Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lois DeBerry: Legislative Pioneer, Party Leader, and Doughty Fighter

Longtime Speaker Pro Tem in Tennessee House was a force and change-maker for 40 years. State and local officials mourn her passing.

Posted By on Sun, Jul 28, 2013 at 4:09 PM

Lois DeBerry
  • Lois DeBerry
Lois DeBerry, who for four decades represented District 91 in Memphis and served with distinction as a ranking officer of the Tennessee General Assembly for much of that time, died Sunday after a prolonged illness of several years’ duration.

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 Lois 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.

Rep. DeBerry grew up in Memphis, geraduating from Hamilton High School and LeMoyne - Owen College. In l972, she became the first African-American woman elected to the 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.z

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 Rep. DeBerry with the title of "Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus.”

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.

She leaves her husband, Charles Traughber, who recently retired as chairman of the state Pardon and Parole Board, and her son, Michael Boyer. As of yet, no information about funeral arrangements has been released. Meanwhile, donations in her honor may be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at

In 2012, three years after her initial diagnosis, DeBerry joined with Governor Haslam in proclaiming November to be Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month to heighten efforts to find more effective treatments for the disease.

The first of what will be many testimoniuals have begun to pour in:

Said House Democratic Caucus chair Mike Turner of Nashville:

“Tennessee owes Lois DeBerry a debt of gratitude for her immeasurable contributions to improving the health, welfare, and well-being of the people of our state. Lois was an irreplaceable member of our caucus and she will always have a place in our hearts and memories.”

Said Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis):

"I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work with Rep. DeBerry. When I first got elected she took me under her wing and helped teach me how to best represent the needs of my constituents. I know there were many other legislators like me over the years, both Democrat and Republican, who benefited from her wisdom and generosity. I am truly blessed to have known and worked with Rep. Lois DeBerry.”

Said 9th District congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis):

“Tennessee has lost a legend today. Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Lois DeBerry was an historic African American legislator and a go to person on everything from civil rights to children's and women's issues. She led a life of firsts, becoming the first African American female to be elected to the General Assembly from Shelby County and the first female as well as the only African American to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore of the House.<./p>

"As the longest serving member of the House, her fame was greatest in her hometown but the respect she earned extended nationally among members of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and the Deltas. Since being elected in 1972, she always served her community in a special manner and gave so much back. She will be sorely missed by all of those she helped. It was an honor to serve with Lois and see the difference she made each and every day. Hers was truly a life well lived.”

Said 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."

Said House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville):

“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 sprit 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.”

Said /House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley:

"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."

Said Senate Demociratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis:

“Lois DeBerry was a peerless leader for her community, her city and for all women, It’s a uniquely American story – a woman who became frustrated with the conditions in her community and dedicated her life to making it better, rising to heights that no African American woman had seen before in Tennessee. We are deeply saddened by her passing.”

Said Sen..Lowe Finney (/D-Jackson):

“Before I ever ran for office, I was motivated and inspired by the leadership of Lois DeBerry. She intentionally focused on tough issues, daring others to join her, and by her words could inspire people to take action and get involved. Tennessee has lost a great leader today.”

There was this lengthy statement from Mayor A C Wharton:

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the family of Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry.

"For those in political circles, she was Speaker DeBerry, a trusted partner and consummate advocate for the people of Memphis and our state. Many of her friends and people across the community, however, also knew her as Lady D - an intelligent, cosmopolitan, personality whose passion for the people she served knew no bounds.

"Lois earned the title of trailblazer as the first African-American woman from the City of Memphis to be elected to serve in the Tennessee House of Representatives. This title applied to her also being elected as the first African-American woman to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore for the State House. Despite the accolades she continually received throughout her career, Lois remained equally at home among the well-to-do and political powerful as well as the residents in the neighborhoods of her district. She was unquestionably a woman of the people who never lost the common touch.

"And of all of the attributes that defined her, Lois’ faith and signature outspokenness earned her the respect of her colleagues and the adoration of the community she called home. In fact, her willingness to speak up and speak out for the voiceless was in her view a consequence of her discipleship and the Christian admonition to minister to “the least of” our brothers and sisters."

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell had this to say:

“This was a loss. I knew Lois quite well. She was integrally involved with corrections issues all the time that I was, and it’s a tribute to her and her efforts that there’s a corrections center in Nashville named after her. Her husband, Charlie Traughber, was an appointee to the Parole Board in 1972 by my father, who was then state Commissioner of Corrections. She was quite committed and extraordinarily effective in her quiet way of getting things done.

"Representative DeBerry served Tennessee's General Assembly with honor and distinction. She was a true champion of civil rights and fought to ensure the needs of all citizens were represented during her decades of service in Nashville.

"Representative DeBerry had a determined spirit that not only led to a more effective state government but inspired those of us at the local level as well.

"All of us at Shelby County Government share in the sorrow of her passing."

Said U.S. Senator Bob Corker:

“Lois DeBerry will be remembered as a tireless advocate for her community, and as one of the longest-serving women lawmakers in the nation and the first African-American female speaker pro tempore in the House, Lois’ legacy will be remembered in Memphis and across our state for generations to come. I appreciate her many years of public service and her friendship and kindness. My heart goes out to her family during this difficult time.”

From former state Senator Roy Herron, now chairman of the state Democratic Party:

"Speaker Lois DeBerry was one of America's Heroes and one of God's Saints. So many of us owe her so much. Speaker DeBerry led, she inspired, she witnessed with a spirit filled with The Spirit. Much will be said in the days ahead. Not enough can be said. We mourn her passing and celebrate her life."

From House Speaker Emeritus 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.”

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