Former Tenn. Lt. Gov. John S. Wilder dies at 88

John Wilder
John Wilder

Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - John S. Wilder, a wily, eccentric and towering figure in Tennessee politics as lieutenant governor/Senate speaker for 36 years, died early Friday at a Memphis hospital. He was 88.

Wilder's son, Shelton Wilder, confirmed that his father died at 12:10 a.m. at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis. John Wilder was hospitalized earlier this week following a stroke.

"He was at peace," Shelton Wilder said Friday.

When John Wilder's 36-year tenure as Senate speaker ended in 2007, he was the longest serving presiding officer of a legislative chamber in modern U.S. history, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

His friends and colleagues called that a unique feat.

"He was an innovator," Rep. John Deberry, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus, said Friday. "To be speaker of such a politically divided organization as the Senate for as long as he was, is truly a remarkable feat. He's ... made a mark on the history of this state and I hope the people of Tennessee truly realize what a great treasure he was."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey agreed.

"He was a very unique individual," said the Blountville Republican. "He'll go down in the history books as one of those people that helped make Tennessee a better place to live."

Wilder was hospitalized five days in February 2008 for pneumonia, but returned to work at the Capitol one day after being discharged. Then in March 2008, at age 86, he announced on the Senate floor that he would not seek re-election, calling the Senate "more a part of me than anything else I've done."

Wilder, a Democrat from Mason, was last elected to the post in 2005 at age 83. It was his 18th consecutive term. He lost it to Ramsey in 2007 when he failed to get the crossover GOP support he had enjoyed in the past and a Democrat voted against him.

As of 2007, Wilder had served a total of 43 years in the Senate - 36 as Senate speaker.

"All my life I've wanted to make a difference," he told his colleagues in announcing he was leaving public life. "I wanted to do what God wanted me to do, and I didn't know exactly what that was."

As Senate speaker, Wilder also was the state's lieutenant governor and the first in line to succeed the governor in the event of death or resignation. But he never ascended to the governorship.

In a statement, Gov. Phil Bredesen called Wilder "one of the toughest men I've ever known."

"It was a privilege to know this unique Tennessean," he said. "I wish it could have been for a longer time."

Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, said Wilder was one of the most honest men he has ever known.

"When you look up the word statesman in the dictionary, you're sure to find John Wilder's name," Naifeh said.

As speaker, Wilder was empowered to appoint standing committees and name chairmen. He remained lieutenant governor so long by appointing Republicans to some committee chairmanships and gaining GOP support when the full Senate elected the speaker every two years.

Supporters long cited Wilder's light touch in controlling the 33-member Senate, letting it take a path of its own choosing. Wilder's mantra of "the Senate is the Senate" was often followed by expressions of pride in the members' actions - no matter what they might have been.

Democratic Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville was a close friend of Wilder's and the only senator who was already in office when Wilder came to the Senate. He is still serving.

"John Wilder single-handedly made the Tennessee Senate, while he was there, what a Senate should be," said the 83-year-old Henry. "He gave every member time and encouragement to promote what he wanted. He never told any member how to vote. He believed in a senator being a senator, as he used to put it. And that's a gift that hasn't been given to many legislators in my opinion."

Critics called Wilder a crafty politician whose only real goal was to remain speaker - even at the expense of his own party's goals.

Wilder was first elected to the state Senate in 1959 for a two-year term, but then was out of office until winning election again in 1966 to another two-year term. He won his first four-year Senate term in 1968.

His cooperation with Republicans did not always sit well with fellow Democrats. In 1987, the State Democratic Executive Committee censured him for giving Republicans control of four of nine Senate committees.

"I have an unequivocal commitment to be fair and impartial, regardless of race, creed, sex or political affiliation," Wilder said at the time.

A year later, the same committee voted not to send him as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

Wilder also participated in one of Tennessee's strangest political events - the removal of fellow Democrat Ray Blanton as governor on Jan. 17, 1979. Wilder and other Democrats were concerned that Blanton, in the last days of his administration, would add to the 52 pardons and commutations he had just issued.

Wilder and the others decided to swear in Republican Gov.-elect Lamar Alexander three days early to head off further Blanton actions.

In the early 1960s, during racial unrest in his native Fayette County, Wilder refused to punish black tenants by evicting them or calling in crop loans.

He attended the University of Tennessee's College of Agriculture and was a graduate of the Memphis State University Law School.

He was a farmer, businessman, cotton ginner and practicing lawyer. He was a pilot and flew his own plane.

Later in his career, Wilder was known for his disjointed speeches, and some of his sentences became known as "Wilderisms."

In June 2002, as the Legislature was at an impasse over the state budget, he told the Senate: "It may be, it may be and I don't think it is, it may be one or two people in here don't know what right is, but I don't know that that's true."

Later in the same speech, Wilder said:

"Likes repel and likes attract. In the inorganic world there's a positive and a negative force. It's constructive and destructive. It's good, it's bad. It's love, it's hate. It's God and the devil. And the sum total of both forces add up to put us where we are."

Over the years, members of the Capitol Hill media corps posted clippings containing some of Wilder's most memorable quotes on the walls in the press room.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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