It is hard to believe that my father, Frank G. Clement, would have been 100 years old if he were still alive today.
He served as Tennessee’s governor for 10 years and died in 1969.
His birthday was June 2 and the Clement Railroad Hotel Museum is embarking on a centennial celebration in October.
Despite his share of controversies and issues during his years as governor, there was one over-arching quality that I always thought defined his legacy: political courage.
Among numerous labor issues, racial divisions, and a host of other challenges that almost all of us involved in politics know all too well, Dad knew that to get things done, you sometimes havae to give a little to get a lot.
Unlike what we see today in this country’s vitriolic and tribal political climate, the word “compromise” was a goal to be achieved; it was not a dirty word.
My father’s mesmerizing oratory skills and ability to work across party lines enabled him to get things done.
I hope during this centennial year he will be remembered for his very substantial accomplishments.
Some include: providing free textbooks for school children in all Tennessee public schools; establishing the first Department of Mental Health and placing a licensed psychiatrist as commissioner; and integrating public schools in Tennessee.
In 1956, my father showed incredible determination by calling out the National Guard after Clinton High School — the first public school in the South to integrate — was blown up with dynamite to prevent black students from going to school with white students. State legislation passed during the Clement Administration started the first community colleges and technical schools in Tennessee.
In addition to education and civil rights, the economy and infrastructure were among Dad’s top priorities. His emphasis on industrial development — moving from a textile state (low-paying jobs) to manufacturing/industrial and later to a service/information society were other examples.
As governor, he planned and implemented the interstate highway system in Tennessee, which was approved during the Eisenhower Administration.
My father was destined for politics. At 16 years old, he told his friends, “I’m going to be governor of Tennessee.” He worked tirelessly toward this goal when he was elected governor of Tennessee at age 32 in 1952.
Before Governor Frank G. Clement was born, his grandmother, Belle Goad, had suffered a great loss when her husband fell over dead in the courtroom while trying a case in Kentucky where they resided.
Distraught, with five young children, she wondered how she could ever provide for her family. After reading an article in the newspaper that the Halbrook Hotel in Dickson, Tennessee, that is now the Clement Railroad Hotel Museum, was for rent.
Mrs. Goad proved to be an astute businesswoman, especially during that time. After taking care of the proper paperwork she decided to begin the process of moving her family to Dickson to manage the hotel.
Salesmen, who were called “drummers” at the time because they were “drumming up business,” would stop and spend the night — the rate was 75 cents and an extra 25 cents to take a hot bath.
One morning, Robert S. Clement, Dad’s father, stopped by to meet the new family; it was there that he met Maybelle Goad. After some time, the two married; Dad was born on June 2, 1920, in the hotel where they first met.
My father was raised in a loving family with modest resources. However, the environment for learning was always paramount.
He became interested in public speaking at the suggestion of Aunt Dockie Weems. She embraced the role as his speech teacher; it literally changed his life.
As a result, he grew into one of the most effective orators in the country — a true spellbinder for his day. There is no doubt that his speaking ability, passion for politics and helping people of all races, religions, or creeds, got him elected governor at the tender age of 32.
Dad was even chosen to be the keynote speaker of the 1956 Democratic National Convention.
My hope for our country is to get back to a climate of inclusiveness, bipartisanship, empathy, and yes, political courage. Let us hope that does not take another 100 years.
Bob Clement is a former Democratic member of the Congress from the 5th District of Tennessee and a public speaker. He is also the author of “President’s, Kings and Convicts, My Journey from the Tennessee Governor’s Residence to the Halls of Congress.”