Former Lt. Gov. John Wilder passes away at 88

Friday, January 1, 2010 at 8:54am
Former Lt. Gov. Wilder, captured during his last legislative session. / The City Paper file photo

Former Lt. Gov. John Shelton Wilder is gone. “Jaybird” has taken wing.

Wilder, a Democrat and Tennessee's No. 2-ranking official in state government for 36 years, died today in Memphis after being hospitalized following a stroke in his home. He was 88.

With all due respect, we may ask the doctors for a recount.

Born in 1921 to an affluent West Tennessee family with significant agricultural and agribusiness interests, Wilder first became a state senator in 1958, but did not seek re-election in 1960. He returned to the Senate in 1966 and served ever since, becoming lieutenant governor in 1971 until January 2007. He also served as a member of the former Fayette County Quarterly Court (now referred to as the County Commission) for 18 years.

A U.S. Army veteran of World War II, Wilder was a graduate of Memphis State University School of Law (now University of Memphis School of Law) and was a prominent attorney in his hometown of Somerville. Wilder also had a number of other business interests ranging from agriculture to banking.

Wilder defied the odds repeatedly throughout his career. In the halls of the legislature, colleagues would often say of Wilder, “Don't count the old man out.” A number of times during his 36-year run as lieutenant governor, it appeared that he had lost the votes needed to retain his position, but when the votes were counted he was still standing. In 1987, then Democratic Majority Leader Riley Darnell took the nomination of the Democratic caucus from Wilder for the lieutenant governor’s chair and appeared to be on the verge of taking over the Senate.

Little did people know that Tennessee’s upper chamber was about to introduce a new word into the political lexicon: “Wildercrats.” In a surprise move, Senate Republicans led by Knoxville state Sen. Ben Atchley, along with six Democratic “defectors,” nominated Wilder and threw all of their votes to him. He won re-election by a vote of 21 to 15.

Over time, the number of “Wildercrats” in the Senate would wane due to retirements, election turnovers and, in 2005, the indictment of several of his colleagues in the “Tennessee Waltz” public corruption scandal. In his last successful election as lieutenant governor, only two members of the Republican caucus would cross the aisle to support him: state Sen. Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) and state Sen. Mike Williams (R-Maynardville).

In 2007, Wilder tried to convince his Republican allies to stick with him one last time, despite a Republican majority in the Senate. Much to his surprise and that of his Democratic colleagues, the party defector in that race would be from his own caucus — now former state Sen. Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville. Kurita cast her vote for Republican Majority Leader Ron Ramsey of Blountville, thus elevating him to the speaker's chair.

While Wilder will be remembered for his Samson-like hold on the lieutenant governor's chair, his legacy is far greater than that. During the 1960s, Tennessee, like much of the nation, was gripped in civil rights struggles. African-Americans were persecuted by “Jim Crow” laws and widely disenfranchised from voting.

Wilder, who lived in one of the only Tennessee counties with an African-American majority, allowed civil rights activists to live in a tent city on his land for over a year to break the backs of those who were trying to block minorities from voting in rural West Tennessee. This move made him the enemy of the “Dixie Mafia,” segregationists trying to intimidate minorities from participating in the democratic process, but it also made him a local hero to rural West Tennessee African-Americans.

Legislatively, Wilder probably will be remembered most for his efforts to eradicate the boll weevil, a beetle that can and has devastated cotton crops across the Southeast. Wilder directed state funds for years to efforts that would rid the state of the insect.

Wilder also will be remembered for his prolific “Wilderisms,” seemingly nonsensical utterances that made perfect sense to those in the know. Among his more famous sayings was, “The Senate is the Senate,” referring to the deliberative tone he believed he fostered in the state’s upper chamber. Of course “deliberative” to some was “Wilder’s way or the highway” to others.

In 1979, Wilder, along with then-House Speaker Ned McWherter, were pivotal figures in the ouster of then-Gov. Ray Blanton, three days before Blanton's term was supposed to end. Blanton had granted a number of questionable pardons and eventually served time in federal prison, not for the pardons but for selling liquor licenses.

Wilder and McWherter supported the early swearing-in of Blanton’s Republican successor, Lamar Alexander, now Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator. Wilder called the move “Impeachment...Tennessee style.”

Wilder was a cycling enthusiast and a licensed private pilot for over a half-century, regularly flying himself from Somerville to Nashville. His plane was affectionately known as “Jaybird.” In 2004, his wife of 63 years, Marcelle, passed away.

Wilder is survived by two sons — John Jr. and David — four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.