Jerry Summers: Frank G. Clement - Boy Wonder Governor

Wednesday, January 27, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Frank Goad Clement, at the age of 10, allegedly made the statement to his Dickson classmates that he would sometime lead the State of Tennessee.

            Another version recently related by one of his three sons, former Congressman Bob Clement, was that “at 16 years old, he told his friends that I’m going to be governor of Tennessee.”

            At the young age of 32 in 1957 he fulfilled that boast by becoming the youngest governor in the state which earned him the title in some circles as the “Boy Wonder Governor”.

            Clement would have to be the last of the great orators in politics in our state as the 30-second television commercials can send a political message to many more listeners than those who attend a courthouse speech in the hot sun.

            Frank Goad Clement was born on June 2, 1920 in Room #5 in the Hotel Halbrook in Dickson, Tennessee.

            Said hotel was built in 1913, and is one of the few remaining examples of a railroad hotel in a small Tennessee town.  It functioned as a hotel for railroad workers and travelers until 1954.

            His father, Robert Clement, a local attorney and politician, and his mother, Maybell Goad Clement, rented and operated the hotel.

            One of the individuals who probably had the greatest impact on young Frank was his Aunt Dockie Weems who was a speech leader and taught the future governor many of his rhetorical skills.

            It was those skills in the pre-television era that allowed him to develop into one of the most effective speakers in the country.

            A combination of his exceptional speaking ability, passion for politics and his desire for helping people of all races, religions or creeds helped get him elected to Tennessee’s highest office in 1952.

            Frank Clement's political and personal life has been portrayed by Dr. Lee S. Smith’s biography of the Dickson native in “Frank Clement, Lead Me On”, published by the University of Tennessee Press in 1982.

            The high point or low point of his oratory career depends upon who you speak to about his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 1956.  He is best remembered for his repeated use of the phrase “How long, Oh Lord how long?” in criticism of the Eisenhower- Nixon administration but was not the success Clement had hoped for and probably eliminated any chance he might have had for being selected as the vice president running mate of Adlai Stevenson.  Other sources say that the oft repeated phrase was “How long, America O how long?”

            Supporters of Frank Clement point to his creation of the Department of Mental Health, free textbooks for students, an ambitious road building program, his stand as the first governor in the South to veto a segregation bill passed by the legislature and who sent in National Guard troops to protect the 12 black students chosen to integrate Clinton High School as the major accomplishments while in public office.

            His various wins and losses in politics are well documented in the history of Tennessee.

            In addition, the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville contain the gubernatorial papers of his first two terms as Governor in 1953-1959, a two-year term in 1954-1955 and the first four year term in 1956-1959.

            The collection which can be viewed by the public is contained in 321 boxes of materials that consist of correspondence, subject files, extraditions and renditions, speeches, financial records, clippings, photographs, scrapbooks and press releases.

            The Clement Railroad Museum housed in the Hotel Halbrook State Historic Site in Dickson, Tennessee opened on June 2, 2009 and it is owned by the State of Tennessee. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

            On the first floor the Clement family rooms are furnished to represent the early 1920s when they occupied the managerial suite of rooms.  The room in which Frank was born is furnished with several pieces of the Clement’s family furniture.

Occupying the second floor of the museum is the story of Frank’s personal and political career including the 1952, 1954 and 1962 gubernatorial elections.

            Another interesting exhibit at the museum is a history of railroading in the area that includes many artifacts including original equipment and exhibits pertaining to the railroad and Clement family.

            A permanent accurate display of model trains, landscaping and buildings created by the Dickson Model Railroad club is maintained by volunteer “engineers” and the facility recreates the history of railroading in the Dickson Railyard during the 1920s and 1930s.

            Frank Clement died in an automobile accident on November 4, 1969 in Nashville at the age of 49.  His political career was at a twilight at this time.

            He accomplished much for the citizens of Tennessee during that period of time.  His premature death foreclosed the question of whether he could resurrect his political career for a last hurrah.

            A trip to the Clement Railroad Hotel Museum in Dickson gives the public a chance to observe further the life of the proverbial Boy Wonder and museum bearing his family name.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           

           

           

Frank G. Clement
Frank G. Clement

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