The passing of two great political legends

Published 6:34 am Monday, April 4, 2005

By By Jo Bonner
Twice during the past ten days, the state of Alabama was hit with some difficult news. On Monday, March 28, former Congressman Tom Bevill passed away at his home in Jasper, Alabama, at the age of 84, one day after having celebrated his birthday on Easter Sunday. Less than two days later, retired Senator Howell Heflin passed away at the age of 83 in a hospital near his home of Tuscumbia, Alabama.
The passing of these two political legends marks the passing of an era in Alabama politics. Together, these two men represented nearly a half-century of combined congressional experience – a mark that becomes all the more impressive when compared with the combined total of 86 years experience on Capitol Hill that the nine members of the Alabama delegation currently have.
These two men left lasting marks on Congress during their time on Capitol Hill, both in their work on national issues and in their efforts on behalf of their home state. To this day, there aren't many places in Alabama you can travel without hearing or seeing some indication of the tremendous work done by these two men, both on national issues and on the constituent service they and their staffs provided on a daily basis.
A leader in the Senate
Few men ever worked harder at the art of compromise in the United States Senate than Howell Heflin. Affectionately known as "the Judge" because of his tenure on the Alabama Supreme Court, Senator Heflin developed a reputation, during his 18 years in Washington, of working with his colleagues to find common ground on numerous issues – always with the best interests of his constituents at heart.
Many times, Judge Heflin put partisanship aside to support issues for which he saw great benefit, but which others in his party were actively working to oppose. On one important occasion during the 1980s, he was one of the few Democrats to openly support President Reagan's strategic defense initiative (SDI), known more popularly as the "Star Wars" missile defense system.
The Judge also served as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee during some very contentious confirmation hearings in the 1980s, including the Supreme Court nominations of Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork. While his personal views tended towards the conservative end of the spectrum on defense and financial matters, he was more progressive on social issues. In fact, U.W. Clemon and Myron Thompson, African-American federal judges from Birmingham and Montgomery, respectively, were both championed by Heflin when nominated to their appointments by President Jimmy Carter.
In an article appearing in the Mobile Register following Senator Heflin's death, former Congressman Sonny Callahan was quoted as saying, "He was always there for us when we needed him. We had common goals for Alabama and worked toward those goals." In many ways, these words can certainly sum up his career – Senator Howell Heflin, the beloved "Judge," was indeed always there for the citizens of Alabama.
Influential member of the House
Like Senator Heflin, Congressman Tom Bevill was truly a distinguished gentleman from Alabama, a man who provided three decades of outstanding representation for the residents of his district.
In fact, he represented two different districts during his career. During his first six years in Congress, he represented what was at that time the Seventh Congressional District. When the ten-year redistricting plan took effect in 1973, he found himself the congressman from Alabama's Fourth District.
Regardless of the district number, Congressman Bevill worked hard for his constituents and for his state. The seniority he achieved during his 15 terms in the House of Representatives was well earned, and indeed he was sometimes known as Alabama's "third senator" for the influence he wielded in the halls of Congress.
To this day, the signs of his influence can be found throughout Alabama. After a quarter-century of work, the highway project known as Corridor X – a massive highway project linking Memphis, Tennessee with Birmingham, Alabama – is nearing completion. This highway will provide a vital link between these two cities and will provide tremendous benefits for further economic development in that region.
Additionally, it was Congressman Bevill's leadership and hard work that resulted in the completion of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. This corridor has provided incalculable benefits for Alabama's economy and has resulted in thousands of jobs for men and women in our state.
There are many other projects which bear the hallmark of the hard work put forth by Tom Bevill during his 30 years in Congress. As was the case with Senator Heflin, he was a man who put the interests of his district and his state above all others and those efforts made him a great success and a great man indeed.
Impact continues to this day
Even with all of the newspaper column inches, radio broadcasts, and television news reports devoted to tributes to Howell Heflin and Tom Bevill, we could never say enough about the contributions of these two great Alabamians. Undoubtedly, there are many members of both the House of Representatives and Senate who learned many lessons from them and who are still influenced by them in their own decision-making.
In a small way, I find I have inherited a part of the legacy of the Judge and the Congressman. Among the many talented men and women who work on my district office staff, there are two hardworking individuals who cut their teeth working for Howell Heflin and Tom Bevill. These ladies certainly learned from the best, and I now find myself learning from them each day.
There will undoubtedly be time in the years ahead for historians to gauge the true measure of these public servants and their legacies. For now, I feel it is most appropriate that we share our prayers and sympathy with the families of Tom Bevill and Howell Heflin, two of the finest individuals to ever champion the needs of the great state of Alabama.
A final thought
As of this writing, people around the world are praying for Pope John Paul II, who has suffered a severe downturn in his health during the past several days. One of the most beloved popes in the history of the Catholic Church, the Holy Father has spent his life working for the betterment of men, women, and children around the world, regardless of race religion or creed.
I have been continually amazed at his energy and his determination to continue his work, even in the face of mounting health problems in recent years. He has truly made a significant impact on the lives of millions, and our thoughts and prayers are with him and everyone who is caring for him at this time.
My staff and I work for the people of south Alabama. Let us know when we can be of service.
Jo Bonner is a congressman for the State of Alabama. His column appears weekly.

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