By John J. Duncan Jr.
My father passed away in 1988, but I still think of him at some point almost every day.
I once described him in an article in the News Sentinel as the “sweetest, kindest, toughest, hardest-working man I ever knew.”
I put the “toughest’ in there because while he was very sweet and kind, there was nothing sissy about him.
He grew up on a subsistence farm in Scott County in what would be considered very bitter poverty today.
Daddy was one of ten children, five boys and five girls. He used to laughingly say he was captain of the second team since he was number six of ten.
He hitchhiked into Knoxville in 1939 with five dollars in his pocket to attend UT, not knowing anyone. Twenty years later he was elected as mayor, and six years after that he preceded me in Congress where he served for 23½ years.
When I followed him in Congress, I felt like a football coach following Bear Bryant, the legendary coach at Alabama, or the coach following Adolph Rupp, the famous basketball coach at Kentucky.
Daddy was a very hard act to follow. I don’t believe any son could have loved and respected a father more than I did mine.
The people of East Tennessee were very good to both him and me. I was given the privilege to serve for 30 years and nearly two months.
Only five men served Tennessee longer in Congress. Senator Kenneth McKellar and Senator Albert Gore Sr., adding their House and Senate service together, were in office for 42 and 32 years respectively.
Representative B. Carroll Reece and Representative Jimmy Quillen both served for 34 years in the House. Rep. Quillen’s service was consecutive, but Rep. Reece was out of office twice – once for two years after a loss in 1930, and again for four years from 1946 to 1950 while he was the Republican National Chairman.
Rep. Jim Cooper, who did not run for re-election, ended his last term having served two different districts for a total of 32 years. He served a rural Middle Tennessee district from 1983 to 1985 and the Nashville district from 2003 to 2023.
There is much more turnover in the elective office today than people realize, and I served with almost 1,500 other members of the House during my 30 years there.
Senators can get much more publicity than House members if they want it, and you would have to be a political junkie to be able to name more than about 50 of the roughly 1,500 with whom I served in the House.
I decided early on that I wasn’t going to spend my time trying to get publicity – I was going to concentrate on trying to help my constituents.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I read one of the last articles written about my work in Congress published on Dec. 13, 2018 in the national magazine, The Week, entitled “Jimmy Duncan, the hero America ignored.”
It surprised me because it was written by Ryan Girdusky, a writer I have never met and who never interviewed me, but who summarized my career better than I could have.
Ryan wrote, “Although he never received much media attention, Duncan deserves praise as a stalwart against the Bush administration policy of nation-building at a time when it was considered political suicide.”
He added: “Duncan belongs to a brand of conservatism that dates back to the Eisenhower era, one that regularly opposed both the military-industrial complex and big business. He looked out for the interests of Main Street instead of Wall Street and voted to protect America’s liberty and security at home instead of traveling the world searching for monsters to destroy.”
While unknown to me, apparently Girdusky followed my work very closely. He wrote: “Other Republicans used to believe in the same things Duncan advocates” and that Congressional conservatives “spent years idolizing Bush’s foreign policy…Instead, they should have been paying attention to Jimmy Duncan. Quietly, and all this time, they had in front of them a man who showed bravery, conviction, and dedication to the idea of limited government at home and abroad.”
I hope my Dad would have been proud of me, but I also believe he would not have opposed the Pentagon as I sometimes did.