It was a good day for Ned McWherter stories Friday in Dresden.
McWherter, governor of Tennessee from 1987-95, was honored with the unveiling of a statue on his 80th birthday in his hometown. Friends and former colleagues from near and far gathered on the square in Dresden for the event. It seemed like a good time to ask a few of McWherter's acquaintances in the crowd to tell their favorite Ned McWherter stories.
One of those was former U.S. Sen. Harlan Mathews, who had been deputy governor to McWherter before McWherter chose him to fill out the Senate term of Al Gore after Gore was elected vice president in 1992.
"I guess my favorite story about Ned is when he first decided to run for governor," Mathews said. "I was asked to help in the fund-raising. We went to the Memphis area, and doing some preliminary talking to the guy who is now head of AutoZone, his aide had called me aside and said, 'Look, he's prepared to give Ned $5,000, but he wants him to ask for it. He wants him to say. He's gonna ask him how much he wants, and he wants Ned to say $5,000.' Why the rigamarole, I don't know.
"Anyway, we sat down and began small talk. Finally, he said, 'Well, you're here for a purpose, I assume. What is that purpose?' Ned said, 'Well, we need a little money to run this campaign, and we're hoping you might help.' He said, 'I'd be glad to. How much do you want?' Ned started coughin'. Finally, the guy said, 'I assume you'd like to have $5,000.' Ned said, 'Thank you, yes I would.'
"He couldn't bring himself to ask people for money. He would ask for the vote. But it was difficult for him to say, 'Look, I need some money.'"
David Manning, former finance commissioner for McWherter, recalled a meeting at the Executive Residence.
U.S. Rep. Jimmy Quillen, a Republican from upper East Tennessee, had a famously good relationship with McWherter, a Democrat. They were able to work together to bring a medical school to East Tennessee. McWherter is popular in East Tennessee to this day for such work.
McWherter, Manning said, used to like to have meetings around the table in the big dining room at the Executive Residence.
"We were in there in a rather intense meeting one day," Manning said. "I don't remember what it was even about. But it was a bunch of legislators, myself and some others around that table, and he was really focused on what was going on.
"And the staff kept coming in and out, serving coffee and stuff, and it was beginning to get on his nerves. He gets up, and he walks over to that door and he opens that door. I don't know who was on the other side of that door, but he says, 'I don't want to be disturbed again, unless a member of my family dies.' And he started to close the door, and he opened it back up again and said, 'Or if Jimmy Quillen calls.' It made a clear impression on me as to how important Jimmy Quillen was to Ned McWherter.
"He was just a great governor and a great man to work for. Tennessee never had better and never will."
State Rep. Mark Maddox, D-Dresden, a longtime educator, recalled extending an invitation to McWherter.
"After Governor McWherter served our state so very well, we invited him to a groundbreaking one day," Maddox said. "He always had such a great sense of humor, and we expected him to give us some great words of wisdom, having served the state so long as a representative, as speaker and as governor.
"He stood up and he said, 'When I retired from being governor, I told them I would take $25,000 for making a speech, and I haven't made any speeches since.' And he sat down. It was a great story, and it was a great way to open that groundbreaking."
McWherter used a version of the same line in his remarks to the crowd on Friday, but he spoke extensively this time.
McWherter does have a way with words, as Tennesseee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester learned many years ago, when Forrester worked with the mayor of Chicago.
"In early 1985, I was invited down from Chicago -- I was the assistant commissioner of the department of economic development with Harold Washington -- to meet Ned McWherter because some people knew I had some experience in using technology in modern campaigns," Forrester said.
"And Ned McWherter took me to breakfast at the Loveless Cafe along with Jim Kennedy. And over breaksfast, he said, 'Boy, they tell me you know something about puters, and if I'm gonna run for governor, I've got to have me puters. I know how to get around the courthouse, and I know how to shake hands, but I don't know much about puters.'
"I said, 'Speaker, I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean. What do you mean puters? I'm not certain I know that.' He said, 'You know, it's like a keyboard and the box.' I said, 'Oh, computers.' He said, 'Yeah, puters.'"
State Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who's running for Congress to replace retiring Rep. John Tanner, who was also on the program Friday, told a campaign story of McWherter's.
"Ned tells the story," Herron said. "Right before he got elected governor, one Saturday he went by the country store. He went to get some chewing tobacco.
"There was a fellow on the porch on a bench out front. He said, 'Ned, that you? I've been reading about you.' He said, 'Yeah, I guess you have.' The man said, 'I've been seeing you on TV.' He said, 'I've just spent $3 million on TV, so I sure hope you've seen me, so yes I guess you have.' The man said, 'Ned Ray, let me tell you one thing. No matter how much fame and fortune you acquire, the crowd at your funeral still depends a heck of a lot on the weather.'"
Hundreds gathered to celebrate McWherter's 80th birthday Friday with the unveiling of a statue. It was a bright, sunny day. But you got the sense they would have been there in the cold and rain if necessary.