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HomeGrown: Sen. Lamar Alexander

9:37 PM, Nov 6, 2012   |    comments
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"I'm not a Senator from Tennessee, I'm a Senator of Tennessee."

Senator Lamar Alexander is not only a familiar name in Tennessee politics, but across the country. 

"I feel lucky to be doing what I'm doing."

The Maryville native has certainly come a long way.

"I was a little mischievous."

Alexander got his first library card at age three. A year later, he started taking piano lessons at Maryville College. He practiced every morning before school after his paper deliveries.

"I think the alarm clock was at four. I'd carry the Knoxville Journal."

Alexander was also a Boy Scout.

"We were in the mountains or outdoors every free weekend."

And, he was raised to respect public office. He'll never forget meeting Congressman Howard Baker, Sr.

"I remember thinking I've just met the most respected man that I'm ever likely to meet."

He had many educators push him along the way, including his senior English teacher.

"She said, 'Lamar, you're always saying "jest." And, if you grow up saying "jest" you'll never amount to anything.'"

But he amounted to enough to impress Vanderbilt and NYU law school.

Music continued to be a passion and even a side gig while clerking for a judge in New Orleans.

"I got a job at night playing in a place called Your Father's Mustache where they have a banjo band. And, I played for whomever was off. I'd play the trombone one night and the tuba one night."

In 1967, he went to work for then Senator Howard Baker, Jr. and met his wife, Honey, on the congressional softball field.

"I played for the Baker staff and she was on staff for Senator John Tower of Texas. I can still remember her in her red shorts!"

They married a year and a half later. Then, Alexander went to work for President Richard Nixon. But home was calling. So, at just 33, Alexander threw his hat in the 1974 governor's race. He won the Republican nomination, but lost the general election.

"I thought I was finished."

So, he went back to work for Senator Baker. Re-invigorated, he decided to try again.

On a very cold January day in '78, Alexander began walking across the state.

"I stayed in homes with people every night and I tried to shake a thousand hands a day."

His red flannel shirt became his trademark.

"I got this red and black flannel shirt at an Army surplus store in Nashville. I liked it, so I went back and bought a dozen more."

It paid off.

Alexander is proud of his time as Tennessee's 45th governor.

"We brought the auto industry here. To do that, we built the best four-lane highway system in the country with zero debt. We were the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. Basically, I think it was just a time when Tennessee became more confident in itself."

While governor, he was approached about the Senate.

"Well, I didn't think for a minute about running for the Senate."

Even when President Reagan suggested it during a stop in Knoxville.

"And I said, 'Mr. President, with all due respect, I notice you never ran for the Senate' and he just laughed."

In '87, his second term as governor was coming to a end.

"Honey finally said 'we have to get out of here.'"

So, they picked up and moved to Australia for six months.

"They loved it and I think each one of us would say it changed our relationship as a family."

Back home, he served as the University of Tennessee president for three years. Then, President George H.W. Bush appointed him U.S. education secretary.

Then came his bids for the White House.

"Really one and a half.  The second one was kind of like the Wright Brothers' first airplane-- it never got off the ground. I was worn out with it in 2000 when I dropped out of presidential race."

He had retired, but then in spring of 2002, Fred Thompson decided last minute not to run again for Senate.

"The campaign was only four or five months- that was attractive to me."

And, like many after 9-11, Alexander felt a call to act. He's now in his second term and frustrated by the Senate's inability to reach across the aisle.

"What I most haven't been able to accomplish is a good working relationship within the Senate to get results."

Whether it's Chopin, Hank Williams, or Ray Charles, rarely does he find discord reaching across the keys.

"I now primarily play just for my own enjoyment.

But he did perform in Cades Cove at the 75th anniversary of the park- an encore performance to the 50th celebration.

"That was two of the nicest things I've ever had a chance to do."

Aside, of course, from playing for his grandchildren.

Lamar Alexander, born in Maryville.

"This is home for me. I can't think of better place to be."

HomeGrown in Tennessee.

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