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McWherter had down-home touch
McWherter-for-web
Ned Ray McWherter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Ned McWherter had political prowess matched by an engaging down-home personality that endeared him to Tennessee voters.

McWherter, a self-made millionaire businessman, turned a phrase as easily as he charmed those at the ballot box.

The two-term Democratic governor died Monday at Centennial Hospital in Nashville. He was 80 and had cancer.

Some of his memorable quotes:

"I know every hog path in Tennessee."

"Just give me a cup of coffee and four vanilla wafers and I'll be ready to go to work."

McWherter was an imposing 6-foot-4 and resembled actor Dan Blocker, who played "Hoss" on the old "Bonanza" TV show. In fact, a photo of the two together was displayed in McWherter's office in Dresden.

He was governor from 1987 to 1995, following 20 years in the Legislature — and 14 as House speaker. He also was political adviser to Bill Clinton during his presidency.

A Great Depression-era child of sharecroppers, he became wealthy through various business enterprises before entering politics.

As the state's 46th governor, he supported education improvements — called the "21st Century Classroom" — that put more computers and technology in classrooms, increased teachers' pay, shrunk class sizes and gave local school boards more control.

During his second term, McWherter promoted TennCare, a plan to expand health care coverage by placing Tennessee's Medicaid program for indigent care under management of the private sector. It exists to this day.

He was a member of the U.S. Postal Board after he left the governor's office. Mike McWherter, his son, lost the race for governor in 2010 to Bill Haslam.

"Governor McWherter was a true statesman who cared about this state and its citizens," Haslam said.

McWherter figured his own worth when he was elected governor in 1986 was about $5 million. His stock portfolio alone was worth more than $1 million. Yet when he opened his 1986 gubernatorial campaign, he told supporters: "I'm one of you, I'm one of you."

Former Vice President Al Gore said McWherter "fused the demands of tough executive management with the authentic touch of the common man."

Former President Jimmy Carter called McWherter "one of the most effective and finest public servants I have known. Our nation has lost a great leader, and I a trusted friend."

McWherter's booming business career began as a shoe factory employee who borrowed money to start a children's shoe factory of his own. Shrewdly, he later diversified, starting a truck line, buying a beer distributorship and purchasing and selling an oil distributorship. His business interests also included a nursing home and stock in several West Tennessee banks. He usually was unchallenged for political power in his region and became a state legislative giant.

He campaigned for governor with the promise to give Tennessee an honest, evenhanded government — protecting the past's values while meeting the future's economic demands.

"In government, there are always those who claim that things should be done differently. But no one can stand here today and dispute the economic growth we have enjoyed over the last 40 months," he said while running for re-election in 1990. He opened his bid for that race by saying he never again would run for public office. He kept the promise.

McWherter emphasized his management of the economy and construction of more than $300 million worth of prisons during his first term. The groundwork for the prison construction had been laid in a special session of the Legislature in 1985, when Republican Lamar Alexander was governor.

Alexander said Monday that McWherter "was one of our state's finest public servants and a close friend."

McWherter also completed an aggressive road-building program that connected distant counties to interstate highways with four-lane roads.

He supported education improvements — the 21st Century Classroom — to put more computers and advanced technology in classrooms, increase teachers' salaries, reduce class sizes and give local school boards more control.

"I am convinced that providing our children with a 21st Century Classroom is the most important challenge I will ever have," he said.

An economic recession and his own reluctance to embrace a state income tax intervened before he had done a complete selling job on an economic reform package that included a 4 percent state sales tax and a 4 percent income tax.

As a result, it took the Legislature two years to pass his 21st Century Classroom reforms and it was financed initially with a half-cent increase in the sales tax that earmarked $230 million for local schools.

It was the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court nullified the poll tax that a tax, passed in the name of education, had been earmarked for education.

After leaving office, he remained interested in politics, often campaigning for Democratic candidates, including future Gov. Phil Bredesen and Gore.

"Ned's life was a genuine American story, from shoe salesman to governor, never losing his bearings on the journey," Bredesen said.

Bredesen also recalled that he and McWherter went hunting together several times with others.

"I remember how much he enjoyed it; not hunting itself so much as sitting around the camp with friends and trading stories."

McWherter was still involved in politics in 2010, campaigning for his son.

"I'm not able to travel as much as I did in the past," he said. "But I can still hobble around a bit."

In a September 2010 event for Mike McWherter's campaign, Clinton cited the elder McWherter's key role in helping him carry Tennessee in his presidential elections.

Those races were the last times a Democratic presidential candidate won in the state. President Barack Obama, by contrast, lost Tennessee by 15 percentage points in 2008.

The elder McWherter reflected on his time in office at Bredesen's January 2003 inauguration, when he sat with other former governors.

"I enjoyed my public service in Nashville, and the people have all been good and kind to me," he said. "I'm enjoying my retirement. I guess I'm a content, happy man."

McWherter had eight bone spurs removed from his back late in 2008 and spent several weeks recovering.

In February 2002, McWherter had a cancerous tumor removed from his right lung, describing it as "half a box of cigars"" Pritchett said at the time all the cancer was removed and a full recovery was expected.

In 1998, he had a pacemaker implanted after complaining of lightheadedness and dizzy spells when he awoke in the morning. In 1995 McWherter had a malignant polyp removed from his colon. He also suffered from failing eyesight in his later years.

His death shocked friends even though they knew he had been ill. He had worked in his office Friday and entered the hospital Saturday.

Funeral arrangements were not announced. He also is survived by a stepdaughter, Linda Ramsey. McWherter's wife, Bette, died in 1973.