Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton
Freedom rider, teacher
“Buses are a-comin’, oh yes. Buses are a-comin’, oh yes. Buses are a-comin’, buses are a-comin’, buses are a-comin’, oh yes.”
I can still hear Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton belting out these words in his smooth, deep baritone as we took our road trip together back in May to Montgomery, Ala., for the 60th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides. When he sang freedom songs, his voice had a unique way of opening portals that both beckoned listeners backward to remember the struggle of where we’ve been and push us forward toward the vision of where we still must strive to go.
Knowing Dr. Patton was a deep blessing for me and countless others. He was a sage, a mentor, a confidant, a light in troubled times, a giant yet humble hero committed to doing good in this broken world. He was a beloved elder in the truest sense of the word — someone with a sincere commitment to uplifting the rising generation of activists, not with an agenda or need for recognition, but because his heart was pure with the intention to see us on higher ground.
When I last visited Dr. Patton in the hospital weeks before his passing, he was telling stories to the nurses about the movement and talking about his time while jailed at Parchman Farm during the Freedom Rides. It was a story he shared, often incorporating song, as a testament of hope and reminder for each of us to pick up the baton because the work is not done. This is who Dr. Patton was — a master storyteller and torchbearer, who brought the spirit of redemptive love with him everywhere he went. He carried the movement with him in his being, and every audience he spoke to, in any conversation or speech, could feel it too.
The wound from losing Dr. Patton is still raw, but I know with certainty that his legacy of liberation lives on in each of us who he inspired. I know he is smiling and encouraging us forward every time we sing those freedom songs he taught us, every time we show up on the front lines for justice. —Justin Jones
Todd J. Campbell
Judge, adviser, family man
Todd Campbell was an ideal judge — a person of intellect, judgment and humility. A brilliant lawyer who mastered difficult areas of the law — including Tennessee constitutional law, legal ethics and federal election law — Campbell earned the trust of his fellow lawyers and of his clients, including former Vice President Al Gore, who recruited him to the White House in 1993.
Judge Campbell and his beloved wife, Margaret Akers, made the decision to leave the White House and return to Nashville because his position as one of the most powerful people in the country left him too little time for his family. The emergency hospitalization of one of his young sons helped focus the issue, so after two years of sacrificial service to the country, he returned to Tennessee.
Soon thereafter he was tapped as the youngest federal judge in the United States. As a judge, Todd Campbell was wise. Not only were his opinions rarely overturned by the appellate courts, but his work was even adopted by the United States Supreme Court (Brentwood Academy v. TSSAA). In a profession sometimes mocked for its verbosity, Judge Campbell had an approach to judicial opinions that was simple: “Think more; write less.”
Judge Campbell’s origins were humble. An immigrant ancestor once spent a few days in debtor’s prison, so when the judge swore in new American citizens, he liked to observe that in a few generations his family had gone “from the jailhouse, to the White House, to the courthouse.” Campbell lived the American Dream, and he helped make the American Dream possible for the rest of us. —Byron Trauger
L.H. “Cotton” Ivy
Comedian, veteran, legislator
“Country comedian ‘Cotton’ Ivy dies at 91” read the headline on May 25 from WBBJ-TV. That writeup was a lot more concise than a full rundown of his accomplishments would have been, and he was no doubt chuckling over it from the great blue beyond.
Lamarse Howard “Cotton” Ivy was born the son of a sharecropper in Decatur, Tenn. An Air Force veteran, Ivy — who earned the nickname due to his prematurely white hair — received an agriculture degree from the University of Tennessee, was an agent for Farm Bureau Insurance in Union City and successfully ran for the state legislature in 1984, serving two terms before Gov. Ned McWherter appointed him commissioner of agriculture. The L.H. Cotton Laboratory at the Ellington Agricultural Center honors his leading role in its creation.
His years in state government were likely as instrumental to his comedy career as his rural upbringing and keen sense of humor. Signed to Top Billing booking agency by eagle-eyed talent scout Tandy Rice, Ivy recorded four albums, entertained at political and corporate conventions, appeared frequently on The Grand Ole Opry and Ralph Emery’s Nashville Now cable television show, and even popped up in Hee Haw’s cornfield. In 2000, he and Roy Herron, former chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, co-wrote Tennessee Political Humor: Some of These Jokes You Voted For. As Ivy would attest, politics is a lot of funny business. —Kay West
Politician, community leader, matriarch
Thelma Harper, who represented the Tennessee Senate’s 19th District for three decades, died on April 22. The longtime Democrat and North Nashvillian was the longest-serving woman in Tennessee state Senate history. Known for her eye-catching wide-brimmed hats and no-nonsense rhetoric, Harper previously served two terms as a Metro councilmember in Nashville’s District 2.
