Lamar Alexander

2021 East Tennessean of the Year

The East Tennessee Historical Society Board of Directors is pleased to honor Lamar Alexander as our 2021 East Tennessean of the Year. Lamar Alexander is a seventh-generation East Tennessean, born July 3, 1940, in Maryville. His father was an elementary school principal and his mother was a pre-school teacher.

Lamar Alexander is the only Tennessean ever popularly elected both governor and United States Senator. He served twenty-six years, longer than any other Tennessean who has held both jobs. He won six statewide primaries, twice as many as any other Republican. In between being governor (1979-1987) and senator (2003-2021), he was President of the University of Tennessee, U.S. Education Secretary for President George H.W. Bush and served on the faculty of Harvard’s School of Government. He co-founded a Nashville law firm and two successful businesses.

During just his final year in the Senate, Alexander was the driving force behind the Great American Outdoors Act, the most important law since the Eisenhower years to support national parks and conservation. He wrote the law to reduce from 108 to 33 the number of questions on the FAFSA, the complex application form that has become a roadblock for 20 million students seeking federal student aid to attend college. His legislation ended surprise medical billing and increased transparency for health care costs. Another law set up a $2.5 billion “shark tank” at the National Institutes of Health that created two dozen new ways to make diagnostic tests for COVID-19. And for the sixth consecutive year the appropriations subcommittee he chaired provided record funding for the Office of Science, national laboratories, supercomputing and waterways, including restarting Chickamauga Lock.

As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee from 2015 to 2021, Alexander shepherded 91 bills that became law. He was principal sponsor of many of these, including the 2015 “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which President Obama called “a Christmas Miracle,” and the Wall Street Journal said was the “largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter century.” For this, the nation’s governors and the National Education Association gave Alexander their highest awards. In 2016, Alexander sponsored the “21st Century Cures Act,” which Majority Leader McConnell said was “the most important law of this Congress.” In 2018, Alexander authored the Opioid Crisis Response Act, which McConnell called “landmark legislation.” In 2019, Alexander wrote the law providing permanent funding for historically black colleges and minority institutions.  He was also a principal sponsor of important laws including the 2007 “America COMPETES Act,” a 2015 law that reformed student loans, and the 2018 law changing copyright laws to ensure songwriters will be paid fairly.

As Governor, he helped bring the auto industry to Tennessee, recruiting Nissan and Saturn and sponsoring three major road programs to attract auto parts suppliers; led Tennessee to become the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well; and left office with fewer state employees, third-lowest per capita taxes, a AAA bond rating, and zero road debt.

When not in public office, co-founded a Nashville law firm (1972) and two successful businesses: Blackberry Farm, Inc., (1976) and Corporate Child Care, Inc. (1987).  He is a classical and country pianist and the author of seven books.

He married Leslee (Honey) Buhler on January 4, 1969. They live outside Maryville and have four children, nine grandchildren and a dog named Rufus