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:


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.


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.


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.


James “Woody” Brosnan, a retired Tennessee statehouse and congressional reporter for the Commercial Appeal, died at his Silver Spring, Md., home after a battle with brain cancer. Brosnan moved from Memphis to the Nashville bureau in 1979 and was assigned to Washington five years later. He clashed with what he saw as news managers’ increasingly “insular and provincial” outlook at the paper, leaving in 2003.


Fred L. Davis, a Memphis businessman and civic leader who supported the 1968 sanitation strike and marched with Martin Luther King Jr., died at age 86. Davis was on stage for King’s “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech the day before he was assassinated.

Memphis Democratic operative Kevin Gallagher, who managed U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen’s first successful congressional bid in 2006, died after a five-year battle with brain cancer. Gallagher also worked on A C Wharton’s campaign for Shelby County mayor in 2002 and later served as his public affairs director.


Johnny Majors, the University of Tennessee’s head football coach from 1977 to 1992, died this week at age 85. Majors won three Southeastern Conference championships during his time at the helm. The Lynchburg native was an unabashed Democrat. In 2016, he called the Republican-led state legislature “a confederacy of dunces and a ship of fools” and described then-presidential candidate Donald Trump as a “present-day Dr. Strangelove.”

Telecommunications industry pioneer James Bass died two weeks shy of his 99th birthday. Bass in 1954 helped form the National Telephone Cooperative Association, now known as NTCA-Rural Broadband Association, and its political action committee. Bass was a native of Carthage and fought in World War II.


Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, a Memphis native, died Thursday at age 74. The former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza was hospitalized with COVID-19 after attending a rally for President Donald Trump in June.

William W. LeRoy, a former insurance industry lobbyist of more than 30 years, died of cancer at age 89. His daughter, Emily LeRoy, lobbies for the Tennessee Fuel and Convenience Store Association.


Jane Walters, the state’s first female education commissioner under Gov. Don Sundquist from 1994 to 1999, died at age 85. Before taking on the state role, Walters was the principal at Craigmont School in Memphis for 16 years.

Former Shelby County Chancellor Wil Doran died at age 88. Doran in 1974 found the state’s new Sunshine Law to be unconstitutional, but the state Supreme Court unanimously overturned the ruling in the case filed by the city of Memphis, Shelby County, and the Tennessee Municipal League.


Curtis Person Jr., whose legislative career spanned four decades before he went on to serve as a juvenile court judge in Shelby County, died on Sept. 4 at age 85. Person was a longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and was known for his meticulous attention to pending legislation, parliamentary procedure, Senate rules, and the Tennessee Constitution. He was the longest-serving lawmaker in state history when he retired.

Fred Congdon, a former Unicoi County mayor who headed the Tennessee Association of County Mayors for 25 years, died after testing positive for COVID-19. He was 71. Congdon, an accomplished bluegrass musician, served as a sergeant-at-arms for one session after retiring from the county mayor’s association in 2015.

Knoxville attorney Pamela Reeves, the first female chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, died after a
two-year battle with cancer. She was 66. Reeves was previously the first woman to serve as president of the Tennessee Bar Association and chair the Knox County election commission.


Former Tennessee Secretary of State Riley Darnell, a Clarksville Democrat who served 22 years in the General Assembly and later another 16 years as secretary of state, died at age 80 following a brief battle with cancer. From about mid-1986 into January 1987, labor and trial lawyer-friendly Darnell and his allies launched an effort to depose powerful Senate Speaker John Wilder (D-Mason). While a majority of Democrats wanted Wilder gone, the wily speaker convinced 10 Republicans to keep him in power. Wilder remained speaker until 2007.

Longtime Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman died after being hospitalized with COVID-19. Norman, who was elected mayor in 2012 after a previous stint in the 1990s, was 79.

Ruth Montgomery, a former 12-year state lawmaker who went on to serve two terms as mayor of Kingsport in the 1990s, passed away at age 92. The Republican was first elected to the House in 1980 and to the Senate in 1988.

East Tennessee trial lawyer J.D. Lee, who presided over a sweeping constitutional convention in 1977, died at age 91. Lee beat out attorney Bill Leech and stock broker Richard Eskind in a spirited campaign for president of the convention. Lee tried to parlay that prominent role into a bid for the U.S. Senate the following year, but finished third in the Democratic primary won by Jane Eskind.

Former Rep. Mary Pruitt (D-Nashville), the only member of the Black Caucus who didn’t support a bill to create a state income tax proposal in a contentious floor vote in 2002, died after a fall. She was 86. Pruitt won a special election to succeed her deceased husband, Charles Pruitt, in 1985. She and the late Rep. Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis) teamed up to bottle up pro-life legislation as part of the three-member Public Health Subcommittee appointed by longtime House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington).

Sister Ardeth Platte, a Dominican nun and nuclear protester who once scaled a fence at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge despite a broken ankle, died in Washington at age 84.


Frederick “Pal” Barger Jr., the founder of the Pal’s Sudden Service fast-food chain, died last week at age 90. Pal’s, a popular stop for candidates and
reporters on the campaign trail, was founded in 1956 and now has 30 stores.


Montgomery County General Sessions Judge Ray Grimes died after being hospitalized for COVID-19. He was 73.

Clark Shaw, a tourism entrepreneur who opened the Casey Jones Village in Jackson in 1978, died from complications of the coronavirus at age 66.

Businessman Bill Dorris, the owner of a widely ridiculed Nathan Bedford Forrest statue located along I-65 in Nashville, died at 84.

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