John Jay Hooker was unforgettable, important presence

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By Joseph Sweat

I first encountered John Jay when I was with the Associated Press and covered some of his 1970 race for governor of Tennessee. When he lost that race, he told us: “The band will play again, my friends, the band will play again.” The band did play again and again, but in ways that neither he nor us would ever imagine. He was never able to win public office, but he went on to become one of the most colorful, most dynamic, and in many ways, most important figures in the political and legal discourses in Tennessee, and indeed the nation.

People often said to me, “Why do you spend so much time with John Jay Hooker?” I said: “Because the worst death in the world is to be bored to death. When you are with John Jay Hooker, you are never, ever bored.”

Paul Corbin was an old friend who, along with John Jay, worked for President John Kennedy and his brother Bobby. Corbin often said, “Life is a comic strip. Most people are far back in the newspaper, in black and white. But a few are wrapped around the front page of the Sunday paper, in full color.” There was little doubt that Corbin had Hooker in mind. John Jay Hooker was always wrapped around the front page in full color.

Hooker cut quite a swath in his salad days, dressed to kill with his Little Lord Fauntleroy high shirt collar setting off his handsome face, a gold keychain swinging from watch pocket to watch pocket. It all began when he was growing up as the son of John Jay Hooker Sr., one of the greatest lawyers in the history of the Tennessee bar. They came to call young John Jay “The Duke of Belle Meade.”

Many years ago, Hooker began picking me up at my home in his big boat of a car. Later, when his car was stolen, I would pick him up. We would drive all over Nashville and he would try out on me all the causes that he would file in lawsuit after lawsuit. He railed against some of society’s most fundamental problems. He considered money in politics as not only wrong, but unconstitutional.

“There is a cancer in American political life,” he would say, “and at the heart of that cancer is money is politics.”

On those trips we often ended up at restaurants run by the African-American Swett brothers. He would eat fried chicken, turnip greens, cornbread and his favorite, corn on the cob.

Even in his serious moments, his wit was present. Once, when John Jay was about to be wheeled into an operating room for a very serious heart operation, he called his daughters to his side and said, “Well, girls, they say there is a time to live and a time to die. Let’s go see what time it is.”

But his invective could also wither fig trees. Gov. Buford Ellington had shown animus and poor sportsmanship when Hooker beat him in the 1970 primary. Later, when Ellington died, they asked Hooker for comment.

“I hope they bury him face down so he can have a head start on going to hell.”

My wife and I went to see John Jay a short time before he died. He was asleep. Near the bed was a photograph of the loves of his life: children John Blount, Kendall, Dara, and the woman he loved through it all, thick and thin, Tish, his first wife. A love that now in death reminds one of the George Jones song “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Finally I said to the sleeping John Jay, “Well, you are still the Duke of Belle Meade!” His eyes opened wide and that great, ebullient Hooker smile, a kind of corn-on-the-cob smile, lit up his face. Though he never spoke, the smile remained there until he left.

I suspect that smile was still there when St. Peter said: “Come on in, Duke.”

Joseph Sweat serves on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on March 5, 2016.

2017-03-28T06:53:44+00:00 March 5th, 2016|Categories: General News, Media Highlights|