obituaries

Year in review: Tennessee obituaries of 2020

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here are some of the notable people who passed away in 2020, as covered by The Tennessee Journal:

January

Fred P. Graham, who covered legal affairs for The New York Times, CBS News, and Court TV, died at age 88. Graham earned law degrees from Vanderbilt and Oxford in England and practiced in Nashville for three years before going to Washington in 1963 to work as chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver’s subcommittee on constitutional amendments. He made the transition to journalism in 1965, the first lawyer hired by the Times to cover the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bobby Lanier, a former top aide to three Shelby County mayors, died at age 90. Newly-elected Mayor Bill Morris in 1977 hired Lanier as his executive assistant, a position he also held for successors Jim Rout and A C Wharton. Lanier pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of using inmates to cater a fundraiser for Morris’ ill-fated gubernatorial campaign in 1993.

LaFollette businessman and auctioneer Haskel “Hack” Ayers, who served in the state House in 1960, died at age 83. Ayers was the son of a Stinking Creek moonshiner slain by state troopers, and the grandfather of Ramsey Farrar & Bates lobbyist Addison Russell.

Former state Rep. Willie “Butch” Borchert (D-Camden) died at age 82. The retired pipefitter and his wife, Christine, were the former owners of The Catfish Place restaurants in Camden and McKenzie and the Borchert Fish Market. It was that experience, he said in committee hearings, that led him to oppose a 2007 state law to ban smoking in restaurants.

February

Vanderbilt biochemist Stanley Cohen, a 1986 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine, died in Nashville at age 97.

Michael Silence, a former Knoxville News Sentinel reporter and columnist, died of a heart attack at age 62. He ran the “No Silence Here” blog of new aggregation and political commentary from 2004 until he was laid off in 2011.

Attorney Charlie Warfield, the last surviving member of the commission that drafted the charter for the merged governments of Nashville and Davidson County, died at age 95.

Victor Thompson, the longtime chief sergeant-at-arms for the state House, died at age 80. Thompson had been a beloved figure at the state Capitol complex since he was first hired in 1988.

March

Attorney Jim Gilliland, a co-chair of Willie Herenton’s transition team after he won election as the first black mayor of Memphis in 1991, has died at age 86. Gilliland later worked as general counsel to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was an adviser to Al Gore for his 1988 and 2000 presidential bids. He also hired Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to his first job.

Former state Sen. Jerry Cooper (D-Morrison), the longtime chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee and a frequent swing vote on major legislation, died at 71. When he was making an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1998, Cooper was fond of jokingly asking lobbyists: What do you call a defeated congressional candidate? Answer: Chairman.

Former federal judge Tom Wiseman, who won a three-way battle for state treasurer in 1970 against incumbent Charlie Whorley and banker Jake Butcher, died at 89.

Hershel Franks, the retired chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, died at 89. As a Hamilton County Chancery Court judge in 1976, Franks ruled that Tennessee’s ban on ministers serving the General Assembly violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The decision was overruled by the state Supreme Court, which was itself reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Former state Sen. Reginald Tate has died

Former state Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) has died, state Rep. Antonio Parkinson announced on Twitter on Monday.

Tate, 65, was defeated in last year’s Democratic primary by Katrina Robinson, a business owner and nurse. A hot mic incident in which Tate vented to a Republican colleague about his frustration with Democrats questioning his party loyalty was a major flashpoint of the campaign.

“I don’t like the lies. But I won’t take time out to respond to it. But I will tell you guys, there is not one time I sold anyone else out,” Tate told his supporters during the race. “I work for $20,000 a year. It won’t pay my car note. I can’t take nothing under the table or on top of the table. I’m too tall to hide.”

Tate said he’d worked both sides of the aisle to get results for his home district. He represented the district for 12 years.

Jerry Adams, budget adviser to 10 Tennessee governors, dies

Longtime former Deputy Finance Commissioner Jerry Adams, who served under 10 Tennessee governors, has died of an apparent heart attack.

