Longtime Tenn. lawmaker Lois DeBerry dies at 68

July 28, 2013 - 6:37 PM
Obit Lois DeBerry

In this Dec. 14, 2011, photo, Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, talks in her Legislative Plaza office in Nashville, Tenn. DeBerry, 80, died from pancreatic cancer Sunday, July 28, 2013, in Memphis. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Rep. Lois DeBerry, one of the longest-serving women lawmakers in the nation and a powerful influence in state politics, died Sunday after a nearly five-year bout with pancreatic cancer. She was 68.

The Memphis Democrat was surrounded by family and friends when she died at a Memphis hospital, her nephew, Gary DeBerry, told The Associated Press.

First elected in 1972, DeBerry was the longest-serving member of the state House of Representatives. Nationwide, only two other female lawmakers elected in 1972 are still serving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She also was the second African-American woman to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly.

As the first female speaker pro tempore in the House, she was respected by her colleagues, who gave her the honorary title of speaker emeritus. Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle sought her support on key legislation.

She was a close friend of former Vice President Al Gore for more than 30 years and gave a rousing presidential nominating speech for Gore at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.

"The Gore campaign at that time needed a sparkplug, someone to stand up and give a ... call to action," recalled Rep. John DeBerry, a distant relative who served with her for more than 20 years in the Legislature. "And Lois was chosen for that. She brought him on to a rousing applause."

DeBerry pushed legislation to benefit poor people, children, senior citizens and college students. One proposal was aimed at keeping students out of debt by restricting credit card companies from soliciting on college and university campuses.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said DeBerry's faith and outspokenness earned her the adoration of many in the Memphis community.

"For those in political circles, she was Speaker DeBerry, a trusted partner and consummate advocate for the people of Memphis and our state," Wharton said in a statement. "Many of her friends and people across the community, however, also knew her as Lady D — an intelligent, cosmopolitan, personality whose passion for the people she served knew no bounds."

She continued to serve in the Legislature, despite her chemotherapy treatments and illness.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said her resilience in her final days was "unbelievable."

"We'd say, why is she doing this? It's got to be painful, it's got to be very stressful on her," the Ripley Democrat said. "She was one of a kind, there's no question."