Tennessee books for holiday giving

Sandra ClarkFeature, Gossip and Lies

For book lovers on your Christmas list, I’m recommending two – one new, one from 2011.


Just off the UT Press is Dr. Bob Collier’s nature book, “Wonderful Weeds and Various Varmints.” It’s as much fun as the title suggests. Bob and his wife, Louise, aka “Spouse,” are birders. They’ve traveled over much of the United States and documented their sightings. But this book is about more than birds.

Reading the short chapters is like walking into the woods with Bob. He can spin a story out of a hollowed tree or the quick whiff of a skunk. Bob walks us through our own backyard, helping us see the stuff we’ve missed before.

Sample the flavor: “The stories in this book are loosely arranged by season, beginning with spring – a logical place to begin a year, I suppose. Mostly observations and few explicit conclusions, they are generally quiet celebrations of discovering what’s out there in the great outdoors with a few aggravations and irritations thrown in for seasoning, as life generally has a way of happening.”

Sketches by Gale Hinton break up the text. Proceeds benefit the Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center in Grainger County, founded by Bill Nickle, a classmate of Bob Collier at Central High School in Fountain City so many years ago.

The second book is “McWherter” by Billy Stair. The biography of Tennessee’s 46th governor was published following his death in 2011. I just discovered this book at Barnes & Noble. It’s fascinating reading for me because I was there for part of it. I was on the bus, touring state institutions in 1972, when McWherter leaned into the much smaller Ted Ray Miller, seeking his vote in the Democratic Caucus for speaker. Ned was up against Nashville Democrat Jim McKinney, an abrasive partisan. McWherter was partisan, too, but in a folksier way.

Ted Ray went with Ned – a smart or lucky move for the first-term Democrat. Ned beat McKinney by a single vote in the caucus, and Ted Ray always swore it was his. McWherter rewarded him with plum committee assignments and even came and spoke at Ted’s funeral a few years later.

McWherter then beat Gov. Winfield Dunn’s GOP nominee 50-49. The big guy, starting just his third term, took absolute control of the Tennessee House. He froze both Republicans and McKinney Democrats out of leadership. And he humiliated Dunn (and Dunn’s allies from Knox County) by aligning with Upper East Tennessee Republicans to build a medical school at East Tennessee State University over Dunn’s veto.

Billy Stair is a perfect author for McWherter’s biography because Stair is smart and he was there, right beside McWherter as chief policy adviser during his winning campaign and his eight years as governor. A campaign cornerstone was visiting all 95 counties.

After eight years of Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander, it was Big Ned’s time. He handily beat Jane Eskind in the primary and turned to face his Republican foe – former Gov. Winfield Dunn. You may remember that election. Dunn had the charm, experience and a decent record. McWherter had his rural West Tennessee base and Jimmy Quillen in the First Congressional District (which he carried by 53 percent).

That was Dunn’s political demise; McWherter’s came later with TennCare and a state income tax.

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