Robert A. “Fats” Everett lay ailing in Nashville’s Veterans Hospital. For decades the 6-foot-4 congressman, whose weight teetered between 255 and 370 pounds, had been a fixture in Tennessee politics. Everett had learned politics from some of the Volunteer State’s most successful practitioners of the art. “Fats” Everett was something of a political prodigy with a liking for people, a sunny disposition and a head for understanding politics. Everett had gotten himself elected to the Obion County Commission when he was only twenty-one years old. Two years later, Everett was elected circuit court clerk. “Fats” Everett served in the U. S. Army from 1942 – 45 during the Second World War and then became administrative assistant to Tennessee’s junior United States senator, Tom Stewart. Following Senator Stewart’s loss in the 1948 Democratic primary, newly elected Governor Gordon Browning sought out Everett to become his chief of staff.
In 1950, Everett left the State Capitol and went home to West Tennessee where he challenged Jere Cooper for Cooper’s seat in the U. S. House of Representatives. Cooper had been in Congress since 1928 and was an institution inside his West Tennessee district. Everett’s popularity was such that it was the closest election of Congressman Jere Cooper’s career. The final vote tally was 26,675 for Cooper and 25,055 for “Fats” Everett, a difference of 1,620 ballots. It was the only campaign “Fats” Everett ever lost. The portly politician’s personal popularity inside his home county of Obion County is staggering; against a popular incumbent who was the ranking member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Everett won 7,138 votes to only 2,319 for Cooper. “Fats” Everett won better than 75% of the vote in his home county against a sitting congressman, which was quite a feat, especially when the incumbent had represented the county for twenty-two years.
Jere Cooper died unexpectedly in December of 1957 and “Fats” Everett was the favorite to win the special election. Following his sweeping victory in the special election, he was unopposed in the Democratic primary later in 1958. That became a pattern; Congressman “Fats” Everett became unbeatable inside his district. Everett also passed along his knowledge of politics to the next generation. One of his drivers while he toured the counties comprising his district was a young Ned McWherter.
While in Congress, “Fats” Everett was a very conservative Democrat when there was still such a thing. Representing one of the most rural congressional districts in Tennessee, Everett reflected the views of the home folks and his constituent service was excellent, which only increased his popularity. Everett had been reelected in 1968 without opposition and the following month he had gone to Bethesda Naval Hospital suffering from complications from diabetes. Later, Everett was transferred to the Veterans’ Hospital in Nashville. The congressman’s condition included kidney problems and he contracted a “flu-like virus” which led to pneumonia. Robert Ashton Everett died on January 26, 1969. He was only fifty-three years old.
When a member of the United States Senate dies or resigns, the governor of the state appoints someone to serve until the next election cycle. When a congressman dies or resigns from office, the governor calls a special election to fill the vacancy. The 1968 election in Tennessee had been hard fought between GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon, Democratic nominee and then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey and third party candidate George Wallace, the governor of Alabama. It was one of the closest elections in our country’s history and Tennessee was no exception. Richard Nixon had been on the Republican ticket as either the vice presidential or presidential candidate in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1968 and carried the Volunteer State each time. Nixon won Tennessee that year albeit only narrowly, with just under 38% of the vote. Hard on Nixon’s heels in Tennessee was George Wallace who tallied 34% of the vote. Hubert Humphrey ran third in Tennessee with 28%.
Wallace had swept much of West Tennessee and proved to be highly popular in Tennessee’s Eighth Congressional District. When Governor Buford Ellington, a Democrat, called for the special election, Wallace’s American Independent Party fielded a candidate to succeed the late “Fats” Everett. There was considerable optimism amongst Tennessee Republicans as well and they nominated Leonard Dunavant, who enjoyed a long and highly respected tenure in the Tennessee General Assembly. William J. Davis was the candidate for the American Independent Party and Ed Jones became the Democratic candidate to succeed Congressman Everett.
Jones, bald and bespectacled, looked more like an accountant than a congressman. Ed Jones was a farmer from Yorkville, Tennessee. Jones had been Commissioner of Agriculture when Gordon Browning was restored to the governorship in 1949. At the time of his appointment, Ed Jones was the youngest person ever to serve as Tennessee’s Commissioner of Agriculture, being only thirty-six years old. With the election of John F. Kennedy, Jones became the chair of the Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation Service for Tennessee by appointment of the president in 1961. It was a post Jones continued to hold until his election to Congress.
Governor Ellington set the special election for March 25, 1969, which gave prospective candidates little time to campaign. As incumbents tended to occupy the Eighth Congressional District’s seat in the House of Representatives until death, a number of candidates immediately declared their intention to run. Circuit Court Judge Dick Jerman of Alamo said he was running, as did James O. Lanier of Dyersburg. Claude Cockrell Jr., a businessman and avid supporter of Governor George Wallace, announced he was running as an Independent. Allen Strawbridge, a veteran of Tennessee’s political wars and a Republican, had tasted nothing but defeat due to his party affiliation, and while he said he didn’t think much of running a campaign for Congress, he said he might be persuaded. State Representative Leonard Dunavant of Millington operated a successful furniture store in his home city and appeared to be the favorite for the GOP nomination irrespective of Strawbridge’s intent.
