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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


The kindness and kinship of ‘Brother’ Roy Herron

Roy Herron, who served in the Tennessee General Assembly for 26 years, died July 9 at age 69.
Roy Herron, who served in the Tennessee General Assembly for 26 years, died July 9 at age 69.

I met Roy Herron when I was a rookie newspaper reporter and he was a greenhorn lawyer. Both of us were trying to find our vocations in the court squares, church circles, fields and factories of West Tennessee in the early 1980s.

Our friendship was cemented about a decade later when a car I was still paying off died on the highway. Roy offered to let me borrow an old one-ton, two-tone pickup that was sitting in his mother’s driveway collecting pecan leaves.

I used the truck for a few months and returned it without any new dents. That’s when Roy mentioned that what I’d been driving around the perilous streets of Memphis wasn’t just an old truck but a family heirloom.

It was the truck Roy’s father bought new in 1976 so he could drive Roy’s mother across America and all the way to Alaska, a trip they had long dreamed about. It was the truck his father drove for the last time the Sunday morning he died the following spring.

Roy knew the practical value of an old pickup. He also knew the eternal values of kindness and friendship.

“Hey, brother,” he’d always say whenever we saw each other over the decades. “Love you, brother,” he’d always say when we parted.

Both of us were sons of West Tennessee farm boys, but we weren’t brothers biologically. We were spiritually. Roy, who had a law degree and a divinity degree, understood that at a community and gospel level.

He called every man “brother” and every woman “sister.” It wasn’t about kindness or friendship. It was about kinship. “We are one and we belong to each other,” as Father Greg Boyle explains it.

Roy claimed all of us as kin. That’s why his death earlier this week is a tragic loss for all of us — his family, his friends, his neighbors, all his brothers and sisters here in West Tennessee and elsewhere.

Roy Brasfield Herron, an attorney, author and marathon runner, represented his rural West Tennessee neighbors for five terms in the state House and four terms in the state Senate. He died July 11 from injuries suffered in a Jet Ski accident on Kentucky Lake about 35 miles from his lifelong home in Weakley County. He was 69.

Roy was a seventh-generation West Tennessean. He was one of four children born to Clarence Grooms Herron, a Chancery Court judge who died at age 64, and Mary Cornelia Brasfield Herron, who died at age 95. He was named for his grandfather, Roy Brasfield, a pharmacist who owned Alexander & Brasfield drug store in Dresden. His sons, John, Rick and Ben, are the eighth generation.

Like his parents and grandparents before him, Roy, once an ordained Methodist minister, was a Southern Democrat and Christian. But he worked to represent all of his constituents, even those who didn’t vote for him or go to church with him.

In Roy’s 26 years as a state legislator, he developed genuine friendships and productive working relationships with constituents and colleagues across the political spectrum.

That often put him, as he liked to say, betwixt and between.

Even some of his closest friends thought he was too conservative, pointing to his support at various times for the Second Amendment, abortion restrictions, and the death penalty.

Even some of his closest friends thought he was too liberal, pointing to his support at various times for women’s rights and voting rights, a living wage and protections for the poor from predatory lenders, stronger environmental laws, and his relentless advocacy for public schools.

In an age of hyper partisanship and political extremism, in a time when conservative Americans and liberal Americans seem hopelessly and gleefully torn asunder, Roy Herron was that rarest of modern American political creatures — a centrist.

He was a member of the NRA and the ACLU. He believed in the Bible and the Constitution. He had a deep and abiding faith in God and country. He preached liberty and justice and love and compassion for all. He was a man of faith and reason who could quote Scripture chapter and verse and legal code title and chapter.

Roy saw himself as part of Tennessee’s long and proud tradition (at least until recently) of sending moderate politicians to Nashville and Washington – governors, senators and legislators from both parties and all three Grand Divisions who listened to all sides and represented the sensible center of a state that was the last to secede and the first to rejoin the Union.

The late Gov. Ned McWherter, a Democrat and Weakley County native, and the late Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican and Scott County native, were his political role models. Roy knew that if he’d been born a few counties to the east, he might have been a Lincoln Republican rather than a Roosevelt Democrat, or a Baptist instead of a Methodist.

“When we recognized that no party or ideology holds all God’s truth, then we may be willing to work together for the good of all God’s children,” he wrote in his 2021 book, “Faith in Politics.”

Some people thought Roy’s kindness, generosity, and general good nature were calculated products of his long and notable career in politics and his desire to get people to vote for him or with him.

But those of us who knew Roy before he first ran for public office, who knew his devoted and generous mother, Mary Cornelia, who know his wise and accomplished wife of 36 years, Nancy Carol, those of us who attended his wedding and his mother’s funeral, and whose West Tennessee roots run as deep and strong as Roy’s, know better.

We know that politics and ambition sorely tested Roy. He didn’t always vote his conscience. But the demands of public office never compromised Roy’s true character.

He remained a devoted son and brother, a loving husband and father, a good friend and neighbor, an affable, conscientious and generous man who worked hard to demonstrate his faith in the Golden Rule and the rule of law, and to keep faith with the people he represented in the statehouse or the courthouse.

People like the Herrons and the Brasfields who settled and worked the forested hills and fertile fields between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers.

People who express their faith in God, country, and each other in different ways for different reasons at different times.

People who treat you like kin even when you’re not related.

People like Roy Herron.

Love you, brother.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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