Former Democratic state representative and Tennessee Secretary of Agriculture L.H. “Cotton” Ivy died Tuesday at the age of 91 in Decaturville, Tennessee, his home town.
The son of a sharecropper, Ivy was the principal agent with Farm Bureau Insurance in Union City before running for the state legislature in 1984. He served two terms before then-Gov. Ned Ray McWherter appointed him to serve as commissioner of agriculture.
During his tenure as commissioner, Ivy was instrumental in creating a regional laboratory at the Ellington Agricultural Center in Nashville, which was subsequently named the L.H. “Cotton” Ivy Laboratory.
But Ivy was as well known for his keen sense of humor as his politics. He was represented by Top Billing, the Nashville booking agency founded by legendary agent Tandy Rice, and spoke at political and corporate events across the U.S.
Roy Herron, former state senator and former chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, was a friend of Ivy’s and the two co-wrote a book in 2000 called “Tennessee Political Humor (Some of these Jokes You Voted For.)”
“People knew Cotton Ivy far and wide for his talk. But those who knew him near and dear knew him best for his walking the walk. He lived his faith and the joy of his faith as powerfully as anyone I knew,” said Herron.
Herron said he first met Ivy when the latter, a lay speaker with Gideons International, spoke at First Methodist Church Dresden. The pair became friends during Herron’s first run for the legislature in 1986.
“He and Miss Pat (Ivy’s wife) had me over to dinner and took me under their wings. They told me there are folks that get led astray (in the legislature) and those that don’t and they told me they wanted me to be careful,” Herron said. “They loved on me from the get go but I wasn’t special: they loved on everybody.”
Ripley Mayor Craig Fitzhugh, a former Democratic state representative and ex-minority leader, described Ivy as “a friend from Decatur County who lived 91 years making folks smile and giving them a good example. A teacher and an Air Force veteran. What a life! Sincere condolences to his family.”
Bill Nolan, a lobbyist and former state legislator, who served in the General Assembly with Ivy, said it was hard to get mad at him.
“The biggest thing about Cotton Ivy was his sense of humor. God only knows we need it today. The Legislature needs a Cotton Ivy today. He was a lot like Frank Nicely but much more polished,” Nolan said.
Sen. Nicely, a Strawberry Plains Republican, is known for his downhome sayings and knowledge of history.
And Jeff Aiken, president of Tennessee Farm Bureau, said Ivy was a legend in Tennessee’s agriculture community.
“He pretty well covered the gamut. He had a very strong connection. He was an ag supply salesperson, then he was a Farm Bureau agent. He was a friend to the farmer in the General Assembly and then as commissioner of Agriculture,” said Aiken.
“Farmers related to him very much so (because of his downhome humor),” Aiken added. I would contend it was more so because he could relate to the non-farm public with the stories that he told, which appealed to the agriculture community to have a spokesperson which could, in a humorous way, often share the story and the plight of farmers in Tennessee.”
Ivy’s other achievements included tenures on the Board of Trustees of the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Board of Regents, and the Country Music Association, to name a few.
He is survived by his wife of 72 years, Pat, two sons, and a host of grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Herron summed up Ivy’s legacy: “Cotton was not just ours – he was America’s.”