Douglas Selph Henry III, a giant of the Tennessee legislature for six decades and a force in Nashville politics who was regarded as the epitome of a Southern statesman and gentleman, died late Sunday. He was 90.
Longtime legislative aide and friend Nancy Russell confirmed Henry died around 11:30 p.m. surrounded by his family and loved ones in his West Meade home.
Henry, a conservative Democrat, beloved by members of both parties and known as "Duck" to friends, was the longest-serving member in the history of the Tennessee General Assembly. He was old school in every way, from his seersucker suits to his eloquent manner of speech.
A product of Belle Meade, Henry was first elected to a House seat in 1954 before being elected to the Senate in 1970 to represent Nashville's District 21.
The longtime chairman of the Senate's Finance, Ways and Means Committee, Henry served in the Senate for 44 years, developing a reputation as a guru in state finances. He left the state legislature in 2014, but remained a presence at the state Capitol and continued to draw the respect of current lawmakers.
His death came less than three months after the passing of his wife of 67 years, Loiette “Lolly” Hume Henry. She died in December. Henry had been ailing for weeks, prompting visits in recent days from his closest friends.
"If I had one word to describe Senator Henry, it would be 'gentleman,' " said former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who considered Henry a mentor when he became governor in 2002. "If you gave me two words, they would be 'Southern gentleman.' With three, 'Southern gentleman senator.' "
Bredesen said Henry was courteous to everyone he knew — friends and foes alike — and put the interests of his beloved state far ahead of any political or personal concerns.
"At its worst, politics is becoming every day more of a coarse and self-serving activity," Bredesen said. "But today, we should pause a moment and remember it at its best: gentlemanly, respectful and generous — the way Senator Henry practiced it every day."
Nashville attorney Bobby Thomas, Henry's longtime campaign finance chairman, said Henry had a remarkable command on issues and history. The two go back nearly 47 years when Henry was an attorney at Boult, Cummings, Conners & Berry law firm, where Thomas practices today.
"There will never be anybody else like Senator Henry in the Tennessee legislature," Thomas said. "He had no personal agenda and no personal ambition. He just wanted to do what all of our elected officials ought to do, and that's what's good for the public. There's not many of those around."
During much of his time at the legislature, the senator could be spotted with his signature bright blond hair swooped to one side and a cigar frequently at the helm. He wore a suit and tie everywhere he went.
He took on a range of causes as a lawmaker, including sponsoring the first child seat restraint law in the nation and pushing child abuse reporting and adoption laws. Although Henry was targeted by some on the political left during his final years in office over stances on social issues, Henry also was considered a champion of the environment, conservation, public education and women and seniors.
Henry also was instrumental in helping to raise money and organize the efforts to create the Korean and Vietnam War memorials in Legislative Plaza, as well as the World War II memorial in Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park.
Ethical behavior: 'He personified it'
Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, a close friend of Henry's, fought back tears discussing someone who she said was especially welcoming to her when she entered the state legislature in 1989 as the only Republican in Davidson County.
"He was just one of the finest men I've ever known," Harwell said. "A lot of people talk about ethical behavior in politics. He didn't have to talk about it, he personified it.
"I learned so much from him."
Gov. Bill Haslam said one of his most fun calls as governor came in 2015 when he notified Henry — an ardent support of the Tennessee State Museum — that his budget would include funding for a new museum building. Haslam said that he was fortunate to visit with Henry on Friday and that the "state’s finances were still top of mind to him."
"He served the state for nearly 50 years, and it is not an exaggeration to say that he is one of the primary reasons the state is on such solid financial footing today," Haslam said. "He was a powerhouse intellect, courteous, kind, genuine and a statesman, and I will miss knowing that his wisdom and perspective are only a phone call away.”
Joe Haynes, a former Democratic state senator from Nashville, worked alongside Henry in the Senate for three decades.
"I'd say that Senator Henry knows more about the state budget than all the other people involved in state government put together," Haynes said. "He had an excellent memory that permitted him to expound on the year and the date that we had done something in the past. He was just remarkable in that sense that he had that capacity.
"And he took it very seriously," Haynes said, adding that Henry's finance committee very rarely went against the wishes of their chairman.
Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, said Henry not only had institutional knowledge, he was willing to help and mentor others, including Republicans, so much so that his teachings have left an indelible mark on those still in the chamber.
"He loved the decorum (of the Senate). He was always such a gentleman and he treated you like you should be treated," said Tracy, adding that the Senate does the Pledge of Allegiance to the Tennessee flag every day because of Henry.
Politics a family tradition
Henry grew up in an affluent Presbyterian family that made money from the old National Life and Accident Insurance Co., a Nashville-based company that his grandfather helped form. Henry approached the Senate as a full-time job, though he also practiced law for several years, once serving as assistant vice president and counsel for the National Life and Accident Insurance Co.
Henry, whose father served in the Tennessee Senate under former Gov. Austin Peay, was the eldest of two. He attended school in Nashville and Chattanooga before graduating from Vanderbilt University. He later served 2½ years in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Throughout his life, Henry was involved in various organizations, including the YMCA, Tennessee Historical Society, Kiwanis Club, American Legion Post 5, Tennessee State Museum Foundation Board and Tennessee Foreign Language Institute Board. He also served as chairman of the Southern Legislative Conference in the late 1980s.
“He truly is an institution,” said former Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican who considered Henry a mentor despite being in the opposite political party.
Ramsey, who on occasion was invited to Henry’s house for dinner that featured a mix of Republicans and Democrats, said although Henry was wealthy, he didn’t flaunt it.
“He was a very frugal man,” Ramsey said. Henry was a voracious reader and Tennessee history buff, Ramsey said. And beyond his love of books, Henry was fluent in French and also spoke Greek, Latin, German and Italian.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said Henry's tremendous impact on Nashville and distinguished service in the legislature would undoubtedly last for generations to come.
"He was a fervent student and teacher of our shared history, he was an expert on the state budget, and he set a high standard for decorum and decency in public life," Barry said. "Nashville was proud to call him one of ours, and we miss him already. I know I am joined by many across the state of Tennessee, which Senator Henry loved so dearly, in celebrating the life and legacy of a true statesman.”
Henry's political career nearly came to an abrupt end in 2010 when Jeff Yarbro, who challenged Henry from the left, came within 17 votes of defeating Henry in the Democratic primary. Yarbro won the seat four years later after Henry opted to not run for re-election again.
“Douglas Henry stands alone in the history of the General Assembly,” Yarbro said. “He was unmatched in the universal respect earned from colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“When you run a race with someone, you get to know them really well. But I think it’s unusual how much we grew to like each other during that experience."
Henry remained an influence in the legislature even after his departure.
When Randy McNally ascended to lieutenant governor on Jan. 10, Henry was among those on hand for the occasion and was even named a special counsel to the Oak Ridge Republican. Henry had been named chairman emeritus of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
“He was like a father figure,” McNally said, adding that Henry reminded him of his father, who was a physicist who once taught at MIT.
McNally said Henry was a social conservative whom Republicans tried to recruit because they knew they couldn't defeat him.
Although Henry faced criticism from some liberals for stances on abortion and other social issues, Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said Henry was a progressive for other reasons.
Admitting that he and Henry might have disagreed on some social issues — Henry famously smoked marijuana in 1977 outside Tennessee as the legislature was debating a bill but rejected the drug as a dangerous substance — Stewart said the elder statesman was rooted in progressive politics.
Henry was "absolutely in the progressive tradition in creating and maintaining strong enduring governmental institutions, protecting them from corruption and ensuring that they were properly funded," Stewart said.
Stewart said Henry was a great statesman who did a lot of obscure work on budget and tax committees and was among the architects behind the state's fiscal stability.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said Henry, who also was at the legislature when Watson led his first budget committee in late January, was an institution in Tennessee politics who spoke eloquently about how the Senate functions.
"Senator Henry had friends on both sides of the aisle, but most of all above all of that he was probably the most respected member that we've had here ever," Watson said.
“There will never be another individual like him. One that really cared about people,” McNally said.
Henry's ability to reach across the aisle and respect those with opposing views was evident throughout his time in the Senate, even on the day of his departure.
“Goodbye everybody, be always kind and true,” he said in his farewell address to the Senate in 2014.
Henry is survived by five children, 13 grandchildren and his many great-grandchildren. Details on Henry's funeral arrangements are expected to be announced shortly.