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you drive up a back road to see some farmer who nobody knew about, and nobody knew Senator STENNIS knew anything about. He never forgot them.”
Others who knew him said he never lost his down-home touch despite a rocketlike rise to some of the most powerful positions in the Senate.
"We used to travel some together, go around the district and to other places. He always would tell me, 'Let's get some ice cream; that's my weakness.' Wherever we were, we'd go get it. That was just the way he was,” said 3rd District U.S. Representative Sonny Montgomery, who served with STENNIS for 23 years.
“He was one of the stalwarts for the State of Mississippi,” said State Senator David Jordan of Greenwood, who as an early civil rights supporter found himself on the other side of STENNIS' pro-segregation stand.
"I would have liked to have seen him more open to all of the State. We didn't always have the access to him that some of the white folks had. But over the years he changed. He became a statesman for all of the people.”
Former Lt. Governor Evelyn Gandy said STENNIS remained in close contact with State officials throughout his stay in Washington. When there was a problem, she said, STENNIS would make a point to fix it.
“His heart was with the people of Mississippi, and he responded to their needs, and he helped those of us who were elected at the State level to respond to those needs," she said.
Rex Buffington, STENNIS' press secretary from 1978 until the Senator retired in 1988, said the key to STENNIS' power sprang from his reputation.
“A lot of that came from being committed to doing the right thing. A lot of his power and influence came, not just from the positions that he held, but, from the esteem that people held him in,” Buffington said.
Buffington said he admired STENNIS long before going to work for him, and when he took the job he was concerned that in Washington he would find a man much different from his public reputation.
"What I found when I got there was just the opposite. He was an individual who was even greater than that wonderful image,” he said. “It was incredible, really, working for a legend, and one who lived up to and even exceeded his reputation.”
Almost immediately after leaving office, STENNIS' health began to seriously fail and he was forced to drop out of all public life, Buffington said.
“The Senator that we knew has really been gone for a while,” he said. “It was as though when he left the Senate he finally let go.”
Buffington now serves as executive director of the Stennis Center for Public Service at Mississippi State University. It was created by Congress in 1988 to attract young people to public service careers.
Former Governor William Winter campaigned for STENNIS when STENNIS first ran for the Senate in 1947. He later served as his legislative assistant.
"he represented, to me, what a public leader ought to be like,” Winter said. “His total commitment to public service, his integrity, his impeccable personal character and his qualities as a true gentleman.”
“During his service in the United States Senate, Mississippi had one of the most effective and highly respected Senators that this or any other State ever had,” Winter said. “We shall not soon see his like again.”
Others echo Winter's assessment.
"He truly was a man of great stature. He will long be remembered as one of the finest Senators Mississippi ever produced,” said U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, a former colleague. "He never said anything bad about anybody else and looked for the good in others. He was appreciated for that. People noticed that."
Former Governor Ray Mabus, currently ambassador to Saudi Arabia, called STENNIS "a statesman for the ages.”
[The Commercial Appeal, April 24, 1995)
MISSISSIPPI'S STENNIS, MR. INTEGRITY, DIES AT 93
(By William C. Bayne and Sarah A. Derks)
ELECTED IN 1947, HE NEVER LOST AN ELECTION
Former Senator JOHN CORNELIUS STENNIS, who spent four decades in the Senate exercising vast influence over America's military, died Sunday. The Mississippi Democrat was 93.
STENNIS died about 3:30 p.m. at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, MS, where he had been taken several days ago for pneumonia, said his son, John Hampton Stennis.
STENNIS earned a reputation in Washington for fairness and finesse that landed him delicate committee assignments and close association with eight U.S. Presidents. But his opposition to integration blotted his record.
"He was a great Senator in every way. He was effective, respected and deeply appreciated by the people in Mississippi,” said U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS). “He was truly a man of great stature. We have suffered a great loss."
Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice, who called STENNIS "a key fixture in America's winning the Cold War,” also said the former Senator will be greatly missed.
"All of Mississippi mourns for Senator JOHN C. STENNIS, one of the outstanding Americans ever to serve in the United States Senate," Fordice said. "His service to this State was long and faithful and he enjoyed national prominence as well.”
The Senator's body will lie in state Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson and from 4-6 p.m. at the DeKalb. Graveside services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Pinecrest Cemetery in DeKalb.
It was once said that STENNIS was held in such high regard by his Senate colleagues that his integrity was "considered independently of his constituency, his political philosophy or his voting record.”