Jerry Adams (handout photo)

Adams was hired in 1962 by Harlan Mathews, who was finance commissioner in Gov. Buford Ellington’s administration. He was named deputy commissioner during Ellington’s second term in 1967, and Gov. Winfield Dunn appointed him commissioner for the final months of his term after Ted Welch left government. Adams was acting commissioner for about six weeks under Gov. Ray Blanton, and then settled back into being deputy commissioner under Govs. Lamar Alexander, Ned McWherter, Don Sundquist, and Phil Bredesen.

After officially retiring from state government, Adams remained a consultant on budget matters under Gov. Bill Haslam and Bill Lee.

“In January 2003, I was a brand-new governor, innocent of the details of state finances, and faced with a $300 million shortfall in a state with a strict balanced-budget requirement,” Bredesen said in a statement. “A lot of hours with Jerry Adams in my conference room solved the problem. He knew everything there was to know about the budget, about how things fit together and actually worked.”

Alexander called Adams “the consummate professional as a state employee.”

“Everyone trusted and respected him,” he said. “It was my privilege to know and work with him.”

The Tennessee Journal recounted this incident about Adams in 2005:

About 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, May 15, Deputy Finance Commissioner Jerry Adams left his office on the first floor of the Capitol to head home. He took the elevator to the ground floor, where the only exit that can be used on weekends is located. The elevator reached the floor but wouldn’t open. The phone didn’t work. An alarm did, but there was no one in the building to hear it. About 4 a.m. Monday a worker entered the Capitol, and Adams was able to get his attention. By 4:30 the door was open, and he walked out to find three Nashville firefighters. After his 13-hour ordeal, Adams went home and slept. But he was back at work at 9 a.m.

A visitation is scheduled for Thursday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the West Harpeth Funeral Home in Nashville.

Here’s the full statement from Bredesen:

Jerry Adams devoted his professional life to making Tennessee’s government be its best, and he was extraordinarily successful.

In January 2003, I was a brand-new governor, innocent of the details of state finances, and faced with a $300 million shortfall in a state with a strict balanced-budget requirement. A lot of hours with Jerry Adams in my conference room solved the problem. He knew everything there was to know about the budget, about how things fit together and actually worked. Legislators from both parties held him in such high regard that his briefings gave them the comfort they needed to take some tough actions that spring.

I loved to work with him. He was a problem-solver, completely honest and without guile, earnest, smart, deeply knowledgeable. He worked hard, had a sense of humor, was completely non-partisan. I would have been a different and inferior Governor without him and I suspect many of my predecessors from Frank Clement on could say the same. When I heard of his death, it was a bittersweet moment: Sadness at his passing, but profound respect and admiration as he wrapped-up a long, constructive, well-lived life.

Lee orders state Capitol flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of former Rep. Ben West Jr.

Former Rep. Ben West Jr., a 26-year member of the state House, died last week at age 78. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has ordered flags at the state Capitol to be flown at half-staff on Saturday in the former lawmaker’s memory.

West, a Democrat, represented the Hermitage, Donelson, and Old Hickory portions of Nashville until his retirement in 2010. His father, Ben West Sr., was the mayor of Nashville from 1951 to 1963. His brother, Jay, was a former vice mayor and lobbyist, who died in 2017.

West considered a bid for Congress when then-U.S. Rep. Bob Clement (D-Nashville) was considering a bid to statewide office. West ultimately decided against running and the seat was won by Democrat Jim Cooper.

West had a flair for the bombastic when he was at the Statehouse, sometimes quarreling publicly with is colleagues but often defusing tension with a joke. He angered then-House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington) through his vocal opposition to a state income tax in the early 2000s — and his embrace of protesters who circled the Capitol beeping their horns. But Naifeh kept West on as a committee chairman until he asked to step down from leadership in 2007.

