By DOUGLAS T. BATES III
(Editor’s note: The author has been a friend of our Chuck Offenburger since the two were freshmen at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.)
CENTERVILLE, Tenn., Sept. 4, 2023 — Donald Kenneth Sundquist died on August 27,2023. He was the two-term 47th Governor of Tennessee. Before that he served 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the newly created 7th District. This district stretched from eastern Memphis all the way here to Hickman County, which is 60 miles west of Nashville.
That’s Douglas T. Bates III, shown at the right here.
I do not rise to tell the details of Sundquist’s remarkable career as a public servant of Tennessee, though it is a story worth telling for it reveals a different age. I wish to record a facet of the life of this public servant important only to the people of my home county. It is this: He loved Hickman County and her people.
To put that love in a proper context, I must talk a little politics.
Sundquist grew up in Moline, Illinois, and from his youth was a Republican – a Goldwater conservative if you please. He was active in the Young Republicans in college and was a tireless campaigner for any GOP candidate who washed up on the beach.
He never lost an election, though in his first in 1982, he won by the skin of his chinny chin chin, defeating Robert Clement, son of a revered Democrat governor. A Republican beating a Democrat in Tennessee is a Dog-bites-man story nowadays, but it was the other way around in those days. Consider that in 1984 Albert Gore Jr., a Democrat and son of a former U.S. Senator who was also a Democrat, won his own race for the Senate by a whopping 27 percentage points. (A brief digression: The Republican candidate Gore Jr. beat was my law school friend Victor Ashe.)
In that different time, I remember carrying my dear nearly-blind Aunt Cordellia to vote. I would recite the candidates on the ballot and after hearing the contestants for each race, she would inquire, “Who’s the Democrat?” Each time she would tell me to vote for the Democrat.
And I remember the first time my new bride Molly voted at the poll in the Centerville Elementary School. The girl from Niagara Falls meekly told election official Miss Pearl Fields she was voting in the REPUBLICAN primary and the dear ladies working the election gasped in incredulity. They had to hunt up a Republican primary ballot.
Don Sundquist, as Governor of Tennessee, 1995-2003,
But the Age of Sundquist seems now to have been as long ago as the Proterozoic Age.
Back then, Democrats and Republican were often friends. Sundquist and Gore enjoyed a warm and cordial friendship. The GOP stood for freedom across the globe, warned of the dangers of ballooning deficits, and Republicans were graceful in their manners. Many Democrats were decorated war heroes, were champions of the working men and women, and often came from rural states.
In 1981, Sundquist was a purebred Republican. Thus, when he began forming his campaign team, he was looking for people with similar pedigree. One night in that year, young David Rogers’ dorm phone at Lipscomb College in Nashville rang, and it was Don calling, asking the student if he would serve on a team for the Congressional race he was planning for the new district. That was the first contact Don Sundquist had with Hickman County. David was the son of Rev. Paul Rogers, the much-loved preacher of the largest church in Hickman County. David had been a stellar guard on the HCHS basketball team, and once hit two foul shots to defeat a Franklin team that until then No. 1 in the state. But churches and basketball were not discussed in the phone call. These were two Republicans speaking a common tribal tongue.
David quickly agreed to travel to Memphis and help organize the effort. David and I have always been close, despite our age difference, and he later asked me if I would meet his new candidate. In the fullness of time, Sundquist came to my law office here where he immediately spied my Chicago Cubs wastebasket. It turned out that he was, like me, a lifelong Cubs fan. The GOP brought David along. Wrigley Field brought me.
Don Sundquist won that election by a mere 1,400 votes and never lost any subsequent races.
I do not think it would interest my readers for me to recite scores of precious times the Rogers and the Bates families had together over the years.
Moreover, it is not my purpose to tell the tale of Governor Sundquist deciding that the state needed an income tax to provide a quality education for Tennessee’s children; a tale which found many of the scions of the party of Don’s entire life shunning him. Indeed, many of those lauding him now in death, shamefully back then advanced their political careers by vitriolic castigation of this principled public servant. It is an important story but not mine to tell.
Truth does demand I acknowledge that the Governor and I had a brief period of estrangement in our long, genuine friendship. Looking back on it, the fault was all mine. We reconciled and had many precious visits during his last years in office and on the phone regularly.
I include the separation/reunion not just for my own honesty. Perhaps a reader of this narrative is distant from a friend. Perhaps this story can be a reminder to all that having a political disagreement should never be a reason that real friends part. Look into my heart and see the joy which comes to me that Don and Doug did not let their friendship die. Do it, dear reader. Do it when you put this paper down.
I return to my purpose here, which is to tell a simple truth about my friend and to give examples of this: Don loved Hickman County.
He loved shopping here. Once he forgot to pack his walking shoes on a trip here, so he bought a pair at the Dollar Store on the Square. He loved working with our elected public figures. He loved supporting local causes. He loved attending Bates and Rogers family events.
Now, the epicenter of that love was the Tarkington Store on the banks of Hassell’s Creek, a dozen miles east of Centerville. He loved the bologna sandwiches Elizabeth Tarkington made and served in their country store. He loved the Duck Head-brand khaki pants that Elizabeth and her husband C.W. Tarkington sold there. The Tarkingtons always respectfully reminded him they were Democrats. He even loved their mule, named…well… Clinton.
When Sundquist came to meet his constituents, first as Congressman, later as Governor, he would give notice summoning them to the banks of that arctic-cold creek. There he patiently heard their needs and began his help in addressing those needs. There he showed his infectious smile in genuine joy for the humble folk whom he never forgot were his bosses. Don walked “with kings but ne’er lost the common touch.” I never saw him on the floor of Congress nor in his office at the State Capitol, but I confidently assert he was not happier anywhere in his realm than there on Hassell’s Creek.
Those days are gone, gone with the wind.
Don Sundquist, as a U.S. Representative from Tennessee, 1983-1995.
David Rogers sadly mused that a “candidate like Sundquist would be unrecognizable today.”
David would be as unrecognizable also. While he was the elder President Bush’s campaign manager for Middle Tennessee, he has been driven from the party by Donald Trump.
Miss Pearl would not have to contend with Molly voting for a Republican.
Me? Never much of a Republican, though proud of my support for Sundquist, now like David and Molly, I am a Never Trumper.
By the way, the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, and Don immediately called.
Yes, he remained loyal to the party of his youth but said to me of one of them a few months ago, “He is not a very nice man.”
Don and his wife Martha had a marriage of more than three score years and a golden retirement. He died a week ago at the age of 87, surrounded by his family who were always his real tribe.
One funeral for him was held at a church in Memphis last Thursday, Aug. 31. He will lie in state in the rotunda of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville on Tuesday, Sept. 5, and also on Tuesday, a second funeral will be held at a church in Nashville. His burial will be in the small town of Townsend in the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, where the Sundquists lived for several years.
He was a devoted and true public servant who, I believe, “did the right as God gave him the light to see the right.” But that is for others to tell.
I simply say this, and knowing it is probably only important to my own people: Don Sundquist loved Hickman County.
Douglas T. Bates III, who authored this column, has been a close friend of Chuck Offenburger since the two met as freshmen at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, well-back in the previous century. Bates has had a long career as an attorney and raconteur in his hometown of Centerville in Hickman County, Tenn. You can reach him by email at Dtbates3@bellsouth.net.