There have been three Michigan governors who lay in state in the capitol rotunda in Lansing after they died (Stevens T. Mason, Frank Fitzgerald in 1939, and George Romney in 1995), but only one state legislator received such an honor. That would be Mo Hood (D-Detroit), who died in 1998 at the end of his 14th term in the state House of Representatives.
Now that Michigan is ensconced in the Era of Term Limits, it’s almost certain it will never happen again.
But Tennessee, where term limits doesn’t exist, is another story. Here’s the verbatim article in the March 10 issue of The Tennessee Journal, “The weekly insiders newsletter on Tennessee government, politics and business,'” which is undoubtedly the best such publication of any state in the country:
“SENATOR HENRY RIP — In the 1980s, as the Tennessee Senate debated a resolution concerning statehood for Washington, D.C., Sen. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) — now Congressman Cohen — remarked that states were merely “lines on a map.”
Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) offered an emotional rebuttal, declaring in one his most memorable speeches that Tennessee, “my homeland,” was more than lines on a map.
Sen Henry, who died Sunday at age 90, thought of his homeland in much the way Robert E. Lee, whom he revered from boyhood, regarded Virginia. He was a throwback whose eccentricities often amused his friends. But he was beloved and respected for old-fashioned virtues: kindness, humility, impeccable manners, and irrepressible spirit, and above all a sense of honor.
The last person to lie in state at the Tennessee Capitol— prior to Thursday, when hundreds lined up to pay their respects to Sen. Henry — is believed to have been Gov. Austin Peay, in 1927. The unusual honor for Tennessee’s longest-serving legislator was initiated by (Republican) Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and (Republican) House Speaker Beth Harwell, both longtime friends and admirers of the senator.
The casket was draped with a Tennessee flag.
SERVICE. Henry, a lawyer, Army veteran, and heir to an insurance fortune, served in the House in 1955-56 and the Senate from 1970 to 2014. Forty-four years of service tied him with the late Lt. Gov. John Wilder for longest Senate tenure, but his combined 46 years in the General Assembly is the most in Tennessee history.
For many years he chaired the Senate Finance Committee and seemed to find the long, grueling hours at budget time invigorating. But he said more than once the real honor wasn’t in being a chairman, but in being a Tennessee senator.
A staunch protector of the state’s finances, Henry was among a handful of key legislators over the years who helped make sure the state employee pension plan was adequately funded. He guarded Tennessee’s bond rating as if riding shotgun on a stagecoach transporting gold.
In 2000, as lawmakers prepared to fudge on a balanced budget by using non-recurring revenue for recurring expenses, Henry asked the women in a conference room, a staffer and two reporters, to leave so he could speak frankly. They left. Henry chewed out his colleagues with language mild enough that today it could be used on broadcast TV. Then the women returned.
What to Henry was chivalry, to some was chauvinism. And his comments and actions on a few occasions generated controversy. But most women and men, especially those who knew him, overlooked them. He was a strong advocate for children and, right or wrong, unfailingly did what he considered best for the state. He listened respectfully to those who disagreed with him and engaged in intelligent and civil debate.
He had a libertarian streak. In the late 1970s, amid a debate on marijuana, he decided he should try the drug before forming a final opinion. Not wanting to violate the laws of Tennessee, he went to an Atlanta (Georgia) motel to smoke pot and then decided to oppose legalization.
Although he sponsored the child restraint seat law in the 1970s, in 1986 he fought legislation to mandate seat belt use for adults. In perhaps his most famous speech, delivered in 19th century-style oratory with his trademark southern accent, he conceded it might be foolish not to wear a seat belt. The speech built to a crescendo as he bellowed the last line: “Grant me, I pray, the freedom to be a fool.”
Henry was knowledgeable on an array of state policy issues and served for years on the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental relations. He was a history buff and an avid supporter of the Tennessee State Museum, whose board is named in his honor.
In the 1980s, a visiting journalist from France was curious about the Monument to the Women of the Confederacy that stands on War Memorial Plaza. Henry, walking by, was asked to answer the woman’s questions.
He happily did so — and spoke French.
A few years ago, when The Tennessee Journal inadvertently misstated a historical event from the 1960s, Sen. Henry called the following Monday to make sure we were aware of the mistake — because, he said, with obvious sincerity, “I wouldn’t want your readers to think you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
PERSONAL TOUCH. Another time, after children at a Nashville elementary school scrawled messages on tablet paper thanking Henry for reading to them, he sent a handwritten note to every child. This was typical.
DEMOCRAT FOR LIFE. Henry, a conservative Democrat, was not partisan. He often sided with Republicans, especially on matters related to abortion, which he opposed. A friend recalled Thursday a public event at which the senator was asked if he would consider switching parties. Not a chance, he said. He could never be a member “of the party that invaded my homeland.”
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