Lawmakers wiped away tears Thursday as they honored retiring state Senator Doug Henry – the longest-serving legislator in Tennessee history. The Nashville Democrat first took office 60 years ago – before many members of the General Assembly were born.
The buzzer sounds to call senators into the chamber. Doug Henry is being wheeled through the crowded capitol by his assistant of 31 years, Diane Majors.
“I just kinda help him get around right now, and get him where he needs to go,” she says.
Walking has become a struggle. Henry also can’t hear very well, which is why he often has one hand cupped over an ear. But he’s not just going through the motions. He’s combing budgets and referencing the Tennessee Code.
“People see him, think this is just a senile old man who doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Majors says. “But mentally, he’s sharper than me. I can’t remember people’s names and I have to look at him and he says, ‘that’s so and so.’”
During Thursday’s legislative session, it was clear Henry remains engaged, even in the details. He proposed amendments and questioned sponsors.
When things get particularly intense during committee hearings, Henry still gnaws on an unlit cigar. But last week, he says he broke his perfect attendance record, going home during a dinner break instead of coming back for round two.
Blue Blood With A Blue Collar
“It’s the only time I’ve not attended a meeting in 40 years,” Henry says. “But that’s just because I wasn’t feeling good. And I’m sorry.”
Henry has a sort of blue-collar work ethic, even though he comes from money.
His father was a found of the old National Life Insurance Company. He went to boarding school and Vanderbilt Law. He joined the Army during WWII, assigned to a field artillery unit in the Philippines.
When he got back, he practiced law. He actually served in the state House in 1954, then sat out of politics during the 1960s. But soon legislating became his first love.
Despite it’s part-time salary, he turned it into a full-time job. And instead of climbing the political ranks, he chaired the finance committee for decades – a mind-numbing job, but an important one.
“We have a triple-A bond rating in the state of Tennessee, primarily because of the work of that man,” says Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell.
Henry helped establish a savings account for the state and kept the debt burden low.
In his tenure, Henry passed laws targeting child abuse and founded the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute. He also sponsored the bill to protect Nashville’s Radnor Lake.
But people love Senator Henry less for what he did and more for how he did it.
Southern Gentleman, Statesman
“He is the epitome of a fine southern gentleman,” Harwell says. “Without a doubt, he will go down in the history books as a statesman.”
He nearly went into the history books four years ago.
Nashville attorney Jeff Yarbro came close to winning the Democratic primary for Henry’s seat, which had been safe for decades. Henry says his doctor told him he shouldn’t run four years ago.
“I’m finally taking his advice,” Henry says.
The legislature stopped its business for 30 minutes Thursday to share stories and even give their best Doug Henry impressions.
He was applauded for putting the state above allegiance to a party. Henry spoke only briefly. His one point was to say party lines are too “sharply drawn” in Tennessee these days.
“I recommend to you that you stop that, as soon as you can,” he said. “And don’t pay too much attention to the national parties. They’ll get you in trouble – both of them will.”
With that, Henry turned to his wife of 64 years – Ms. Lolly as she’s known around the capitol – and thanked her for sticking by him. He then said he was “overwhelmed” and returned to his chair.
“Thank you, good friends,” Henry said. “Thank you all very much.”