A three-mile section of Hwy. 45 overlapping parts of Prentiss and Alcorn counties was dedicated in honor and memory of late Mississippi legislator and House Speaker William J. “Billy” McCoy Monday.
The honor, result of a legislative bill, was appropriate in that the section was near the McCoy family farm, near Rienzi.
It was even more appropriate in that it involved a section of modern four-lane highway.
While McCoy was noted for many achievements including education and retirement funding, he is particularly remembered for the 1987 four-lane highway program.
Promoted by speaker McCoy, the late Rep. John David Pennebaker and Northern District Highway Commissioner Zack Stewart, both from New Albany, the program passed and even narrowly survived a gubernatorial veto.
The result is a modern highway system across the state and a program that continues to bear fruit today.
Pennebaker died in 2016 (the section of Hwy. 15 North from the New Albany City Limits to the Tippah County line was named in honor of him two years ago) but Stewart was able to be present for the ceremony Monday and was recognized several times for his contributions.
Several speakers talked about McCoy but a common thread was his honesty, dedication and desire to improve the lives of all Mississippians.
“He was intense, intense in his goals,” Mississippi Transportation Commission Northern District Commissioner John Caldwell said. “If I was playing I would want him to be on my side.”
Caldwell said a highway marker was appropriate in that such markers always meant a person was “loved, honored and respected. It reflects 32 years of accomplishments.”
Alcorn County Chancery Clerk Greg Younger remembered that at one time driving to Gulf Coast governmental meetings was an ordeal because of roads. “But now we can drive all the way from Alcorn County, almost the Tennessee State Line, to the Gulf Coast on all four-lane highways,” he said. “When Billy McCoy was in the legislature they knew where Prentiss and Alcorn County were.”
Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn related how the process of naming the highway started two years earlier and how he sponsored the bill. “We named the MDOT building after him. We certainly can name a highway after him,” Gunn said, crediting Commissioner Caldwell with making the process happen.
Gunn said, as McCoy’s successor, he now understands better the intricacies of the job and why some things are done the way they are.
He also talked about McCoy’s focus. “He didn’t want to be a senator. He didn’t want to be governor. He wanted to serve in the House of Representatives,” he said.
“Billy McCoy always supported me,” Gunn continued. “He treated me with dignity and class – and then told me why I couldn’t have what I wanted.”
Gunn concluded that the memorial was “not because of what he accomplished but who he was as a man.”
Former Journal Inc. publisher Billy Crews called McCoy “a pure and honest example of public service” and followed Journal owner and CREATE Foundation owner George McLean’s goal of “building community and improving the quality of life in Northeast Mississippi.”
Former legislator Steve Holland told of the many trips to Jackson and elsewhere he made with McCoy in that “crappy blue car.” “He may have been a worm farmer but he could have afforded a better car,” he said. Holland went on to remember the many times he was more or less commandeered by McCoy and their trips to Jackson as well as over the state. “He stopped at every country store,” Holland said, “and he listened. He loved his family and he cared for others.”
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley – who sang “Country Road” substituting Prentiss County for West Virginia – described himself as one of the young politicians McCoy “took under his wing.”
“He literally changed the trajectory of my life,” Presley said, referring to listening to McCoy speak on WBIP radio. “You talk about the red words in the Bible, he lived it,” Presley said.
“Power did not change Billy McCoy. Money did not change Billy McCoy,” he continued. “Today I say I have met the model of the citizen-legislator” envisioned by the Founding Fathers, he said.
Kim McCoy Eubank, Billy’s daughter, spoke on behalf of the family and talked about McCoy’s hardscrabble upbringing that perhaps contributed to his passion to help people. She talked about how he spent his own money driving that “crappy blue car,” 1982 Cutlass with several hundred thousand miles on it, to promote the highway program and how he was reported to have wept openly at its final success.
She summarized her father’s philosophy as to work hard and keep your word.
McCoy retired in 2011, saying he was content to let history be the judge of his worth.
He died in 2019. The memorial program Monday was held at Gaston Baptist Church, where McCoy was a long-time member, near Booneville.
Some of McCoy’s accomplishments:
- Serving in the House of Representative 32 years, holding the seat previously held by his father.
- The 1982 Education Reform Act adding kindergarten, raising teacher pay and making attendance mandatory.
- The 1987 highway program that provided $1.6 billion for the planned construction of 1,077 miles of four-lane highway throughout Mississippi.
- Chickasaw Cession school funding, which provided money for counties not supported by 16th Section land taxes.
- The 1997 Mississippi Adequate Education Program designed to ensure that students, whether wealthy or poor, would receive proper education.
- Instrumental in bringing Nissan and Toyota to Mississippi, helping the state recover from Hurricane Katrina and helping see that money from the tobacco lawsuit went to cancer research.
- Having the Jackson headquarters building for the Mississippi Department of Transportation named in his honor.