Douglas Henry, state’s longest serving lawmaker, dies at 90

Courtesy: Tennessee State Library and Archives

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – There are remembrances across Tennessee Monday for one of the most revered and recognizable lawmakers in state history.

Senator Douglas Henry died Sunday night at his Nashville home. Flags at the state capitol were lowered to half-staff in his honor.

The 90-year-old stepped down from his seat just over two years ago after serving for 44 years.

The Nashville native may be best known for telling generations of lawmakers how to keep government out of debt.

“There will come a time when you cannot cut anymore and don’t have any more one time money to plug holes with,” he told News 2 back in 2000 during the heated debates about whether or not Tennessee should have an income tax. “And the people who buy those bonds will be whistling for their money.”

Courtesy: Tennessee State Library and Archives

With his distinctive style and drawl, anyone knowing Tennessee politics over the last half century could tell you about Senator Doug Henry–and it was almost all good.

“He was always a consummate southern gentleman,” said current Lt. Governor Randy McNally who served with Henry more than any other current lawmaker.

“He had a classical education and he could speak five or seven languages, but he never bragged about it or anything.”

While Sen. Henry chaired the state’s powerful senate finance committee, he cared deeply about state history, making sure in a number of areas from the state museum to the Civil War that Tennesseans remember their heritage.

“He has been the go-to person for any of us who work in public history,” said Anne Toplovich shortly after Henry’s retirement.

In 2009, using his typically descriptive language described his longtime colleague and then Lt. Governor as “he kept his feet on the ground, he did not get buffaloed by anyone pushing him.”

The senator might have been speaking about part of his own legacy.

Courtesy: Tennessee State Library and Archives

Colorful words always delivered in a courtly manner and sometimes in a seersucker suit were part of his legacy as well.

All were on display during a tight Democratic primary race in 2010.

“If I lose, gotta figure out where I get a job and what I would do next,” quipped the then 80-something senator.

Henry had already done a lot for Tennessee, and eventually won a final term, but while a champion of fiscal responsibility, his pro-life stance and long interest in confederate history made it seem to some like he wasn’t much of a Democrat at times.

Personal principles were always above party is another corner of the senator’s legacy.

“I really attribute to him the good financial condition the state is in now,” House Speaker Beth Harwell told News 2. “When I was newly-elected to the legislature, he became my mentor and taught me as much as anyone about the state budget.”

Democrats have their claim as well on Doug Henry’s legacy.

“For anybody who likes Nashville or Tennessee today, it was built on his shoulders,” said Rep. Jim Cooper who himself comes from a family of prominent Democrats. “Nobody, no governor, no senator, no big shot has more to do with Tennessee’s success than Doug Henry.”

Courtesy: Family of Douglas Henry

The senator came from privilege but spent more than half his life in service to state government.

No one else ever in Tennessee history can make that claim.

Henry also served in the Army during World War II. He got his start as an attorney after he graduated from Vanderbilt University. He was originally elected to the House in 1954 and served in Nashville’s District 21 from 1970 to 2014.

Henry is survived by five children. Colleagues call Henry a true statesman. Click here to read statements from local officials on his passing. 

Visitation will be held Thursday from 10 a.m. until 12 p.m. and again from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. at the state capitol.

Services are being held Friday at 11 a.m. at the Downtown Presbyterian Church.