Tennessee state Rep. Lois DeBerry, a Democrat from Memphis, died Sunday after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 68.
DeBerry was initially elected to the Legislature in 1972. She was the longest-serving active member of the House of Representatives and the second longest-serving lawmaker in the General Assembly, behind only Sen. Douglas Henry, a Nashville Democrat who is retiring next year.
DeBerry’s bio page on the Tennessee General Assembly website notes that she was the first African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives from Memphis. She was also the first female to chair the Shelby County Delegation and the first black woman elected House speaker pro tempore. The latter post she held for 24 years.
Statements of condolence and remembrance quickly issued forth from prominent Tennessee politicians as news of DeBerry’s passing spread.
“Tennessee owes Lois DeBerry a debt of gratitude for her immeasurable contributions to improving the health, welfare, and well-being of the people of our state,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner in a statement from the House minority party. “Lois was an irreplaceable member of our caucus and she will always have a place in our hearts and memories.”
Gov. Bill Haslam said DeBerry was “one of my favorite people on Capitol Hill because of her wit, charm and dedication to her constituents.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell praised DeBerry for committing herself wholly to the causes and principles she held dear.
“From the Civil Rights Movement, to becoming the first female African-American Speaker Pro Tempore, Lois always made public service a priority. The impact she has had on this great state, the lives of countless Tennesseans, and people all across the country is astounding,” Harwell’s statement said. “She certainly made her mark on history, and it was an honor to know her and serve alongside her in Tennessee General Assembly. I valued our friendship, and will deeply miss her sage advice, and her remarkable spirit and smile. Her dedication to children’s issues, women’s issues, and criminal justice reform have resulted in a better Tennessee.”
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh called DeBerry a fighter, said he loved her and that her passing “will leave a hole in the House that no one can fill.”
“From my first day on the hill in 1994, she was someone I could turn to in every situation,” said Fitzhugh. “She taught me the importance of working across party lines to get things done for the state, but also to never be afraid to stand up for a cause – even if sometimes you stand alone.”
Chattanooga Rep. Gerald McCormick, the lower chamber’s Republican majority leader, called her a “legendary figure in Tennessee political history.”
Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, described DeBerry’s political career as “a uniquely American story.”
Said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, “Tennessee has lost a great leader today.”
The statement from the House Democratic Caucus suggested donations be made in Rep. DeBerry’s memory to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.