STENNIS, revered as "Mr. Integrity," and "The Judge," overcame personal tragedy to continue public service. He survived a near-fatal attack by gunmen who attempted to rob him in front of his Washington home on January 30, 1973. The gunmen shot him twice in the abdomen and left him to die. He was 71 at the time and his recovery included a hospital stay of more than four months.
Coy Hines Stennis, his wife of 52 years, died in 1983. In 1984, he lost his left leg to cancer and had to use a wheelchair.
As chairman of both the Armed Services Committee and the defense subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee during the 1970s, STENNIS wielded immeasurable influence.
STENNIS was by no means a traditionist in Southern politics. His 1947 special-election campaign to fill the unexpired term of the late Senator Theodore G. Bilbo's seat differed radically from the type to which Southerners had become accustomed. He did not mention his opponents or hurl accusations at them.
He was best known in the Senate press gallery for his booming baritone, which often was heard crying, “Mr. President, may we have order?” The request usually resulted in an instant hush.
STENNIS had a mixed record on equal rights. He condemned the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision, and in 1975 he voted against extending the Voting Rights Act. But in 1983 he switched and voted for its extension.
He later said he always supported the advancement of all races. He argued that the 1954 ruling had forced the South to desegregate its schools but not the North.
His argument won support from several liberal advocates, including Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT), who conceded in a Senate speech that the North was guilty of “monumental hypocrisy."
The so-called STENNIS Amendment, passed in 1972, requires school desegregation policies to be “applied uniformly in all regions of the United States."
In the 1975 debate over the Voting Rights Act, STENNIS renewed his theme against regionalized federal laws. He called the law "a monstrosity which never should have been passed,” and added, “if we are to have such a law, it should be applicable nationwide and not just to seven States chosen on the basis of arbitrary criteria to ensure their inclusion."
The Voting Rights Act, first enacted in 1965, applies only to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia and 39 counties in North Carolina.
STENNIS was born on August 3, 1901, the son of Hampton Howell Stennis and Cornelia Adams Stennis. He graduated from Mississippi State University in 1923 and received his law degree from University of Virginia in 1928.
He entered Mississippi politics quickly thereafter, serving in the State House of Representatives from 1928 to 1932 before joining the district attorney's office.
STENNIS was prosecuting attorney for the 16th Judicial District from 1931 to 1937 and a circuit court judge until 1947.
STENNIS was first elected November 4, 1947, in that special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Bilbo. He was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1952, 1958, 1964, 1970, 1976 and 1982, when he indicated to supporters that he was running his last political campaign. He never lost an election.
His closest election was in 1982 when, for the first time in his career STENNIS was opposed by a Republican, Yazoo City attorney Haley Barbour. STENNIS won that race with 64 percent of the vote.
In 1929, he married the former Coy Hines of New Albany, MS. The couple lived in a two-story Northwest Washington home. They rarely went out and occasionally on Saturday mornings, she would prepare one of his favorite meals; country ham and eggs with cornbread and melted cheese.
His wife's death was a crushing loss for the Senator. "She always carried her part of the load and was a great help to me,” STENNIS said at the time.
In 1965, STENNIS was given the chairmanship of the newly formed Senate Ethics Committee. The panel's first unpleasant duty was the case of Senator Thomas J. Dodd (D-CT), who was accused of campaign fund finagling. STENNIS and the committee went to great lengths to give Dodd, now deceased, a chance to defend himself, but in the end, recommended censure.
Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), later remarked: “Some of us freshmen were sitting around once during the Dodd hearings and we agreed that if we found ourselves charged with some terrible crime and if we could pick our judge, we'd pick JOHN STENNIS to judge us."
In 1954, during STENNIS’ first full term, the Mississippian became the first Democrat to ask for censure of the late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-WI). If the Senate approved of McCarthy's tactics in hunting Communists and other subversives, said STENNIS, “something big and fine will have gone from this chamber.”
STENNIS used his respect and standing among his colleagues to battle for the preservation of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway project. In 1980, he called in his markers from other Senators, asking them to vote to maintain funding levels on the $1.8 billion project.
STENNIS was largely successful in his efforts, despite considerable carping from Senators who called the project one of the greatest pork-barrel schemes in history.
In 1974, when President Richard Nixon's administration was foundering in the Watergate morass, STENNIS praised Nixon as a "courageous President,” citing Nixon's successes in foreign policy.
