Long-Serving Memphis Lawmaker Dies After Battle With Cancer

Rep. Lois DeBerry was elected to the state house at the age of 27. She died Sunday afternoon at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, surrounded by family and friends. She is survived by her husband and a son. Credit: Courtesy DeBerry family

Rep. Lois DeBerry was elected to the state house at the age of 27. She died Sunday afternoon at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, surrounded by family and friends. She is survived by her husband and a son. Credit: Courtesy DeBerry family

The longest serving member of the Tennessee House of Representatives has died after a bout with pancreatic cancer. Lois DeBerry was 68. She served more than 40 years straight in the legislature.

DeBerry was the first black woman from the city of Memphis elected to the state House. She also climbed the ladder higher than any other African American woman in the chamber, earning the title of Speaker Pro Tem until Democrats lost control.

At times, DeBerry broke ranks with her own party. While being honored by her colleagues after her cancer diagnosis, she recalled casting a tie-breaking vote to allow charter schools in Tennessee.

“I made up my mind, if this costs me my election, so be it,” she told House members. “Because I was always taught that if you didn’t find a cause worth dying for, it wasn’t worth living.”

During that 2011 speech, DeBerry also spoke through tears, asking for prayers and calling it “a tough time in my life.”

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State lawmakers are remembering DeBerry fondly. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh says she taught him “the importance of working across party lines.”

Republican Governor Bill Haslam calls DeBerry a “true friend” and one of his favorite lawmakers “because of her wit and charm.”

Rep. DeBerry sponsored just a handful of bills during the most recent legislative session, but she showed up for work almost every day. In April, she appeared in a video promoting Vanderbilt’s center for treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Funeral arrangements are still pending.

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