State Sen. Brenda Gilmore tells the Scene Harper was “an icon and a legend.”
“I most appreciate her fight for the Bordeaux area in particular, the landfill and getting that landfill closed,” says Gilmore. “In fact, most people don’t recognize that was not her district, but she was so compelled to fight for the people that she stood up for the people in Bordeaux. … She set the record of how to stand up and lay your life on the line. I have images of her laying in the street so the trucks wouldn’t come in with garbage for the landfill.”
Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari of Memphis adds that Harper was “a trailblazing, ceiling-shattering LEGEND.”
During her time in the state Senate, Harper served on numerous committees, including the Local Government Committee, the Corrections Oversight Committee and the Veterans Affairs Oversight Committee. She was president of the Women’s Suffrage Commission and vice chair of the Tennessee Black Healthcare Commission. She also owned the Jefferson Street diner Harper’s Restaurant with her husband, businessman Paul Harper, who died in 2018. Harper’s annual Easter egg hunt was started in 1983 as a resource for community children but also became a must-stop for aspiring politicians.
Harper decided not to run for re-election in 2018, and then-Rep. Gilmore was elected to represent her Nashville district. As Gilmore notes to the Scene, Harper is the only female to be laid in state in the state Capitol. “Even in death,” says Gilmore, “she is paving the way for future legislators.” —D. Patrick Rodgers and Erica Ciccarone
Pharmacist, state representative
The numerous awards that longtime state Rep. David Shepard received in his lifetime catalog a wide breadth of service to country, community and children, and an impact in his field as a pharmacist: the Bronze Star with Valor for his four years of service in the United States Army in Vietnam; the Tennessee Pharmacy Association Bowl of Hygeia for Community Service and recognition by the same organization as Outstanding Pharmacist of the Year in 2000, plus a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012; the CASA Champions for Children Award in 2017; and the Dickson County Good Scout Award in 2019.
Drawn to public office as a means of helping his community and advocating for veterans’ care, mental health and education, the Democrat spent more than 20 years on the Dickson City Council and as vice mayor before 16 years representing parts of Dickson, Hickman and Maury counties in District 69. After retirement from pharmacy, he regularly stored his golf bag to embark with wife Martha on medical mission trips to Belize, Guatemala and Haiti.
One of his final accomplishments was bringing together the deeply divided Democrats and Republicans of the 112th General Assembly, who honored his memory in House Joint Resolution 193, signed by Gov. Bill Lee on March 22, 2021. In that document, he was remembered for “an indelible legacy of integrity and probity in public life, compassion and loyalty in private life, and diligence and dedication in all his chosen endeavors.” —Kay West
William “Bill” Brock III
Senator, secretary of labor, statesman
In 1970, Republican Bill Brock — a U.S. Representative since 1962 — defeated three-term U.S. Democratic Sen. Al Gore Sr. for one of Tennessee’s two seats. The other was held by Republican Howard Baker from 1967 to 1985. In 1976, in the tumultuous wake of the Watergate scandal, Brock was denied a second term by Democrat Jim Sasser. In 1985, Baker’s Senate seat was won by Democrat Al Gore Jr. Such were the days long, long ago, when Tennessee was still a two-party state.
Brock departed the Capitol but not Washington or politics, assuming the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee in 1977, zealously committing to rebuild the GOP that had been tarnished by Richard Nixon and his dirty tricks. Brock was credited with broadening the membership of the party and putting together a sophisticated, computerized fundraising operation. His work helped Republican Ronald Reagan overwhelmingly defeat incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter to become president in 1980. In turn, Brock was appointed U.S. trade representative by Reagan, and then secretary of labor.
His next endeavor, serving as campaign manager in 1987 for Sen. Bob Dole’s bid for the presidency, was not as successful, with Dole dropping out after falling behind in the primaries. Brock resumed his personal political ambitions in Maryland, winning the Republican primary to run for U.S. Senate in 1994, but was defeated by the incumbent Democrat. While campaigning, he prophetically observed, “Politics has gotten increasingly mean and personal, partisan, divisive.” —Kay West
Tennessee Supreme Court justice, trailblazer
Early in her career as a trial judge in a rural Tennessee county, Cornelia Clark excused a woman from jury duty. Despite the woman disrespecting the court in her plea for dismissal — or perhaps because of it — Clark ordered her to observe proceedings the following day. In the morning, the woman indeed showed up to her assignment, with her young daughter. She told the judge: “I wanted my daughter to be able to see that there is a woman who can be in charge of this, because I want her to know that she can be anything she wants to be.”
