They threw an 80th birthday bash for former Gov. Ned McWherter in his hometown of Dresden, Tenn., on Friday, but it was as reverential as an inauguration.
The grand occasion was the unveiling of a new statue of McWherter, the state's 46th governor, sculpted by Tennessee artist Russ Faxon of Bell Buckle. It stands in front of the courthouse.
But as the distinguished speakers addressed the hundreds of people gathered on the courthouse grounds and across the street, it was as though the men doing the speaking were all trying to repay their debts to McWherter.
And it was as though not a one of them thought he could ever pay it back in full.
Gov. Phil Bredesen sounded like a man who should have been in bed nursing a cold he was battling, but Bredesen also sounded like a man who wouldn't be anywhere else but in Weakley County on Friday.
"I want to first say that Governor McWherter has touched my wife, Andrea, and me in many personal ways," Bredesen said. "He has been to me, and to us, a mentor and friend. He has supported us consistently these past eight years, through the good times and the tougher times. So, governor, first and foremost, I want to thank you personally for all your friendship and for your encouragement."
Congressman John Tanner, who read letters written for the occasion from former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, was the master of ceremonies. Mike McWherter, son of the former governor and the nominee of the Democratic Party to become the 49th governor, introduced Bredesen. State Sen. Roy Herron of Dresden, who is running to replace Tanner, spoke after Bredesen.
Then it was Ned.
What bit of humor there was came mostly from Ned. At one point, he dabbed his eyes a bit and said, "Excuse me, my eyes leak a little." Then he added, "If that's all that leaks, I'm doing all right."
The crowd laughed.
But it was mostly serious business, and Bredesen gave a detailed account of not just what McWherter accomplished as governor but put in context how the things McWherter did for the state are still playing out today.
Bredesen explained how the education reforms that built the data from the state's value-added system of measuring student achievement -- a McWherter initiative -- played a role in helping the state win $501 million in Race to the Top funds this year.
Bredesen explained how McWherter got the funding formula changed for schools in a way that reflected districts' ability to pay.
"This was an enormous benefit to some of the smaller and more rural school districts in our state at the time," Bredesen said. "It was a radical notion.
"Today, Ned McWherter's Basic Education Plan, otherwise known as the BEP, is a staple of our annual state budgets and has been of enormous effect in leveling the playing field in education across our state."
Bredesen noted that Tennessee was the first state to adopt the value-added system for schools.
"This measuring system helps administrators find successful school districts, the schools that stand out in a struggling district, identify even strong classrooms that stand out in low-performing schools, so they can then replicate these models to look at where we're doing things best and figure out how to apply that more broadly," Bredesen said.
"Today, several states across the country have adopted this value-added system, and I can tell you a couple of decades after its introduction it was a key element in our Race to the Top win. Ned McWherter was where the country is now -- two decades before we got there."
Bredesen made McWherter's impact clear.
"All in all, the reforms Governor McWherter introduced to Tennessee's public education system were the most far-reaching since free textbooks were offered back in the 1940s," Bredesen said.
"His 21st Century Schools program funded the hiring of new teachers to lower classroom sizes. He equipped classrooms with computers, some of them for the first time ever. Simply put, the opportunities for prosperity and success that Ned McWherter had to fight for in his own life are now, as a result of his vision, more easily accessible to the children of Tennessee."
The big moment was the unveiling of the statue, a stunning likeness of McWherter in his prime as governor, serving two terms from 1987-95. Faxon said after the ceremony that McWherter had seen the work in its clay form but that McWherter had not seen it in bronze until the actual unveiling Friday.
"Once I brought it up here, he didn't want to see it in bronze. He didn't want anybody else to see it in bronze," Faxon said. "He said, 'When this is unveiled, I want it to be unveiled in front of everybody as the first time.' He hadn't seen it. Nobody else had either. So it was a real challenge to make sure I was accurate."
Faxon said Terry Oliver, longtime public servant in agriculture from Weakley County and recently named commissioner of Agriculture, called him years ago and said there was interest in having the statue done someday, then called and said it was time. A fund-raising committee was formed, discussions were held, and Faxon worked with McWherter on a position he liked for the statue. The finished product has McWherter holding a familiar hat in one hand while reaching the other hand forward. The inscription under his name at the base reads, "One of Us."
Numerous references were made Friday to McWherter's efforts on roads, creating four-lane highways where needed.
"Dad, everybody was commenting on all those four-lane roads," Mike McWherter said. "Somebody was asking directions. I said just follow the four-lane road. It will take you right to Dresden."
Herron put the two accomplishments -- schools and roads -- together.
"Governor McWherter said thousands of times, 'Schools plus roads equals jobs,' and he meant it," Herron said. "He promised his administration was for the kids, and it was."
When McWherter's time came at the microphone, he said, "Governor Bredesen, I swear I don't know where you got all those good things to say about me, but I'm glad you said 'em."
Bredesen had pointed out McWherter's efforts at bipartisanship, and McWherter reflected on the same point in appreciation of the other party.
"Democrats and Republicans. Let me emphasize -- and Republicans -- helped me pass the 21st Century Schools program Governor Bredesen told you about," McWherter said.
Then he got a little nostalgic.
"When I look out over this crowd, I'm reminded I lived in this community all my life," McWherter said. "I graduated from high school here in 1948, and our old courthouse burned, right here in this square. They let us out of school to help the fire department pull the watchamacallit, the hoses, around. It burned for about two or three days.
"Look at these trees. I remember when they put 'em out. They grow strong. And this community has got good dirt and good people. And trees grow strong, and this county grows strong, and the people of Tennessee grow stronger every year."
He was 80 years old Friday, but McWherter's thoughts were on the young people in the crowd.
"I want the children to know you can serve in public service and be honest, and the biggest contribution that a political person can make is to protect the public trust the people have in their government," he said. "I've always believed that sincerely."
While it hardly came up, there were political campaigns going on. His own son on the stage is a nominee for the job Ned once held. It has to be a point of enormous pride for the father. But there wasn't much said about political campaigns on Friday.
Ned looks a little frail now, compared to the full-figured man the statue depicts. But his mind and words are sharp. He could have told everyone Friday to go out and vote for Mike McWherter for governor. But it wasn't that kind of day.
Yes, he did have children on his mind. Your children. Sort of like always.