWherter was known for his down-home approach to politics and life. "I know every hog path in Tennessee," he once said. He was a hefty 6-foot-4 and resembled actor Dan Blocker, who was "Hoss" on the old "Bonanza" TV show.
"Just give me a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers and I'll be ready to go to work," he said repeatedly in the 1986 gubernatorial campaign, referring to his 20 years in the Legislature at that time.
His successful business career began as a shoe factory employee who borrowed money to start a children's shoe factory of his own. He later started a truck line, bought a beer distributorship and bought and sold an oil distributorship.
McWherter's business interests also included a nursing home and he held stock in several West Tennessee banks. He usually was unchallenged for political power in his region and became a state legislative giant.
He campaigned for governor with the promise to give Tennessee an honest, evenhanded government -- protecting the past's values while meeting the future's economic demands.
"In government, there are always those who claim that things should be done differently. But no one can stand here today and dispute the economic growth we have enjoyed over the last 40 months," he said while running for re-election in 1990. He opened his bid for that race by saying he never again would run for public office.
McWherter emphasized his management of the economy and construction of more than $300 million worth of prisons during his first term. The groundwork for the prison construction had been laid in a special session of the Legislature in 1985, when Republican Lamar Alexander was governor.
He also completed an aggressive road-building program that connected distant counties to interstate highways with four-lane roads.
He supported education improvements, dubbed the 21st Century Classroom, which would put more computers and advanced technology in classrooms, increase teachers' salaries, reduce class sizes and give local school boards more control.
"I am convinced that providing our children with a 21st Century Classroom is the most important challenge I will ever have," he said.
An economic recession and his own reluctance to embrace a state income tax intervened before he had done a complete selling job on an economic reform package that included a 4 percent state sales tax and a 4 percent income tax.
As a result, it took the Legislature two years to pass his 21st Century Classroom reforms and it was financed initially with a half-cent increase in the sales tax that earmarked $230 million for local schools.
It was the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court nullified the poll tax that a tax, passed in the name of education, had been earmarked for education.
After leaving office, he remained interested in politics, often campaigning for Democratic candidates, including future Gov. Phil Bredesen and Vice President Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate.
He also stumped for his son in 2010. He told The Associated Press in a September 2010 interview that he told his son he would campaign for him as much as possible.
"I'm not able to travel as much as I did in the past," he said. "But I can still hobble around a bit."
In a September 2010 event for Mike McWherter's campaign, former President Bill Clinton cited the elder McWherter's key role in helping him carry Tennessee in his presidential elections.
Those races were the last times a Democratic presidential candidate won in the state. President Barack Obama, by contrast, lost Tennessee by 15 percentage points in 2008.
The elder McWherter reflected on his time in public office at Bredesen's January 2003 inauguration, when he sat with other former governors.
"I enjoyed my public service in Nashville, and the people have all been good and kind to me," he said. "I'm enjoying my retirement. I guess I'm a content, happy man."
McWherter had eight bone spurs removed from his back in late 2008 and spent several weeks recovering.
In February 2002, McWherter had a cancerous tumor removed from his right lung, describing it as "half a box of cigars"" Pritchett said at the time all the cancer was removed and a full recovery was expected.
In 1998, he had a pacemaker implanted after complaining of lightheadedness and dizzy spells when he awoke in the morning. In 1995 McWherter had a malignant polyp removed from his colon. He also suffered from failing eyesight in his later years.
McWherter's son, Mike, released the following statement Tuesday:
We have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of love from every corner of the state. We are moved to know how many lives my father touched throughout his long career -- people from all walks of life and from all across the country.
Gore released the following statement Monday about McWherter's death:
With Ned's passing Tennessee has lost a true giant. Regarded by many as the greatest governor in our state's modern history, he fused the demands of tough executive management with the authentic touch of the common man. As Speaker of Tennessees House, Ned had already left his mark on virtually every important legislative accomplishment by our State for decades. Indeed, you can trace Tennessee's progress -- economically, socially, racially, in virtually every way - to his wise leadership and his ability to lead diverse groups to decisions that served all Tennesseans, not simply the most influential.
But while Ned Ray McWherter's political biography is legendary, this is a deeply personal loss to my family and me as well. Ned was a great friend and advisor to me, and before that to my father during his years as a U. S. Congressman and Senator. He was also an extremely close friend to my mother, who was a childhood friend of Neds beloved late mother, Lucille. They were born and raised in the same small Weakley County of Cold Corner, and walked to elementary school together. She always loved Ned like a younger brother, and our families were always close. We were political allies, but more importantly, cared for each other and were always there for each other when needed.
Neds help and advice to me were of incalculable value, as was his warm friendship for as long as I can remember.
My family joins all those in this state and across the country in mourning the passing of a great Tennessean and American.