Remembering The Gentility And Tennessee Pride Of Douglas Henry | Nashville Public Radio

Remembering The Gentility And Tennessee Pride Of Douglas Henry

Mar 6, 2017

No one in the history of Tennessee served in its state legislature longer than Douglas Henry. The Democratic lawmaker represented West Nashville for nearly half a century. But that was just one of the ways Henry, who died Sunday night at age 90, showed his love for his native state.

There's a ritual that takes place at the start of every session of the Tennessee Senate.

"Three white stars on a field of blue," the pledge of allegiance begins — the pledge to the flag of Tennessee. "It is with pride and love that we salute the flag of Tennessee."

Sen. Henry pushed for this custom shortly before retiring from the state Senate in 2014. It was one of many ways Henry sought to honor Tennessee. Its culture. Its people. Its history.

"He is a Southern gentleman. He is a scholar. He is a man devoted to the nation-state of Tennessee, as he has often called it," Lois Riggins-Ezell, a longtime friend and former head of the Tennessee State Museum, said shortly before Henry's death. "No one believes more strongly in the preservation of Tennessee culture."

Henry was a major supporter of the Tennessee State Museum, so much so that the commission that runs it is named in his honor. His relationship with the museum started soon after he was elected to the state Senate in 1970. At the time, the museum was located in a basement of the War Memorial Building.

Henry helped build up its collection and move it into the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Later, he pushed for the standalone home now under construction on Bicentennial Mall.

"I don't think the museum would be there without Senator Henry. It might, but thank God he was there," Riggins-Ezell said.

A Historic Career

Henry served in the state legislature before the political storms of the 1970s. Through the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s. To the birth and spread of the internet, cell phones and mobile computing.

Why did he stay in office so long?

"The Tennessee Senate is a very good place to accomplish what you want to accomplish. There are only 33 of us," Henry told WPLN during an interview in January.

Other projects Henry helped along: Preserving Nashville's Radnor Lake and designating the Harpeth as a scenic river.

"You can't manufacture a scenic river," he said. "Either it's there or it's not. And the Harpeth River is an unusually scenic river. I've floated it many times, and I wanted other people to have that pleasure. And if it's all backyards and garbage cans, it's not scenic like it is with natural growth along the banks."

He also pushed legislation to protect children, the elderly and the disabled.

More: Lawmakers Have Two Words For Retiring Doug Henry: Gentleman, Statesman

Henry came from a prominent Nashville family. His grandfather founded the National Life Insurance Company. Henry would work there as an attorney before going into private practice.

But his most prominent role was as state senator. For many years, Henry was the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which gave him tremendous power over the state budget and made it hard for other lawmakers to tell him "no."

"The chairman of Finance Committee, when he has an interest in something, he helps it along," Henry said. "You find a lot of members say, 'Yeah, that's a good bill,' because you're the chairman of the Finance Committee."

But Henry had a reputation for being fair, says Senate Speaker Randy McNally. The Oak Ridge Republican succeeded Henry as chairman of the Finance Committee. He describes Henry as a mentor.

"He would never use his position to get things," McNally says. "And he certainly didn't ever hold any votes against people."

Even as recently as this year, Henry still attended Finance Committee meetings and offered advice.

Henry was often tighter with the state budget than his fellow Democrats might have liked. He opposed a state income tax, for example.

"I'm conservative financially," Henry said. "I say you've got to have the money before you can do good."

As he grew older, Henry parted ways with other Democrats more frequently. One difference that emerged was whether the state should honor the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Henry was instrumental in getting a bust of Forrest placed in the state Capitol. He said the idea came to him after noticing an available slot across the corridor from a bust of the Union Admiral David Farragut. Both were Tennessee natives.

Forrest's detractors say it's inappropriate to hail a man who traded slaves and had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Henry, though, said Tennesseans should instead focus on Forrest's leadership skills.

"I served in the Army, and he's what I'd call a good officer. He got the job done, and he took care of his folks at the same time," Henry said earlier this year.

Henry could be nostalgic about the Tennessee of yore. He sometimes said he was a man born beyond his time, recalled his friend, Riggins-Ezell.

"I always thought that he retained all the Southernness that there was," she said. "The genteel spirit, the manners, the ability to look at every situation with a very broad brush."

If you were looking for the someone to play the part of a Southern lawmaker, she said, Douglas Henry would have been the man chosen by central casting.