Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Lois DeBerry died at a hospital in Memphis, TN on, Sunday, July 28, 2013 from complications resulting from a four year battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 68 years olf.
In the years following her diagnosis, Speaker DeBerry remained positive and upbeat while channeling her energy and passion into helping raise the awareness of this deadly disease. She defied the odds which show that nearly 80% of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer succumb to the disease within the first year. In 2012, three years after her initial diagnosis, DeBerry joined with Governor Haslam in proclaiming November to be Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in order to promote awareness and support efforts to create better treatments for this aggressive form of cancer.
Rep. DeBerry, an educator and civil rights activist, became an American politician, where she served as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. She was elected to represent the 91st district, part of Shelby County, as a Democrat. She was first elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1972 and was at the time of her death the longest serving member of the House.
DeBerry was the second African American woman to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly and the first woman to be speaker pro tempore of the House.and former Speaker Pro Tempore of the Tennessee House.
In May of 2011, the legislature passed House Joint Resolution 516, sponsored by Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, which named honored Rep. DeBerry with the title of “Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus.” In accepting the honor of the position, DeBerry told her colleagues that “I’ve never done anything to get a return, every decision that I’ve tried make came from my heart.”
Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, comments on the passing of his “best friend” and their service in the Tennessee House of Representatives for 38 years. Naifeh said, “I have known Lois DeBerry since 1974 when I was first elected to the House of Representatives. She had been elected just two years earlier and we were best friends from the very beginning.
“Lois is a true Tennessee stateswoman. In the Legislature she led the way on a number of issues important to all Tennesseans including healthcare, education, corrections oversight, and economic development. The Lois DeBerry Center in Nashville, named after her, revolutionized the way we dealt with our incarcerated population and she deserves much of the credit for bringing our prison system out from under federal oversight and into the 21st century.
“She served with, worked with and provided advice not only to legislators but also to seven Tennessee Governors including Governors Haslam, Bredesen, Sundquist, McWherter, Alexander, Blanton and Dunn. They all respected her opinion and listened closely to her advice.
“She was my constant helpmate and someone I could count on during those difficult days in the legislature,” Naifeh continued.
“Lois loved this state. She loved the people of this state. She was the voice for people all across this state, who could not speak out for themselves in our governmental process; the poor, the oppressed, the proverbial people standing in the shadows of life. She rebuffed repeated calls to run for higher office.
“In 1994 she even turned down a prestigious federal appointment from President Clinton, telling him that her work in Tennessee was simply not finished.
“I will miss Lois DeBerry. I will miss sitting with her on the floor of the House Chamber. I will miss her laughter and her great sense of humor that I saw so often in our daily discussions. I will miss her example and her leadership for our state. But most of all, I will miss my best friend,” Naifeh concluded.
“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 House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “Lois was an irreplaceable member of our caucus and she will always have a place in our hearts and memories.”
Through her status as Dean of the House, Speaker Pro Tem DeBerry acted as a mentor and leader for many legislators over her forty years of service to the state.
“I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work with Rep. DeBerry,” said Rep. Karen Camper.
“When I first got elected she took me under her wing and helped teach me how to best represent the needs of my constituents. I know there were many other legislators like me over the years, both Democrat and Republican, who benefited from her wisdom and generosity. I am truly blessed to have known and worked with Rep. Lois DeBerry.”
Senate Democratic leaders issued statements. “It’s a uniquely American story – a woman who became frustrated with the conditions in her community and dedicated her life to making it better, rising to heights that no African American woman had seen before in Tennessee. We are deeply saddened by her passing, said Sen. Jim Kyle.
“Before I ever ran for office, I was motivated and inspired by the leadership of Lois DeBerry,” state Sen. Lowe Finney said, “She intentionally focused on tough issues, daring others to join her, and by her words could inspire people to take action and get involved. Tennessee has lost a great leader today.”
Rep. Larry Miller, Chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, released the following statement regarding the passing of Speaker Pro Tem Emeritus Lois DeBerry. “Speaker Pro Tem DeBerry was a trailblazer for the cause of organizing black state legislators both in Tennessee and the United States,” he said. “We wish to express our deepest and sincere condolences to Speaker Pro Tem Emeritus Lois DeBerry’s family, and to extend our heartfelt gratitude for all of her contributions to our caucus, our state, and our nation.
“As Chairman of the TN Black Caucus, Rep. DeBerry pioneered the annual legislative retreat which brought thousands of citizens and legislative officials from across the state together to improve the delivery of government services. This work had a dramatic impact on education, children’s services, elderly care, health care, economic development and many other facets of service for the people of Tennessee. Below are the TN Black Caucus of State Legislators: Sen. Ophelia Ford, Sen. Thelma Harper, Sen. Reggie Tate, Rep. Joe Armstrong, Rep. Karen Camper, Rep. Barbara Cooper, Rep. John Deberry, Rep. JoAnne Favors, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, Rep. Harold M. Love, Jr., Rep. Larry Miller, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, Rep. Johnny Shaw, Rep. Joe Towns, Jr., and Rep. Johnnie Turner.
In memory of Rep. DeBerry, donations can be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at www.pancan.org.