Known to be calm, precise and even-handed, Clark was the longest-tenured member of the Tennessee Supreme Court, hearing more than 1,100 cases. She was first appointed to the high court by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2005 and was re-elected in 2006 and 2014 retention elections, despite a coordinated effort to unseat her and other Democratic appointees in 2014. Clark served as chief justice from 2010 to 2012.
Born in Franklin, Clark graduated from Vanderbilt University and earned a master’s degree from Harvard before teaching history. She later attended Vanderbilt University Law School. Upon graduation, she specialized in municipal and employment law, and represented many cities, police departments and several school boards. As a judge, she served in Williamson, Hickman, Perry and Lewis counties, and was the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts from 1999 to 2005. Clark served as the Supreme Court’s liaison to the Access to Justice Commission from 2014 until her death, pioneering the Faith and Justice Alliance, which pairs attorneys with community faith-based and civic organizations. Through Clark’s leadership, the ATJ Commission reached its goal of having at least half of Tennessee attorneys provide pro bono legal services each year.
“Justice Clark was a member of the Tennessee judicial family for over 30 years and has mentored hundreds of judges,” said Chief Justice Roger A. Page after Clark’s death in September. “She loved the Tennessee judicial system and has made it better in immeasurable ways. As her colleague for the past five-and-one-half years, I observed her tremendous work ethic. Her keen mind was surpassed only by her kind and caring heart. She truly tried her best to decide each case based on the applicable law and nothing else. The Supreme Court will not be the same without her.” —Erica Ciccarone and Stephen Elliott
Hank Hillin had a knack for putting the kibosh on corruption, but he didn’t set out to be a lawman. He grew up on the family farm in Neely’s Bend and matriculated at Lipscomb, where he starred for the Bisons baseball team, before taking a job teaching and coaching at old Hillsboro High School in Williamson County. But Uncle Sam came calling, and Hillin was drafted into the Army. After his discharge, he didn’t go back to teaching. Instead he joined the FBI and ended up in the middle of one of the biggest scandals in Tennessee history.
Hillin investigated then-Gov. Ray Blanton and his scheme of selling pardons as his term wound down. Ultimately, Blanton’s tenure came to a close when the Democratic Party leaders in the legislature agreed to allow Lamar Alexander, a Republican, to be sworn in ahead of schedule.
Hillin’s memoir Codename Tennpar, published in 1985, was an exhaustive look at the scandal that shocked the state and the investigation Hillin himself spearheaded. Three years later, he wrote a book about then-Sen. Al Gore Jr., who was in his first run for president. The book, Al Gore Jr.: Born to Lead, said the son of Tennessee was “destined to be president of the United States.”
In 1990, Davidson County voters — weary from Fate Thomas’ tenure as sheriff, during which he was indicted on federal racketeering charges — picked Hillin, with his anti-corruption reputation, to be the disgraced Thomas’ replacement. Thomas later pleaded guilty to mail fraud, tax conspiracy and theft of government property and was sentenced to five years in federal prison. As for Hillin, he proved to be a transitional sheriff. He was defeated for reelection in 1994 by Gayle Ray, the first woman elected to countywide office.
Hillin remained mostly out of the headlines for the rest of his life, except for a rather shocking change of heart in 2000, when he began taking out classified ads in The Tennessean to express his displeasure with the man he’d once written so glowingly about. “Al, I mistook your ambition for leadership. Your struggle with the truth is depressing.”
Hank Hillin died Feb. 10. He was 90. —J.R. Lind
Martha Hays Cooper
Lover of birds and a congressman
Martha Hays Cooper’s favorite bird was the Eurasian hoopoe. And that’s quite an endorsement, because Martha Hays Cooper loved birds. She even named her second son John James Audubon Cooper.
After Martha graduated from Mississippi State with a master’s in ornithology, her first job was at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where she worked on the first two editions of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. While she was there, she met the youngest member of the House of Representatives, 29-year-old Jim Cooper. Later, at a White House Christmas party, he proposed. (In classic bipartisan Cooper fashion, this was at a party hosted by Ronald Reagan.) The couple married in 1985 and had three children: daughter Mary and son Hays bookending the aforementioned middle son named for the famous ornithologist.
Martha was by her husband’s side for 15 successful House campaigns and a failed Senate bid, despite being initially unsure about the rough and tumble of political life — that is, until meeting her future mother-in-law, the indefatigable Miss Hortense, during Jim’s first reelection campaign in 1984.
Martha died at home Feb. 4. She was 66. —J.R. Lind