Jim Lanier was thirty-seven years old and finishing his last year in law school. He had served a term in the Tennessee House of Representatives from his native Dyer County where his father was something of a political boss. Many West Tennessee Democrats were waiting to see what George Thomas would do. Thomas, who was from Dresden (Ned McWherter’s home as well), had been the field representative not only for “Fats” Everett but also for his predecessor in Congress, Jere Cooper. An attorney who had been the equivalent of Weakley County’s mayor, Thomas was acknowledged to have the widest number of political contacts in the district as well as perhaps the largest number of friends and acquaintances.
At one time or the other, virtually every notable Democrat in the district expressed some interest in being the congressional nominee for his party inside the Eighth District. State Senator Milton Hamilton, George Thomas, Ed Jones, Obion County Judge Dan McKinnis, state Representative Willie Neese of Paris, and Cayce Pentecost, chairman of the elected State Public Service Commission, all were reputedly eager to run. Judge Dick Jerman had already announced he was withdrawing from consideration as a candidate, having concluded he really didn’t want to live in Washington, D.C. More likely, the judge found he didn’t have enough support to become the Democratic nominee. Another prospective candidate was Claude Armour of Memphis, who had been police commissioner and was a special assistant to Governor Buford Ellington.
James A. “Jimmy” Peeler, chairman of Tennessee’s Democratic Party, called a convention of delegates representing the counties comprising the Eighth Congressional District. As Democrats gathered for their convention in Jackson, Tennessee, there were a host of hopefuls angling for the nomination. Several veteran political observers thought the convention was likely to deadlock simply because of the sheer number of candidates. Shelby County came to the convention with the biggest block of delegates, 132 in total. A part of Shelby County was in the Eighth Congressional District as well as the Seventh District and the bulk of Memphis was in the Ninth District.
As the convention began, there were no less than 11 candidates for the Democratic nomination for Congress from the Eighth District. It took more than seven hours to pick the nominee. Eventually, the fifty-six-year-old Ed Jones won the Democratic nomination for Congress. The following day, Republicans selected Leonard Dunavant to represent their party in the special election.
After a spirited contest, Ed Jones emerged as the victor with a plurality of the vote. Dunavant and Davis see-sawed back and forth in the election returns for second place. In the rural counties of the district, Davis was running second, but as the returns from Shelby County began to trickle in, Dunavant finished second. Leonard Dunavant carried Benton County just barely and the portion of Shelby County inside the Eighth District. Ed Jones carried everything else. At the time, the Eighth Congressional District was so solidly Democratic that Leonard Dunavant ran third in ten of the fourteen counties.
The Democrats had wisely nominated a candidate who related well to the people he aspired to represent in Congress. Ed Jones was very well known in the Eighth District. Old-timers recalled a Strawberry Festival parade when Jones had been Commissioner of Agriculture under Gordon Browning. Governor Browning had been riding in the lead car during the parade as Jones was following in a second automobile. Throughout the parade route, there were cries and greetings from the people lining the streets for Jones. As Governor Browning got to the speaker’s platform, Wink Bond of Arlington, Tennessee, said, “I think we elected the wrong man governor – – – it should have been Ed Jones.”
Throughout his time in Congress, Jones and his wife Llew (for Llewellyn) ran the 225-acre family farm. Miss Llew taught school while raising the couple’s two daughters. The Joneses were a typical farm family from Tennessee’s Eighth Congressional District. Jones was as authentic as could be and the people knew it. Once elected, Ed Jones was only seriously opposed once inside the Democratic primary during his twenty-year tenure in the House of Representatives.
Throughout his time in Congress, Ed Jones concentrated upon his primary interest and that of many of his constituents: agriculture. Much of the legislation he sponsored had to do with agricultural interests.
Larry Bates, a state representative, spent a considerable sum and was a profoundly conservative Democrat, yet Jones beat him easily. Ed Jones likely could have remained in Congress as long as he wished, but he announced his retirement in 1988. When asked why he was retiring, the congressman replied he wanted to spend more time with his wife and family. Ed and Llew Jones had only one grandchild, Meghan, who was their delight.
When Ed Jones died on December 11, 1999, the Jackson Sun published an editorial whose headline summed up the late congressman’s career and personality: “Ed Jones – – – Twenty years in Congress didn’t change who Jones was.” The Sun remembered Ed Jones as “a model for those who aspire to public service” and lauded his hard work on behalf of those he represented. The Sun praised the late congressman for having established “one of the earliest networks of congressional field offices in his district” which in turn “allowed him to maintain a presence among his constituents.” The newspaper editorial noted Jones knew an extraordinary number of his people “on a first-name basis” and remarked how the congressman would regularly hold community meetings, insisting upon staying until everyone one who wished to see him had done so. Jones readily acknowledged there were occasions when he had put aside his own feelings and cast his vote the way he believed a majority of his constituents felt. The trust between Ed Jones and the people he represented allowed him the freedom to occasionally vote for bills he truly believed were in the best interest of his folks and the great majority trusted him enough to accept his personal judgment. There is no higher tribute to any elected official.