For a short while on Sunday afternoon, Peebles Fayette County Funeral Home, a modestly sized structure just inside the Somerville city limits, about a 15-minute drive from Memphis, was the political center of the state.
Tennessee’s ranking officials — state and federal — were all there to pay homage to the late John Shelton Wilder, the former state senator who had held title to the office of lieutenant governor for 36 of his 88 years and to the affections of his fellow citizens, even those who opposed him politically, for at least as long. A goodly host of common folk were on hand to demonstrate the fact.
For what seemed a half-mile in each direction, two of the highway’s three lanes were closed off to provide parking space for the multitudes who came by on Wilder’s behalf. Many of them, fearing there was no room inside the funeral home’s chapel, signed the book, paid their respects to the patriarch’s survivors, shook a few hands, and left. But several hundred wedged themselves inside for an hour-long service that had as much gladness as grief to it.
Gladness, because all who spoke at the service, including some who came in with the heaviest of hearts, told wonderful stories about the legendary Wilder, outlandish but true tales, not tall at all, that generated glee and appreciation and convulsed the attendees with laughter.
There was Jimmy Naifeh of nearby Covington, for example, the still-serving state representative and a long-serving Speaker of the House in his own right, who recalled being flown back from Nashville by Wilder one night in a raging monsoon. That flight, like all back-and-forths between Wilder’s West Tennessee home and the state capital, was effected in a single-engine aircraft known as “Jaybird,” which by this time had come to seem every bit as venerable as the Speaker himself.
Fearing that Wilder intended to land the plane in the grassy field near his Fayette County homestead in Longtown, a nervous Naifeh hopefully suggested that they continue on just a tad further to a bona fide structured airfield at Arlington. Wilder, as Naifeh noted, would on some occasions do just that.
But not this time. As Naifeh recounted, in the pidgin-English that he often spoke, pilot Wilder said, “Uh uh, Jimmy, Jaybird want to go home!” And so they splashed down in what amounted to a marsh, throwing hunks of grass and torrents of water everywhere. But getting there, after all, in one piece.
And another longtime intimate, former state Attorney General Paul Summers, told a rain story of his own. He and Wilder were driving to a West Tennessee town for some campaigning when a downpour started. The lieutenant governor promptly emptied out a paper sack containing some campaign materials and began folding the bag.
Summers asked what Wilder was doing. “Making a hat,” the Speaker replied. When Summers remonstrated in horror that it would “look funny” for Wilder to go campaigning that way, the reply he got was, “I don’t care. It’ll keep my head dry.” And, sure enough, when Wilder disembarked, he was wearing the paper hat and kept on wearing it while passing out campaign cards and introducing himself as “your lieutenant governor” or “your state senator” or what-not.
Those were just two stories of many such that got told. But while Wilder was surely a character, he was clearly much more than that. The first reminiscence on Sunday had come from the Rev. Ralph Duncan, a steadfast friend who, when he first met Wilder, was a young member of the state House, a Republican, who was being groomed to oppose the Democratic senator for reelection.
Duncan told of being summoned to Wilder’s inner sanctum at the state Capitol on the pretense of discussing a “codification bill” that he’d basically never heard of. (Wilder would later confide to his prospective election adversary, “I just wanted to see you up close, size you up.”)
There would be no race between the two, however. In the course of that brief interview, Duncan said, he experienced an “epiphany.” He perceived in Wilder a depth of feeling and intellect and faith that convinced him that “this is God’s man,” and he would tell his party mates that he would not run against God’s man. (The substitute candidate who did would lose, though that race, in 1980, was the closest shave candidate Wilder ever had.)
Wilder was an artful politician, who was able during his 36-year run as lieutenant governor, to defuse two organized coups against him from his fellow Democrats — in the course of which challenges he would make the Senate a truly bipartisan chamber, winning his many subsequent reelections to the Speakership from a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. He was also an early exponent of civil rights, from a part of the state that was, back then, not exactly rife with such lower-case democrats.
And he was, as State Representative Johnny Shaw pointed out, someone who would never speak the phrase “I’ll get back to you” when asked to deal with a matter but would get moving on it right then and there. In the case of a road repair Shaw asked about, the Speaker had officials from the Tennessee Department of Transportation in his office within minutes, promising, and actually planning, to take care of it.
Several of the speakers Sunday reminisced about that famous pidgin English of Wilder’s — replete with idoms like “The Senate is the Senate. The Senate is good” and with talk about the “cosmos” which, as Rev. Duncan pointed out, often “left journalists scratching their heads.”
A personal disclosure: I once got invited to lunch by Wilder and spent the better part of an hour listening to a discourse on the aforementioned cosmos — one that made perfect sense to me, as someone who’d logged several years in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a participant in conferences and enterprises that were holistic in nature. Wilder’s sense of the universal connectedness of things was detailed, well grounded both scientifically and spiritually, and nothing short of profound. Whatever some may have thought, the man was nobody’s fool.
And that obscure-sounding baby talk of his was easy enough to understand as his version of political evasiveness while he took the time to make up his mind about something or while preparing this or that action which would turn out to be quite precise and resolute.
As 9th District congressman Steve Cohen — a Wilder loyalist during Cohen’s tenure as state senator — made it clear over the weekend, there was scarcely a project that got taken care of in Tennessee during Wilder’s several decades in power without his having a major hand in it. In the case of Shelby County, that would mean The Med and the National Civil Rights Museum and exspanded facilities at the University of Memphis among myriad other examples.
And one thing they all agreed on who spoke Sunday: Nobody else, ever again, is going to come down the pike with anything like Wilder’s durability in state government or with influence so widespread and lasting.
To appropriate the man’s own lingo: John Wilder was John Wilder. And John Wilder was good.