Former Tennessee Rep. Dies

Posted June 13, 2008 at 6:08pm

Former Rep. Dan Kuykendall, an instrumental player in building the Republican Party in Tennessee in the early 1960s and ’70s, died Thursday after a long illness. He was 83.

Kuykendall, who represented Memphis, served in Congress from 1967 to 1975.

He was defeated by former Rep. Harold Ford Sr. in an election so close that the four-term Congressman learned he had been edged out by 744 votes while being interviewed on television about his presumptive win after the race was initially called in his favor.

Kuykendall’s involvement in Tennessee politics came at a time when a swelling of Republican support in the western region of the state paved the way for the rise of a competitive two-party system in what had traditionally been a Democratic stronghold.

After losing a Senate bid to former Sen. Al Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.) in 1964, Kuykendall was elected to represent what was then Tennessee’s 9th district in 1966. He was the first Republican Congressman to represent western Tennessee post-Reconstruction.

“He was really one of the real pioneers for the Tennessee Republican Party. He hauled off and ran when no one thought he had any chance to win at all,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who was a staff aide to Sen. Howard Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.). Baker, like Kuykendall, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1964, then ran and won in 1966.

Kuykendall was born in Cherokee, Texas, in 1924 and grew up working on a cattle ranch in the heart of the Texas hill country. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 1947 after serving in the Army Air Corps.

He became involved in Tennessee politics soon after moving to Memphis in 1955 for a job with Procter & Gamble.

Raised by conservative Southern Democrats, Kuykendall became active in the Republican Party to counter what he saw as a monopoly of liberal politics in the region. He led the Shelby County Republican Party in the early 1960s, helping to build a group that his son said was virtually nonexistent when the family arrived in Memphis.

“The Democrats here were not of a conservative nature he was satisfied with,” his son Jack Kuykendall said. “He was on the ground floor of building a two-party system in the state.”

During his four terms in Congress, Kuykendall served on the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce.

National security became a priority for Kuykendall during his time in office. According to Jack Kuykendall, his father co-authored the first legislation requiring airport security to address a spike in attempts to hijack and reroute American planes to Cuba in the late 1960s.

Jack Kuykendall remembered boarding a flight with his father as a child on an airline that did not screen passengers or luggage.

“We walk on, and he’s got his briefcase, and he said to the stewardess, ‘Can I talk to the pilot here?’ She said, ‘Yes,’ and [my father] said to the pilot, ‘How do you know my briefcase isn’t full of hand grenades?’” he recalled.

A staunch conservative, Kuykendall forged a close friendship with President Nixon.

“He believed Nixon until the very end,” Jake Kuykendall said. “I think at the very end … when the real smoking gun came out, he said, ‘He really lied.’ And he was really upset about that.”

Kuykendall recalled Nixon calling the family’s Texas ranch upon emerging from six months of seclusion in the wake of his resignation and asking the Congressman, “Do you think they want to pick the carcass?”

That exchange soon became national news and “a major factor in his loss” in 1974, Jack Kuykendall said. Redistricting in the early 1970s also shifted the demographics of the district, which Kuykendall had won handily in previous elections.

Though he was clearly passionate about politics, friends and family said the Congressman’s real love was woodwork. Known as a skilled craftsman, Kuykendall built furniture and toys and carved inlaid pictures.

“I have, and each of my sibling has, and my mother has, things he put his heart into. He was a master craftsman,” Jack Kuykendall said. “Everyone in my family will forever have memories of him in just looking at the furniture and the things he made.”

Always the perfectionist, Kuykendall would keep a scrap bucket by his tool bench full of half-finished projects that he would abandon if they didn’t meet his high standards for craftsmanship, his son said.

He often gave his masterpieces to close friends as gifts; when Alexander married his wife 40 years ago, Kuykendall gave the newlyweds a hand-crafted wooden map of Tennessee with each of the state’s 95 counties intricately carved into it.

Jack Kuykendall said his father led by example for his four children, particularly in his strong relationship with his wife, Jacqueline, to whom he was married 56 years.

“He was a very strong Christian. He instilled in his family Christian values, and they were instilled to us until this day,” he said.

Though he never ran for public office again after his 1974 loss, his son said he believed his father’s dedication and commitment to conservative values would serve him well in today’s politics.

“I think he’d do well,” Jack Kuykendall said. “He was a very eloquent speech giver. He was a man of action — he made things happen.”