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Bill Hobbs, onetime Tennessee GOP spokesman and provocateur, dies at 54

Bill Hobbs, a onetime spokesman for the Tennessee Republican Party and income tax protester, has died. He was 54.

The cause was cancer, according to Jeff Hartline, the vice chairman of the Wilson County Republican Party.

Hobbs specialized in viral political attacks on then-presidential candidate Barack Obama (and his wife, Michelle) while he was communications director at the state Republican Party. Before that, Hobbs was a prominent figure in the protests surrounding Republican Gov. Don Sundquist’s efforts to impose an income tax.

Hobbs, a former Tennessean reporter, was also forced out from his job as a spokesman for Belmont Unversity in 2006 after publishing a caricature of the prophet Mohammad on his person blog after the Islamic world condemned provocative cartoons published in a Danish newspaper.

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On the passing of political reporter Rebecca Ferrar (aka ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Becky Bear’)

Rebecca Lynn Ferrar, who died of a heart attack this week at age 72, was given the joshing nickname ‘Lucifer’ during 11 years in Nashville as a reporter on state government and politics for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

She was my professional colleague for those years and a friend both before the newspaper’s management sent her to the state capitol to beef up reporting on state-level government and after they sent her back to Knoxville to shrink such coverage in accord with nationwide media downsizing trends (and, it’s fair to add, to enhance coverage of East Tennessee government and politics).

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Former Tennessean reporter Trent Seibert dies at 47

Trent Seibert, a former statehouse reporter for the Tennessean, has died. He was 47.

Seibert was the founder and editor of The Texas Monitor, which announced his passing on Thursday.

Seibert and then-colleague Brad Schrade in 2005 broke several stories in the Tennessean about problems with the Tennessee Highway Patrol during the administration of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, including that prominent people were given “honorary badges” that some saw as get-out-of-jail-free cards and that promotions within the THP predominantly went to troopers with Democratic connections.

Bredesen declared early in the series that he often learned of problems at the THP and Safety Department from reading the newspaper, and that he was “tired of The Tennessean doing out work for us.”

Seibert also had reporting stints at the The Denver Post, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Nashville’s WKRN-TV, and KTRK-TV in Houston. Seibert launched and edited the Texas Watchdog a decade ago and did some work for the defunct TN Report. 

Seibert also had a hand in projects with the Tennessee Center for Policy Research (the predecessor to today’s Beacon Center), in breaking the 2007  story about Al Gore’s home in the Belle Meade area of Nashville consuming more electricity in a month than the average American household did in a year.

Claude Ramsey — former deputy governor, mayor and legislator — dies aged 75

Claude Ramsey, who rose from third-generation Hamilton County strawberry farmer to deputy governor of Tennessee, died Monday at the age of 75, reports the Times Free Press.

In more than 40 years of public service, he was elected five times as county mayor, four times as assessor of property, twice to the Tennessee General Assembly and once as county commissioner. Ramsey never lost an election.

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Lewis Lavine, advisor to governors and non-profit groups, dies aged 71

Lewis Lavine, who served as chief of staff to then-Gov. Lamar Alexander in the 1980s and went on to a career as a public relations specialist with a focus on non-profit organizations, died of heart failure Wednesday at the age of 71. He also was an advisor to Gov. Bill Haslam in the early days of the current governor’s administration.

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Publisher and open government champion Sam Kennedy dies at 91

Former Daily Herald publisher Sam Kennedy and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Obituary by Sue McClure and Tony Kessler

Sam Delk Kennedy, the former longtime publisher of The Daily Herald of Columbia and a tireless open government advocate, died Tuesday at the age of 91.

“As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Broder once said, ‘Sam Kennedy was the real thing,'” said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville). “He presided over the Columbia Daily Herald with an unusual combination of warmth, dignity and utter professionalism.”

“My visits over the years to Sam Kennedy’s office and Mule Day seemed completely intertwined,” Alexander added. “He set a fine example for other editors and journalists and reminded politicians that we should set an example as well.”

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