BILL MINOR: Ex-legislator’s death closes Stennis era

JACKSON – “Poppa, would you like a little toddy?” the son asked the father after the two came in from the cold night in Washington, D.C., where a steady snowfall since mid-afternoon had laid down a foot of the white stuff.

“John Hampton, I believe I would,” replied the usually abstemious father who notably was U.S. Sen. John Cornelius Stennis. Three decades later the elder Stennis would go down as one of Mississippi’s greatest statesmen.

On the occasion of John Hampton’s funeral last week, I vividly recalled that unique scene of the two scholarly Stennises entering former Gov. J.P. Coleman’s room at Washington’s Hotel Mayflower. It was Jan. 19, 1961, the day before the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy for which several of us Mississippians had journeyed to the nation’s capital.

John Hampton and the senator wouldn’t have been visiting Coleman’s hotel that night if it weren’t for a set of unlikely circumstances: namely, the senator’s car, with John Hampton driving, had died in the deep snow after they had dropped off Coleman and me three blocks from the Mayflower.

A hometown friend of the former governor had thoughtfully stocked the room with a good supply of liquor and a stiff drink was just what the doctor ordered after we slogged through the driving snow. Not long afterwards, Coleman’s room phone rang – the senator and John Hampton were in the lobby and were coming up. “Hide the whisky, because the senator doesn’t approve of it,” J.P. declared. My job then was to haul the booze into the bathroom near the room’s entrance and close the door. Soon the senator walked in, with John Hampton trailing. As John Hampton passed by the partly opened bathroom door, I caught his eye to let him know we had a warming drink for him. That’s when “Poppa” gave the go-ahead to have a “little toddy” and out came the booze wagon and drinks all around.

But I must recount the series of events that preceded the Mayflower story. During that afternoon of Jan. 19, I had dropped by Sen. Stennis’ spacious office on Capitol Hill and found Coleman as well as John Hampton already visiting there. When a steady snow started falling and the cars of office workers as well as office holders began filling the city streets to get ahead of the inevitable Washington traffic jam, John Hampton pushed his father to wind up whatever work he was doing and get on the road.

Of course their offer to give the governor and me a ride to the Mayflower was promptly accepted. That turned out to be quite a ride. John Hampton was at the wheel with the senator in the front seat and Coleman and I in the back. Not only did we quickly find ourselves in a huge traffic snarl, the line only inched at a snail’s pace as snowflakes continued to fall.

Time moved slowly, and we could hear police sirens screaming nearby. Pretty soon we had moved to the point an underpass loomed up on our left, but street markings pointed in the opposite direction from where we were headed. Somehow, however, few if any cars seemed to be coming under the overpass. Now and then, a car would peal out our traffic line, cross the median and disappear under the overpass. Had they made it safely to the other side? We didn’t know, but only an intrepid motorist would take that risk.

Here we sat, with a Phi Beta Kappa senator in the front seat, noted in lawmaking circles to be the soul of caution in making big decisions.

“Poppa, do you think we might pull into that opposite lane and go under the overpass?” John Hampton asked. Surely the answer would be no. “Let’s do it,” surprisingly replied the senator in his rich Southern baritone voice.

Off we went, fortunately coming up on the other side, but once there we found ourselves in another traffic jam, maybe a tad lighter.

The passing of John Hampton at age 78, you could say, closes the Stennis era on Mississippi’s political scene. His impact on the state’s history of course couldn’t replicate his father’s, but how many statesmen have been honored by having a nuclear aircraft carrier and also an aerospace center named for him?

He, like his father, had an exceptionally keen mind, and coming along in a somewhat different era his thinking was more progressive than the elder Stennis.

He raised the standards of state legislative and judicial history that few in this state have matched.

Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.