Rep. Lois DeBerry Dies After Long Bout With Pancreatic Cancer

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Rep. Lois DeBerry, who was the second black woman to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly and the first woman to be speaker pro tempore of the House, died after a five-year bout with pancreatic cancer.

She was married to Charles Traughber of Chattanooga, who long headed the state Board of Probation and Parole.

She represented Tennessee's District 91 for more than 40 years.

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, Rep. 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.”

Through her status as Dean of the House, Speaker Pro Tem DeBerry acted as a mentor and leader for many legislators over her 40 years of service to the state.

Senator Bob Corker, R-Tn., said, “Lois DeBerry will be remembered as a tireless advocate for her community, and as one of the longest-serving women lawmakers in the nation and the first African-American female speaker pro tempore in the House, Lois’ legacy will be remembered in Memphis and across our state for generations to come,” said Corker. “I appreciate her many years of public service and her friendship and kindness. My heart goes out to her family during this difficult time.”

“Lois DeBerry was a fearless leader for her community, her city and for all women,” state Senator Jim Kyle said. “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.” 

“Before I ever ran for office, I was motivated and inspired by the leadership of Lois DeBerry,” state Senator 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.”

Board of Parole Chairman Richard Montgomery said,  “Lois DeBerry was a great legislator. But she was also a good friend to me. She mentored me and many other new lawmakers when we first came to the General Assembly to serve. For 14 years, Lois and I served together on many of the same committees as we worked to improve education in our state. She broke ground for women as the first woman elected to the legislature from the City of Memphis, and as the first woman to be elected speaker pro tempore of the state House of Representatives. And she served beyond Tennessee as president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. But beyond that, she was a fighter; someone who fought to protect and improve the lives of children and others in this state. She continued her efforts to help people until the end, and the good she did will live beyond her in many, many ways.

“When I was appointed to the Board of Parole this year, Lois’ husband, Charles Traughber, and I forged our friendship based on our mutual respect for this incredible woman. I extend my sympathies to him on behalf of myself, the other Board Members and everyone at this agency. We are all mourning this loss.”

Speaker Beth Harwell said,"Lois DeBerry dedicated her life to service. From the Civil Rights Movement, to becoming the first female African-American Speaker Pro Tempore, Lois always made public service a priority. The impact she has had on this great state, the lives of countless Tennesseans, and people all across the country is astounding. She certainly made her mark on history, and it was an honor to know her and serve alongside her in Tennessee General Assembly. I valued our friendship, and will deeply miss her sage advice, and her remarkable sprit and smile. Her dedication to children’s issues, women’s issues, and criminal justice reform have resulted in a better Tennessee. My thoughts and prayers are with her family.”

Leader Craig Fitzhugh said, "Lois DeBerry was my friend and my mentor. From my first day on the hill in 1994, she was someone I could turn to in every situation. She taught me the importance of working across party lines to get things done for the state, but also to never be afraid to stand up for a cause--even if sometimes you stand alone. Lois was a fighter. She always fought and fought hardest for children. She fought for those on the margins of society and for the city of Memphis which she loved so dearly. Most recently she waged a courageous battle against cancer, inspiring everyone with her upbeat attitude and her determination to survive. I loved Lois DeBerry. Her absence will leave a hole in the House that no one can fill; we are a better state for the service she provided. God rest her soul and be with her family during this difficult time." 

“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.”

“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.”

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