Way back in the 1970’s and 1980’s there were a good many aspiring young progressive political wannabes roaming around Mississippi. I was among them. We all shared a desire to make a difference, to serve what we all viewed as an under-served state. We wanted to bring Mississippi, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century.
We aimed to get the state off the bottom of every list of good things, and off the top of the list of bad things. We wanted to improve education, to build better roads and bridges and improve the state’s public health system. We all saw public service as a noble calling. None of us thought of politics as a dirty word. We all knew that it was through politics that crippled children learn to walk, the mentally ill get care, schools, roads and courthouses get built, health care is provided, children are taught and lives are saved and made more comfortable.
We each had different career paths, but we all had two political heroes: William Forrest Winter and William J. “Billy” McCoy. I can’t speak for all those in my generation of political leaders, but I can say with certainty that I wanted to emulate these two men. They served as mentors and inspirations to all of us. Billy McCoy was a role model. I wanted to be like Billy McCoy!
My friend Billy McCoy, after a long illness found well deserved peace in the restorative presence of his Heavenly Father yesterday. Today, he walks the streets of heaven with the assurance of having lived a life focused on helping his fellow man. I’m certain he has by now heard the words “well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Billy was a self professed “Yellow Dog Democrat.” He was a tough-as-nails populist with more integrity and plain old-fashioned goodness than most of today’s political leaders. When I first came to know him, he served as member of the House Education Committee (which he later chaired). I know of no member of the legislature, then or now, who possessed more knowledge of, or passion for, public education. In those days we referred to him simply as “a school man.” Today we need more “school men” of his caliber in our legislative halls!
In the coming days, many will chronicle his many legislative accomplishments. I will not attempt to list them in this space. Suffice it to say that few, if any, ever pulled the levers of legislative power with greater effect or with more integrity than the Gentleman from Prentiss County.
In 1987, along with Union County’s John David Pennebaker, Billy lobbied me heavily to encourage then Governor Bill Allain not to veto the fuel tax increase that would fund hundreds of miles of badly needed four lane highways. They lobbied me because of my close relationship with Governor Allain. I was against the veto and was willing to try to persuade the Governor not to veto the bill. I argued, fussed, cussed and did everything I could to prevent the veto. Nonetheless, the Governor would not budge.
I vividly recall one afternoon in the House chamber telling both Billy and John David the veto was being prepared as we spoke. “The Governor is committed to the veto. He wants to restructure the entire Transportation Department. Y’all know how stubborn he can be,” I had told my two friends.
I will never forget Billy McCoy’s response. “Stubborn! I’ll show him stubborn!” The Governor vetoed the bill and the legislature, after bitter debate, overrode the veto. Today we have hundreds of miles of four lane highways we would not have, if Billy McCoy hadn’t showed us all what “stubborn” looks like.
Billy McCoy served two terms as speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. He was perhaps the most unpretentious man I’ve ever known. He dressed modestly and drove old cars and pickup trucks. He was a cattle farmer and raised “worms” for a living. He had no use for lobbyists and would not be wined and dined.
In his last campaign, an opponent challenged his integrity, which proved to be a huge mistake. Billy defended himself in a political speech that should be carefully studied by all aspiring politicians. He, as we like to say, “tore the bark off” his opponent, without ever mentioning his name. The speech is a thing of pure beauty.
In the last few years of retirement and failing health, the speaker remained involved. He kept in touch with friends all over the state via late-night phone calls. I was honored to be the recipient of a few of those calls, which were largely sentimental reminisces. He viewed the partisan divide that has taken place in the legislature with unmitigated disgust, and longed for a time of more civil discourse. Billy McCoy was perhaps the most shamefully vilified man ever attacked by a bunch of know-nothing partisan charlatans! He was victimized by the changing times and the antics of partisan hacks and crazy talk radio hosts.
The last conversation I had with him was a lecture on the death of TRUTH. His admonition was that progress for the people will never be achieved until folks recognize truth and learn to deal with facts. He said that they must learn to put partisan politics aside for the good of the public. “Sadly, lies are no longer outrageous in the public square,” he said.
I will miss my friend Billy McCoy. I wanted to be like Billy.
Mississippi will miss Billy McCoy. I wish more of our leaders were like Billy McCoy! It would be a far better state if they were.
May the Speaker rest in well deserved peace. He fought the good fight. He kept the faith. He finished the race.