Friends remember Ben Atchley

Betty BeanAround Town, Feature

The death of former state Sen. Ben Atchley sent a lot of folks wandering down memory lane Thursday.


State Sen. Ben Atchley

In October 1998, for example, Sens. Ben Atchley, Randy McNally and Bud Gilbert loaded up in a car and drove to Middle Tennessee to pay their respects to their colleague Tommy Burks, who had been gunned down by his general election opponent, Byron “Low Tax” Looper, the Putnam County tax assessor.

Atchley, McNally, Gilbert were Republicans. So was Looper.

Burks was a Democrat – a plain-spoken, conservative Blue Dog senator who wanted to prohibit teaching evolution and require DUI convicts to pick up trash while wearing vests proclaiming, “I am a drunk driver.” He was a pig farmer who liked to compare the intelligence of his political rivals to that of “my pig Spot.”

Looper, who had about as much chance of beating Burks as Spot would’ve had, drove down a country lane onto Burks’ 1,000-acre farm on the morning of Oct. 19, spotted Burks sitting in his pickup truck parked on the edge of the pumpkin patch he’d planted for neighborhood children to visit for Halloween and shot him between the eyes.

A farm hand witnessed the shooting and Looper was arrested pretty quickly, but not in time to get him off the ballot, so Burks’ widow, Charlotte, announced her intention to run for her husband’s seat as a write-in candidate.

Once they got to the funeral, McNally remembers being confronted by reporters demanding to know if they would support Charlotte Burks over the Republican nominee. It wasn’t a tough choice.

“All of us said we were going to support Mrs. Burks. We caught a little bit of flack from our party leader at the time. … We also indicated we would support her financially. He said we should have stayed out of it.” (McNally declined to name said leader).

Charlotte Burks won, with the help of Republicans. Looper died in prison.

If those were more congenial times – and they were – the senior member of the threesome, Senate Republican Leader Ben Atchley, was one of the major reasons why.

I arrived in Nashville to cover the state legislature for the Knoxville Journal nine years before Burks was assassinated, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, Ben Atchley taught me the ropes and became one of my mentors, just as he’d done for many others. He never considered reporters his enemies. He had nothing to hide.

He was a savvy legislator, skilled in the art of giving a little to get a lot. He was also as ethical and honest as any politician I’ve ever known.

Over on the House side, Republicans had so little power that I can’t even remember who the minority leader was (my, how the world has changed). But things were different in the Senate, where wily old Lt. Gov. John Wilder had been able to cling to his position by forging a coalition with Republicans that became known as the Wilder Bunch.

It was an example of a vanishing species – a genuinely bipartisan legislative body. “The Senate is the Senate,” Wilder used to say. He was the star, but Ben Atchley was the glue.

McNally is the lieutenant governor now, and it is the Republicans who enjoy a super majority. They were in the minority in 1986, the year that McNally came to the Senate, but Atchley saw an opening when the Democratic Caucus had decided to remove the aging Wilder. Atchley and Carl Koella – an ultra-conservative Republican from Blount County – saw the opportunity to forge a coalition to gain power in the 33-member body.

“They had a real good relationship with Wilder and told him they had 12 votes to re-elect him as speaker. Wilder did the math and figured with himself and four other Democrats, he could do it. When it happened, Wilder decided to share the power; so all the committees were chaired by Republicans – or Democrats – who supported Wilder.

“The result was a truly bipartisan body.”

McNally issued this press release Thursday morning when he learned of his old friend’s passing:

“Ben Atchley was the very definition of a statesman. He always did what was right and never sought credit for his accomplishments – which were many. He never shied away from hard decisions and his integrity was unquestioned. As Senate Republican leader for 16 years, his work ensured Republicans had a seat at the table in the minority and laid the groundwork for our eventual majority. Both he and Sue provided the Senate and the Republican Party with so much and yet asked little in return. You can trace the lineage of all our success as a party and as a state back to the leadership he provided. He was a great man and a great senator. My heart goes out to Sue and the entire Atchley family in this time of mourning. Tennessee’s gentle giant has passed. I will miss him.”

U.S. Rep.-elect Tim Burchett took a minute out of his freshman orientation session to reminisce about his friend Ben Atchley. One of his favorite memories is of going to dinner with the Republican leader after a long day’s work. Montgomery Gentry, the hottest country music duo in Nashville, walked in and spotted the two Republicans in their suits and ties.

“Ben and I were tired – the session was dragging on and on, and I’m sure we looked worn out. Eddie Montgomery said, in a loud voice, ‘What’re you two boys all dressed up for? Are you looking for some politicians?’ It really ticked me off.

“Ben looked up at me from his salmon, over his glasses, and said, ‘Go ahead, Big Guy’ cause he knew I wanted to bust them. …

“So I said, ‘Hell no, we’re looking for a country music star. If you see one, let us know.’”

He bowed down to us and said, ‘We’re not worthy.’ Ben looked at me and said, ‘Hey big guy, who are those two guys anyway?’

“We horse laughed about that.”

Atchley’s longtime administrative assistant, Tootie Haskins, was his good right arm and his forever friend. Ben’s beloved wife, Sue, asked Tootie, who retired along with Atchley in 2004, to write the senator’s legislative obituary as a guide for reporters who might want to write his story. Here’s what she said:

“Known as ‘Gentle Ben,’ Sen. Atchley was the quintessential statesman like Gov. Winfield Dunn and the late Sen. Howard Baker. Ben effectively, tirelessly and selflessly carried the mantle of leadership, was trusted and respected by everyone and was the example and model of civility. …

“He was an ardent champion for the University of Tennessee and its key role for the state.”

“Ben was elected to the state House in 1972 and was elected to the state Senate in 1976. He was the longest-serving Republican leader in Tennessee state Senate history. In 1985, he was in the first class of Leadership Knoxville, served on that board for many years and hosted State Government Days for this group 1985-2004, and later hosted many other leadership groups from across the state.

“Ben had an infectious laugh, a kind demeanor, a joyous disposition and an amazing optimistic outlook. He was a major influence with his outgoing personality and his generous loving spirit which will always be admired, appreciated and treasured.”

As for me, I’ll treasure the memory of the time when I asked him if there was any truth to the rumor that he and Sue used to be ballroom dance champions. He grinned, got up from his desk, leaped into the air and clicked his heels. Then he calmly sat down. Ben Atchley was the best.

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