Rarely does a person serve a long time in a variety of public offices without a blemish on his record. Even a public official of sterling character is likely to suffer false accusations from people who imagine they have been offended.
One of those very rare ones died yesterday night.
John David Pennebaker spent his life in the service of the people of Union County and the State of Mississippi. Even in his home town, a place like all small towns, where there are few secrets and occasional petty rumors launched by gossips, not once have we heard a single accusation from any person that cast any doubt on his personal and professional integrity. Not one time.
John David Pennebaker’s life was not a low profile one. We know of at least three public offices he filled at one time or another, and he was an active, energetic public servant. He did not placidly occupy a chair or avoid the hard decisions. He made things happen.
In addition to building a successful law practice, he found time to serve as Mayor of New Albany, as Union County Chancery Clerk and as an exceptionally effective member of the state legislature.
It was during his four terms in the Mississippi House of Representatives, especially his 12 years on the House Transportation Committee, that he created the most conspicuous element of his legacy. As chairman of the Transportation Committee, Pennebaker persuaded the legislature to pass the 1987 Four-Lane Highway program to create more than a thousand miles of four-lane highway in Mississippi. At a time when many Mississippi highways had not been significantly improved for half a century, the 1987 legislation had the goal of assuring that everyone in Mississippi lived within 30 miles or 30 minutes of a four-lane highway.
The $1.6-billion dollar program was the largest public works program ever tackled by the state government. It was substantially financed by an increase in the state gasoline tax, and, 1987 being an election year, it took more than light-weight persuasive skills to talk the legislature into a tax increase.
Pennebaker, in tandem with Transportation Committee vice-chairman Billy McCoy of Rienzi, lined up the votes in both houses of the state legislature to pass the Highway Bill. Then the bill was vetoed by Mississippi Governor Bill Allain. Undaunted, Pennebaker rounded up the necessary votes to override Allain’s veto, and the bill became law.
“There is no question in my mind that we would not have the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program today if it weren’t for John David Pennebaker,” retired Northern District Transportation Commissioner Zack Stewart told NAnewsweb.com this afternoon. “His unquestionable integrity and credibility with the Mississippi Legislature, coupled with outstanding leadership ability, were critical factors in the struggle to override Allain’s veto of the bill. The face of Mississippi was changed because of John David’s leadership in that work.”
By 2005 most of the 1,077 miles in the original 1987 plan were complete. The program opened the way for the further development of Highway 78 between the Alabama and Tennessee state lines into the Federal Interstate Highway System.
Both Pennebaker and Stewart were honored in the New Albany ceremony on October 23, 2015, when that 213-mile stretch of improved four-lane highway was officially renamed “Interstate 22.”
John David Pennebaker was born in Union County on August 31, 1943. His was one of Union County’s pioneer families. Both his father and grandfather were practicing physicians here.
U.S. District Judge Mike Mills served in the Mississippi Legislature at the same time as Pennebaker. During legislative sessions Pennebaker, Mills, and several other legislators stayed at the old Sun-N-Sand Resort Motel in downtown Jackson. In his 2007 book “Twice Told Tombigbee Tales,” Mills wrote about those days and made some shrewd observations about the character and leadership qualities of Pennebaker.
Judge Mills generously gave us permission to quote from his book:
“Most folks stayed at the Sun-N-Sands for one of two reasons. Either the low rates or the fellowship. I was there for both reasons. Despite our slipshod furnishings and paucity of luxuries, the Sun-N-Sands inmates developed a sophisticated social order, not unlike that found in other societies.
“The undisputed ‘Godfather’ of the Sun-N-Sand was my Tombigbee Country neighbor from Union County, Representative John David Pennebaker. John David…served as the hotel’s unofficial dorm manager…
“John David Pennebaker is a good Presbyterian, a fine lawyer, and a born aristocrat. He is well aware of his rightful place near the top of the social pecking order of life. John David insists on order and a certain dignified reticence in all one’s personal and professional relationships. Though he lacked any actual authority, John David prevailed upon the motel managers to allow him to assign rooms. Hence the name ‘The Godfather.’ I guess it was predestined. One soon learned to stay in John David’s good graces if you wanted a first floor room opening onto the pool. Otherwise he would put you upstairs overlooking the parking lot nearest the Farish Street gunfire…
“As time passed, the Godfather began deciding which receptions I would attend, which lobbyists would take me to dinner and what time I could call home each night. And Lordy, Lordy if anyone sneaked out without letting John David know where he was going and with whom.”
This afternoon Judge Mills said, “John David was genuinely interested in people and their well-being. His integrity was beyond reproach.”
John David Pennebaker is survived by his wife Gwyn and two daughters, Jennifer and Sally. Visitation will be at United Funeral Home from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 11th. Funeral services will be at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the New Albany Presbyterian Church on Highway 15 South.