Politics » Politics Feature

The Bad News

McWherter, Finch, Balentine, Forrester: a week of sad tidings.

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The last time I spoke to Ned McWherter was back in early February. The former governor called me — from his home in Dresden, I presume — to let me know he was keen to follow up on a suggestion that had come from his son Mike and his good friend and mine, Trace Sharp.

The two of them had contacted me at the beginning of the year and proposed that I interview the former governor, who ran Tennessee from 1987 to 1995 and was speaker of the House for a dozen years before that, about his life and times. I had the impression they had made the same pitch to Governor McWherter — or Ned Ray, as most of his neighbors in northwest Tennessee still called him.

"And, Jackson, I wouldn't wait on it," Mike, who had been a candidate for governor himself just months earlier, said. The comment was made in an understated way, but I was alarmed by it. Was the former governor seriously ill? "He's all right," his son said, after a deliberative pause. "You've got some time right now, but I wouldn't let, say, a year go by."

In retrospect, it seems obvious — and Mike McWherter confirmed — that Ned McWherter was manifesting warning signs, but there was as yet no drastic diagnosis.

I let maybe three weeks go by — a fact that I will regret for some time — while I disposed of some other matters that had piled up on me. I was both intrigued and flattered by the invitation to do the interview, however, and eventually put a call through to the former governor. I went through McWherter's longtime administrative assistant, Madelyn Pritchett, who in turn passed my message to the governor.

At the time I didn't know any of the special circumstances that I was shortly to learn about — the most important of which came from Governor McWherter himself when he called. "I've got cancer," he told me in that February conversation. But he communicated a hope that he would shortly be out of the woods on that score, and he said, "I'm not sure when I could come to Memphis."

No, I assured him. I'd be more than happy to come to him. That was fine, he said. It was just a matter of when, and he'd get back to me on the best time for me to arrange a visit — "in a few days," presumably when he completed a round of treatment he was just then involved with.

Meantime, he talked about several Shelby Countians who had loomed large in the politics and civic life of the last few decades and ticked off the names of several he had enjoyed working with. "I did a lot of things with Memphis," he said. "It meant a lot to me. I can tell you a lot of stuff about me and Memphis."

The "few days" would stretch out for a while, and I grew concerned enough, at some point, to put a call through to Mike McWherter. "How's your dad?" I asked.

"Jackson, it's not real good," he said, in a voice that may have sounded graver than he intended. For he continued, "He's on a pain-killer now and will be until March 9th, and he'll probably be able to talk to you as soon as he gets off. It's just that he gets so tired from the medication, and it's not the best time for him to be trying to remember things."

Mike would, he told me, call me on March 9th. A week or so after that date, I still hadn't heard anything, so I called Mike back. At this point he made no effort to disguise the gravity of things. His father was riddled with cancer, he said, and the outlook wasn't good at all. Doing chemo? I asked. "Yes," said Mike. "Let's just see how this works out, and we'll talk again toward the end of the month."

That was my last communication with anyone in the McWherter household. The end of March came and went, and the first week of April started, and — you know the rest of the story. Along with everyone else, I learned about the former governor's passing on Monday afternoon.

My print competitor and TV colleague Bill Dries of The Daily News, who was getting news flashes on his computer, leaned over to tell me about it during a typically agitated moment on the county commission, while the 4th District's Terry Roland was going head-to-head with the 5th District's Steve Mulroy concerning an aspect of the school merger crisis. Or something suchlike.

The effect — to scramble time and space — was a little bit like getting the news of Pearl Harbor or JFK or 9/11 while watching a WWE throwdown on pay-per-view.

I had never known McWherter well, though I had interviewed him a few times — once, during the Democratic Convention of 1988 in Atlanta, while he held the door of a busy elevator open for several minutes, stopping time in its tracks while he discoursed eloquently and fully on the world of contemporary politics in answer to a question of mine.

In addition to everything else, Ned McWherter was a courteous man, generous with his time. I was flattered — nay, honored — to have been invited to conduct what might well have become the final interview of his life, one that would have been the basis for a look-back — no doubt, a highly appreciative one — in the Flyer's sister publication, Memphis magazine. And, of course, I lament that his time ran out before that could happen.

I lament that his time ran out, period. As the avalanche of accolades and eulogies from all corners indicated, so did most other people — Democratic, Republican, what-have-you.

For more on Ned McWherter, see Editorial on page 16.

• What a week for sad passings. Larry Finch is another figure whose death was universally mourned. Since my experience with Tiger basketball was always as a spectator and rooter and not as a journalist, I had little personal contact with that beloved Memphis icon.

But I did intersect with Finch during the 1998 political season when, at the urging of his good friend and mine, Tiger booster Harold Byrd, Finch, who during the previous year had been pressured into resigning his head coaching job at the University of Memphis, undertook to run for a political office.  

The job was that of Shelby County register, which essentially requires keeping tabs on the sale and exchange and ownership of property, although, as the official description on the county website puts it, the position, in a larger sense, involves recording "[a]nything a person feels is worth having on the record." In the sometimes closed-mouth world of big-time sports, Finch was famous for putting things on the record.

As a coach, Finch had been no stranger to close shaves, and he lost that race by something like 128 votes. A squeaker, and many wondered at the time how much more stable and satisfying Finch's life might have been had he won and become a fixture in the city's downtown public life. On the other hand, he might have been bored to death. Nothing in that job would have equated with presiding over all those cliffhangers with Louisville.

• I have to say a word, too, about Jim Balentine, who worked for the old UPI, became a political reporter of renown for the Memphis Press-Scimitar, and, after that paper's demise, had a successful career as a lawyer. He was, and was proud to be regarded as, a talented cusser, after-hours rowdy, and, until he quit tippling altogether, a hard drinker in the vintage daily newspaper tradition. (Many were the affectionate tributes to that aspect of Jim at his funeral on Sunday.)

Jim, who died late last week, had a bucketful of charm and an abundant zest for life, both of which sustained him through a series of heart attacks that resulted, some years ago, in his having a heart transplant. He wrote a privately published book, Defying the Bitter Old Hag of Death, which minced no words and took nothing back.

How he lived so long with so many infirmities is a wonder. His former wife, Linda, is my own current wife and the mother of my two daughters. (As it happened, both Jim and Linda had been in a class I taught at the University of Memphis.) I always enjoyed conversations with Balentine at holiday gatherings. He never stopped keeping up.

• Finally, close to press time, I learned of the unexpected death over the weekend of Wilson Forrester, a 19-year-old University of Arizona student and the son of state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester. I think Tennesseans of all political persuasions feel the pain suffered by his likable father and by the rest of the Forrester clan in Nashville.

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