Former Miss. state Sen. Billy Thames dies at 69

Mississippi State NewsEmily Wagster Pettus

Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Services are scheduled for Friday for former state Sen. Billy Thames, who worked on mental health and agriculture issues during his 28 years at the Mississippi Capitol.

Thames died Tuesday at the University of Mississippi Medical Center of complications of surgery for colon cancer. He was 69.

The funeral is 10 a.m. Friday at Pinelake Church near the Ross Barnett Reservoir, with burial in Lakeland Garden Park.

Thames was a Democrat from Mize who served January 1980 to January 2008.

For most of his tenure, Thames’ District 34 included parts of Smith, Jasper and Clarke counties in central Mississippi. During his final years in office, it included Smith and Jasper counties and parts of Jones and Scott counties.

After choosing not to seek re-election, Thames lived in Brandon and worked as a self-employed lobbyist.

“He loved going to the Capitol, where he could shake hands, slap backs and get out of there,” his wife, Ann, said Tuesday.

Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement Wednesday that he considered Thames a friend.

“As state auditor, I worked with Billy on a number of issues including the overhaul in how the state accounts for its fleet of vehicles,” Bryant said. “All those who knew Billy will miss him.”

Ann Thames said her husband grew up poor in rural Simpson County and at one point considered entering the ministry. Instead, he ran for office and helped people find jobs and get health coverage and disability benefits, she said. During an especially contentious debate that pitted chicken growers against poultry processing companies one year — a debate that resulted in a House member hitting an Elvis-impersonator senator (not Thames) on the Senate floor — Thames sided with the growers, many of whom worked in mom-and-pop operations.

“He saw public service as a ministry,” Ann Thames said.

Democrat Bob Dearing of Natchez was elected to the Senate the same time as Billy Thames, and served until January 2012. As freshmen senators, they were desk mates for more than two years when the Capitol was under renovation and the Legislature was meeting a block away, in Jackson’s former Central High School. Dearing said Thames was a skilled budget writer and “probably the number one champion of mental health issues.”

“He was just one heck of a guy,” Dearing said. “If he told you he was going to be with you, he stuck with you to the end, no matter what kind of pressure came.”

Ed LeGrand, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, said Thames “tirelessly advocated for Mississippians served by the public mental health system with grace and compassion.”

“His genuine desire to help better the lives of Mississippians could clearly be seen during each legislative session. Even after Sen. Thames left the Legislature, he continued to advocate for Mississippians in need of mental health services. His enthusiasm and compassion was a rare find. His dedication will never be forgotten. He was a colleague and a personal friend, and I will miss him greatly,” LeGrand said in a statement.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, has served in the House since 1984 and worked with Thames for more than 20 years to find funding for mental health centers and shape agriculture policy.

“He was an unbelievable public servant of the New Testament variety,” Holland said. “I’m about to get emotional because I loved that man. He’s probably the finest colleague I served with in 30 years.”

In addition to his wife, Thames is survived by daughters Lisa Williams of Seattle and Lori Grimes and Belinda Arrington, both of Mize; sister Jane Pittman of Brandon; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“He loved his family more than anything in the world,” Ann Thames said.

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