Lois DeBerry, who died on Saturday at the age of 68, after a lengthy illness, was well remembered and will stay that way. The passing of state representative DeBerry was taken note of by virtually every influential public figure in local and
state government and was a bulleted item on the national news.
There are good reasons for this, beginning with the basic details of her curriculum vitae. DeBerry grew up in Memphis, graduating from Hamilton High School and LeMoyne-Owen College. In 1972, she became the first African-American woman elected to the state legislature from Memphis, and, at the time of her death, she was the longest-serving member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Relatively early on, she was appointed to the powerful House Finance, Ways, and Means Committee.
She served 11 terms (22 years) as speaker pro tem of the House, from the 95th through the 106th General Assemblies, and relinquished that office only when the chamber passed from Democratic to Republican control in 2009. She was the first female speaker pro tem and, so far, the only African American to serve in what is one of the most powerful positions in state government. In 2011, the legislature passed Joint Resolution 516, sponsored by Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, which honored DeBerry with the title of "Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus."
Beyond those distinctions, and many more such, it is the character of Lois DeBerry that will sustain her in the memory of Tennesseans at large.
It is usual to say, when someone passes from the consequences of cancer, that they have lost a battle with that disease. Perhaps that is true of DeBerry, as well, but the fact is, she had already won several rounds in her battle, returning to the lesser combats of the legislature after each one and handling challenges there with the mixture of grace, charm, and toughness that always characterized her tenure.
As a member of the minority party in her last several years, she continued to exert enormous influence on events, using both her command of parliamentary procedure and her personal rapport with members of both parties to gain the best outcomes possible for causes she championed. During the 107th and 108th General Assemblies, though dealing with her illness, she was a stout defender of Democratic issues and, as a member of the education committee, of school-related positions she regarded as crucial to the residents of her district and of the whole county as well.
And she did everything without incurring the wrath of opposing legislators or making even a single enemy — a stunning achievement for any active politician.
Quite simply put, DeBerry was beloved on both sides of the aisle and in all corners of state government. She and her husband Charles Traughber, who just retired as chairman of the state pardon and parole board, were pathfinders in the field of prison reform, a fact attested to by the naming of a Nashville corrections center in her honor.
Her interests, both political and governmental, were numerous, and she pursued them to the end. In the last two months before her death, she managed to attend two conventions and took an active part in both. The force of her example is such that, for those who worked with her and will continue in the halls of government, Lois DeBerry is still on the case.