Contractor, philanthropist, man who changed the skyline ... and just a little coondog too
By Bruce Dobie
You really didn't want to mess with Ray Bell. Fun-loving one minute and in a knife fight the next, he spent most of his working hours carving out profits in a world where sissies rarely venture: road building and big building construction. All the while he could be found courting, schmoozing and prodding those in state government to get him more business. Ultimately he would go on to amass a small fortune and a baronial estate on a large swath of land along the Cumberland River. It wasn't a bad outcome for a country boy from Shelbyville.
Bell was a bilateral fellow: There were friends, and there were enemies. The zenith of his time on Earth had to be when his redneck soul mate and hunting buddy Ned Ray McWherter was elected governor in 1986. At that point, the Bubbas' grip on state affairs became whole and complete.
He was often heard before being seen, and that was a good thing. In the world of starched shirts around the state Capitol, his wide ties and bad blazers told everyone he really didn't care what he looked like. As for his voice, it boomed, and came on top of an enormous laugh that would continue to rumble in his chest long after ending.
I'm sure Bell went into his office on occasion, but for a period of years when I frequented Jimmy Kelly's Steakhouse, he seemed to have become part of the furnishings. In my opinion, I don't think he really meant to kill the two political operatives whom he physically attacked at Kelly's during an argument that had to do with a Democratic gubernatorial primary. Speaking only for myself, my encounters with Ray Bell at Kelly's were always great fun. Let me go a step further: I loved hanging around Ray. Thousands of others would agree.
Two stories stand out. First, Ray went to the University of the South in Sewanee, which always surprised me, Sewanee being a comparatively genteel place. Bell told me he had grown up dirt-poor, and his high school football coach steered him there to play ball. On the day he arrived at Sewanee, with no money for tuition, an administrator told him, "Oh yes, Mr. Bell, there is someone you need to go see." Bell was directed to a certain political science professor, who handed Bell a check to cover his tuition, which the professor continued to do throughout Bell's time at Sewanee. (He would ultimately graduate with honors in English.) "Now that," Bell told me, "is unconditional love."
The other conversation we had at Kelly's involved his battle with a stomach ailment, which was probably a result, shall we say, of a life richly lived. Weeks earlier Ray had fallen into a coma and, while lying unconscious in a hospital, experienced a series of rich hallucinations that included an encounter at the River Styx. Every cell of his being had been shaken. "I saw death," he told me at the bar at Kelly's one night. In his hands he clutched a club soda. It was probably the beginning of his end.
Ray didn't live life easily, nor did he leave it easily either. He drank life in great, big gulps, gave freely of his time and money, and never ran nor hid. In the instant he died the world got a little softer around the edges, and you hate to see that.
Legislator, senator, cycling enthusiast, pilot
By J.R. Lind
Lt. Gov. John Wilder was a throwback.
His speeches from the Senate floor were peppered with references to mythology, classical literature, the Bible and his own personal philosophy, which centered around the idea of the "cosmos," a sort of universal, God-like energy from which all human knowledge and society sprang as full-born as Athena from the head of Zeus (a reference he surely used at some point). And famously, of course, his philosophy taught us all that The Senate is The Senate.
At once eccentric, insightful, erudite and emotional, his speeches, to be fully understood, would need to be footnoted as extensively as The Waste Land. But if there were anything he loved as much as an obscure classical allusion or a turn of phrase, it was the Senate — which he ruled as benevolent dictator for 36 years, making him reportedly the longest serving leader of a legislative body in American history.
When "Jaybird" died at 88 — just minutes into the New Year 2010 — Tennessee lost more than a politician. It lost a Tennessee original who will never be duplicated. Sure, his eyebrow-arching quotes left some in stitches and others scratching their heads. But his savvy handling of the upper chamber — bipartisanship crafted artfully into triangulation, leading to a three-decade term with the gavel — is unlikely ever to be repeated. The time for such men, sadly, has passed. A polarized electorate leads to a divided house (and Senate). Dealmakers like Wilder gave way to a new breed of us-vs.-them politicians — notably his successor Ron Ramsey.
In one of his last speeches, Wilder urged the Senate to abandon its committee system — a system he championed — to save the state's method for choosing judges. With sorrowful eyes but a strong voice belying his eight decades, Wilder looked across the aisle at Republicans he considered allies. Further departing from the decorum he required when he was in charge — sidenote: find an old legislative hand and have 'em tell the story of why "the Senate don't quack-quack no more" — he called Sens. Jamie Woodson and Tim Burchett by their first names, pleading with them to save the Tennessee system.
It was for naught. The once mighty lion was beaten back.
After the accolades quieted and his last big battle was lost, Wilder went home to Fayette County, reportedly running and flying his plane as long as he could. The new decade could use a few more Jaybirds, but the original one has flown.
North Memphis state representative for 23 years; former Memphis firefighter and battalion chief; one of two paramedics on the scene at Graceland when Elvis Presley died in 1977
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