Longtime Tennessee Lawmaker Lois DeBerry Passes Away at 68

h91The State’s longest serving member of the House of Representatives, Rep. Lois DeBerry (D-Memphis), passed away on Sunday after nearly a five-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

Rep. DeBerry, 68, was first elected in 1972 and was a trailblazer in Tennessee politics.  She was the second African-American woman to serve in the General Assembly and the State’s first female House Speaker Pro Tempore.  DeBerry had a long history of support for education and was highly respected on Capitol Hill for her wisdom, leadership, and dedication to her constituents.

Leaders from both political parties reflect on the impact and legacy of Rep. DeBerry in the statements below:

Governor Bill Haslam:

“Coming in as a new governor, Lois quickly became one of my favorite people on Capitol Hill because of her wit, charm and dedication to her constituents. Lois was a history maker, a wonderful woman, a great legislator and a true friend. I will miss her.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell:

“Lois DeBerry dedicated her life to service. From the Civil Rights Movement, to becoming the first female African-American Speaker Pro Tempore, Lois always made public service a priority. The impact she has had on this great state, the lives of countless Tennesseans, and people all across the country is astounding. She certainly made her mark on history, and it was an honor to know her and serve alongside her in Tennessee General Assembly. I valued our friendship, and will deeply miss her sage advice, and her remarkable spirit and smile. Her dedication to children’s issues, women’s issues, and criminal justice reform have resulted in a better Tennessee. My thoughts and prayers are with her family.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh:

“Lois DeBerry was my friend and my mentor. From my first day on the hill in 1994, she was someone I could turn to in every situation. She taught me the importance of working across party lines to get things done for the state, but also to never be afraid to stand up for a cause–even if sometimes you stand alone. Lois was a fighter. She always fought and fought hardest for children. She fought for those on the margins of society and for the city of Memphis which she loved so dearly. Most recently she waged a courageous battle against cancer, inspiring everyone with her upbeat attitude and her determination to survive. I loved Lois DeBerry. Her absence will leave a hole in the House that no one can fill; we are a better state for the service she provided. God rest her soul and be with her family during this difficult time.”

Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh:

“I have known Lois DeBerry since 1974 when I was first elected to the House of Representatives. She had been elected just two years earlier and we were best friends from the very beginning.

Lois is a true Tennessee stateswoman. In the Legislature she led the way on a number of issues important to all Tennesseans including healthcare, education, corrections oversight, and economic development. The Lois DeBerry Center in Nashville, named after her, revolutionized the way we dealt with our incarcerated population and she deserves much of the credit for bringing our prison system out from under federal oversight and into the 21st century.

She served with, worked with and provided advice not only to legislators but also to seven Tennessee Governors including Governors Haslam, Bredesen, Sundquist, McWherter, Alexander, Blanton and Dunn.  They all respected her opinion and listened closely to her advice.

During my 18 years as Speaker of the House, Lois served as Speaker Pro Tempore–the first African American woman to fill this role. She was my constant helpmate and someone I could count on during those difficult days in the legislature. In 2000, the National Conference of State Legislators recognized Lois with the William Bulger Award for Legislative Leadership. This prestigious prize is given to one legislator each year who promotes the good of legislative institutions by displaying real leadership qualities, including honesty, integrity and hard work. That was the Lois we all knew.

Lois loved this state. She loved the people of this state.  She was the voice for people all across this state, who could not speak out for themselves in our governmental process; the poor, the oppressed, the proverbial people standing in the shadows of life.   She rebuffed repeated calls to run for higher office. In 1994 she even turned down a prestigious federal appointment from President Clinton, telling him that her work in Tennessee was simply not finished.

I will miss Lois DeBerry. I will miss sitting with her on the floor of the House Chamber. I will miss her laughter and her great sense of humor that I saw so often in our daily discussions. I will miss her example and her leadership for our state. But most of all, I will miss my best friend.”

Former Vice President Al Gore:

“Today, my dear friend and ally Lois DeBerry passed away after a long battle with cancer. A tireless public servant, Lois served the people of Tennessee with integrity and dedication for over four decades. Lois was highly-respected by her peers for her ability to forge consensus amongst ideologically divided political communities.

During my first Senate campaign, Lois became a trusted friend and adviser. Years later in 2000, I was honored when Lois agreed to deliver one of the speeches for my nomination during the Democratic National Convention. It is a moment I will never forget.

With Lois’s passing, Tennessee lost one of its great leaders and visionaries. I will miss her tireless efforts on behalf of Tennesseans, her steadfast support and our longtime friendship.”