A pillar in the Presbyterian Church, STENNIS founded in the Senate what became known as the “Wednesday morning prayer breakfast group.” It consisted of 20 Senators—Democrats and Republicans—who have breakfast and hold informal religious observances when the Senate is in session.
The Senator, who rarely missed a Senate session because of illness, always maintained his weight at a trim 175 pounds and swam and exercised regularly in the Senate gymnasium. STENNIS generally shunned Washington's cocktail circuit, but enjoyed an occasional scotch and soda. He also loved baseball, and before the old Washington Senators fled to Dallas, he often would slip out to the ball park.
After his retirement, STENNIS moved to the Mississippi State University campus in Starkville, which also is the home of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and the Stennis Center for Public Service, created by Congress.
Mississippi State University created the John C. Stennis Chair of Political Science in 1971 with funds donated by the Senator and his friends. Many of his personal letters and public papers are housed at the university.
STENNIS held several honorary degrees and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Alpha Delta (legal) and Alpha Gamma Rho fraternities. He was a Presbyterian, a Mason, and a member of the Lions Club and the Mississippi and American bar associations.
Also named for the Senator is NASA's National Space Technology Laboratory in southern Mississippi. John C. Stennis Space Center tests rocket motors.
“How would I like to be remembered? I haven't thought about that a whole lot,” STENNIS said in a 1985 interview. “You couldn't give me a finer compliment than just to say, 'He did his best.'”
STENNIS is survived by his son, John Hampton Stennis, a Jackson lawyer, and his daughter, Margaret Womble. The family requests that donations be made to an educational, charitable or religious group of choice.
[From the Daily Leader (Brookhaven, Mississippi), April 24, 1995)
ONCE-POWERFUL SENATOR, JOHN STENNIS DEAD AT 93
(By Stephen Hawkins)
JACKSON-JOHN CORNELIUS STENNIS, a Mississippi Democrat who trained generations of Senators in the ways of Washington, opposed vir
tually all civil rights legislation and staunchly supported the Vietnam War, died Sunday. He was 93.
STENNIS died at St. Dominic Hospital, where he had been taken several days ago for pneumonia, said his son John Hampton Stennis.
During 41 years in the Senate, STENNIS earned a reputation for fairness and finesse that landed him delicate committee assignments and close associations with eight U.S. Presidents.
"He was a great Senator in every way. He was effective, respected and deeply appreciated by the people in Mississippi,” said U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS).
As chairman of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the defense subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee in the 1970s, STENNIS wielded more clout over military matters than perhaps any civilian but the President.
“If there is one thing I'm unyielding and unbending on, it is that we must have the very best weapons," STENNIS once said.
When he retired in 1988, STENNIS was the Senate's oldest member, and had served longer than all but one other—Carl Hayden of Arizona, who retired in 1969.
Nicknamed the "conscience of the Senate” for his work on the Senate's code of ethics and his religious convictions, STENNIS overcame personal tragedy to continue public service.
He was wounded by robbers and left bleeding on the sidewalk near his northwest Washington home in 1973. Coy Hines Stennis, his wife of 52 years, died in 1983. And in 1984, he lost his left leg to cancer, and had to use a wheelchair.
“Discouraged? I suppose everybody's had his ups and downs. But I've never surrendered,” STENNIS said in 1984.
Although STENNIS never made racial issues his primary focus in the Senate, he did support segregation and was a staunch member of the Southern wing of his party.
He condemned the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision and voted against virtually all civil rights legislation. But in 1983, he voted for an extension of the Voting Rights Act.
“I didn't want to go back to the days of misunderstanding,” he told The Associated Press later. “I didn't want to turn around and go back. I always rejoiced to see blacks or anyone else have better opportunities.”
After becoming Armed Services chairman in 1969, STENNIS firmly supported President Nixon's requests to extend the Vietnam War.
In the war's waning days, he cosponsored the war Powers Act of 1973, which sets limits on a President's power to commit American forces to combat without congressional consent. But a decade later, he opposed forcing President Reagan to abide by the law in order to keep Marine peacekeepers in Lebanon.
STENNIS was born August 3, 1901, in DeKalb and graduated from Mississippi State University in 1923 before attending the University of Virginia Law School.
He began his public service in 1928 in the Mississippi Legislature, then served as a district attorney and circuit judge before joining the U.S. Senate.
STENNIS' body will lie in state Tuesday at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson and later at the DeKalb Presbyterian Church. Graveside services will be Wednesday at Pinecrest Cemetery in DeKalb, his hometown.