Former Sen. Douglas Henry, longest-serving lawmaker, dies

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Former Sen. Douglas Henry, a larger-than-life former state lawmaker with the longest tenure in the history of the Tennessee General Assembly, has died. He was 90.

His daughter, Kathryn Henry-Choisser, said she and her brothers Douglas and Bob were by his side as Henry died peacefully around 11:50 p.m. Sunday in his West Meade home. Visiting family members have filled the house throughout the past few days, she said.

“He set a very fine example of how to interact with the world in a compassionate, and empathetic, and curious way,” Henry-Choisser said. “There are no perfect words. We can try to come close, but I don’t know if I can match his eloquence.”

Henry was an attorney from a wealthy Nashville family who was famous for his Southern manners, seersucker suits and a cigar chomped between his teeth — though he never smoked around women on the basis that it would be “very discourteous.”

Henry, a Democrat, presided over the powerful Senate Finance Committee for three decades until Republicans took over the upper chamber in 2007. But he was so respected by the majority party that they named him “chairman emeritus” and continued to give great deference to his views on financial matters facing the state until he retired in 2014.

Born in 1926, Henry was known by the nickname “Duck.” He studied French, Greek and Latin as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, and later earned his law degree from the same university.

Henry, who served in World War II and received the Philippine Independence Medal, was elected to a single term in the state House beginning in 1955. As a freshman lawmaker representing Nashville, he sought to read up on the governor’s annual spending proposal. But Henry was rebuffed when he sought a copy of the budget proposal on the basis that he was “not on the list” of lawmakers approved to view the document.

Henry was later elected to the Senate in 1971, where he championed education, children’s welfare and voting rights. He was also an opponent of abortion rights.

Henry was a close friend of the late Democratic Senate Speaker John Wilder, who served in 22 General Assemblies before he died in January 2010 at age 88. Henry ended up serving in a record 23 two-year General Assemblies before he retired.

Gov. Bill Haslam said in a statement on Monday that the state owes a lot to Henry’s dedication and perseverance.

“He served the state for nearly 50 years, and it is not an exaggeration to say that he is one of the primary reasons the state is on such solid financial footing today. He was a powerhouse intellect, courteous, kind, genuine and a statesman, and I will miss knowing that his wisdom and perspective are only a phone call away,” Haslam said.

Former Vice President Al Gore said in a statement that he had spoken to Henry just two weeks ago and called him “a dear friend.”

“Senator Douglas Henry devoted his life to public service and embodied the spirit of bipartisanship,” Gore wrote.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally called Henry a mentor and friend in a Facebook post.

“It is impossible to quantify this loss or even put it into words,” McNally said. “He always wanted what was best for his state, never for himself. A true gentleman, he was consistently kind and gracious to everyone.”

The new Tennessee State Museum that is currently under construction in Nashville was named after Henry — over the senator’s objections.

When a marijuana decriminalization bill was introduced in the 1970s, Henry decided to smoke the drug himself to understand what it was all about — but left Tennessee to inhale so he wouldn’t be breaking any laws in his home state. Henry ended up voting against the measure.

During a 2011 debate over internet sales tax collections, Henry was horrified to find out that consumers are legally responsible for paying taxes on goods bought online, even though few do in practice. The avid student of history calculated that he owed the state $97 for books purchased online, and promptly wrote a check to the Revenue Department.

Henry was defender of the Southern cause during the Civil War, often citing the valor of Confederate soldiers against great odds.

A colleague’s remark that state boundaries were merely “lines on a map” drew an impassioned response.

“Line on the map, sir! Tennessee? Lines on the map!” Henry roared. “Is the 48th parallel between the United States and Canada a line on the map?”

Henry told The Tennessean newspaper in 1991 that his principles required courteous behavior from men toward women.

“If Mrs. Henry and I were out and somebody offered her an insult, it would be my responsibility ... to punish him on the spot,” he said at the time.

In one memorable exchange, Henry stood on the floor of the Senate in 2007 to speak up for pigs, making the case for a bill to make dog-versus-hog fights a felony in Tennessee.

“Mr. Speaker, if you and I were young and trim and got in the ring with each other, one of us would win and one of us would lose, and it would be a fair fight,” the then 80-year-old senator told Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

By contrast, he said, the hog-dog fights are stacked against the swine.

“That’s not a fair fight, Mr. Speaker,” Henry said. “What that is, is taking pleasure in torturing that hog. And the hog ought to be protected against that kind of thing.”

Toward the end of his career, Henry’s conservative politics increasingly left him at odds with his Democratic colleagues. For example, in 2011 he was the only Democrat to join Senate Republicans in voting to create a sweeping school voucher program in Tennessee, though the measure later failed in the House.

Henry’s wife of 67 years, Loiette “Lolly” Hume Henry, died in December at age 89. The Henrys had six children.

In 2010, Henry survived a Democratic primary challenge from young Nashville attorney Jeff Yarbro by just 17 votes to win re-election. Yarbro won the seat after Henry decided not to run for re-election in 2014.

Henry became a much-loved figure among Republicans both before and after his departure from office, and he often returned to visit the chamber floors or his treasured Senate Finance Committee.

Henry attended the budget presentation by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration in January, and thanked senators for the “extreme courtesy” of allowing him to listen from the dais.

“I’m going home now,” he said with a laugh, “because, well, I’ve grown old.”

Jonathan Mattise contributed from Nashville, Tennessee.