Jimmy Quillen dead at 87

By Thomas Wilson

   Jimmy Quillen, who served as a U.S. congressman longer than any Tennessean in history, died Sunday morning at age 87.
   Longtime friend of Quillen, Ralph Cole, confirmed that Quillen died at approximately 6:30 a.m. at Indian Path Medical Center in Kingsport from congestive heart failure after battling pneumonia. Quillen spent 34 years in Congress developing a reputation for bringing federal dollars into the 1st District.
   "Jimmy Quillen was everybody's congressman," said Cole, former state representative of Carter County. "It made no difference whether a person was rich or poor, black or white, Democrat or Republican, he was always willing to help.
   "His greatest joy as I remember was helping someone who had no one else to help them."
   James Henry Quillen was born Jan. 11, 1916, in Wayland, Virginia, the fifth oldest of 10 children to John Alley and Hannah Chapman Quillen. Later, his family moved to Kingsport, where he graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School and later graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
   Quillen volunteered for the Navy during World War II, joining as an ensign and serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Antietam. After returning from military service, Quillen entered the private sector as a homebuilder and later developed real estate and insurance businesses.
   He married Cecile Cox in 1952 while she was employed at the Eastman Company, now Eastman Chemical in Kingsport. He credited his wife with encouraging him to seek public office. He and his wife had no children.
   Quillen made his first political mark winning a seat in the Tennessee Legislature in 1954 where he served eight years. He entered the race for the First District U.S. House of Representatives in 1962, besting four other challengers for the Republican nomination to succeed the late Congressman B. Carroll Reece who had died in March 1961.
   Quillen later won the general election and began the first of 17 consecutive terms. On election night, supporters removed the door at his campaign office in Kingsport to signify his promise of an open-door policy for constituents.
   Numerous buildings bear the Quillen name, including the VA Medical Center at Mountain Home, the federal courthouse building in Greeneville that was dedicated in Dec. 2001, and the James and Cecile Quillen Rehabilitation Hospital in Johnson City.
   Quillen was also instrumental in creating the college of medicine at East Tennessee State University. The college welcomed its first class in 1978 and has been recognized as one of the top medical schools in the country for rural medicine. The school was named in his honor in 1989.
   "We knew about all the big items and grants he brought in the area," said Cole, "but he brought millions into the areas in other ways in grants for schools and rural water lines."
   Quillen became a member of the House Rules Committee in 1965 and served as vice chairman of the Legislative and Budget Process Subcommittee.
   In 1968, Quillen helped pass a bill that made it a federal crime to desecrate the U.S. flag, which the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional. He also served as a delegate and/or parliamentarian to every Republican National Convention during his tenure in office. Quillen was the recipient of numerous honors and awards from veterans organizations, agriculture and business associations.
   In 1996, he decided not to seek re-election. William "Bill" Jenkins won the office in 1996 and is midway through his fourth consecutive term.
   Quillen had been in ill health for some years. He suffered a broken hip after a fall on Christmas Eve three years ago, Cole said. Quillen was in Indian Path Medical Center recovering when his wife Cecile died of a heart attack on Jan. 25, 2002.
   A replica of Quillen's office is located on the top floor of ETSU's Charles Sherrod Library, including his desk, chairs, and honors, as well as congressional memorabilia.
   "He was the model for what every person in public service should be," said Cole. "I don't know of anyone who could really pattern themselves after him because he was such a hard worker and he didn't give up if he failed the first time."