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About Ben W. Hooper, Governor
Ben Walter Hooper, born Bennie Walter Wade (October 13, 1870 – April 18, 1957), was an American politician who served as Governor of Tennessee from 1911 to 1915. He was one of just three Republicans to hold the office from the end of Reconstruction to the latter half of the 20th century, having been elected due to divisions in the state Democratic Party. During his two terms, he signed several prohibition laws, enacted a measure requiring mandatory school attendance, and signed a law requiring direct pay for women workers.
Hooper served as a member of the U.S. Railroad Labor Board during the administration of Warren G. Harding in the early 1920s, where he helped avert a railroad workers' strike in 1921. He later worked as chief land purchasing agent for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hooper was born out of wedlock to Sarah Wade in Newport in Cocke County in eastern Tennessee. His father, Lemuel Washington Hooper, was a physician who was engaged to another woman at the time. Ben and his mother moved to Mossy Creek (modern Jefferson City), then New Market, and finally the slums of Knoxville. There, his mother, unable to care for him, placed him in the St. John's Orphanage, operated by the Episcopal Church. When he was nine, young Ben was legally adopted by his father, who named him Hooper and reared him in Newport as a Baptist.
Due to the social stigma surrounding his birth, Hooper struggled as a child in Newport, though he later wrote this made him more determined to succeed. He graduated in 1890 from Baptist-affiliated Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City. He then studied law under Judge Horace Nelson Cate, and was admitted to the bar in 1894. Hooper served two terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives, from 1893 to 1897.
During the Spanish-American War, Hooper served as captain of Company C in the 6th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, which was commanded by fellow East Tennessean, Colonel Lawrence Tyson. The unit was stationed in the Arecibo area of northern Puerto Rico for most of the war, and saw little action.
From 1906 to 1910, Hooper was assistant U.S. attorney for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
By 1910, a serious rift had developed in Tennessee's Democratic Party over the issue of prohibition. One faction, led by Edward W. Carmack, wanted to extend the state's Four Mile Law (which banned the sale of liquor within four miles of any school) throughout the state, while the other faction, led by Governor Malcolm R. Patterson, wanted major cities to remain exempt. This rift was agitated by the killing of Carmack by a Patterson associate in 1908, and Patterson's subsequent pardoning of the killer in 1910. When Patterson attempted to control the party's primary process during the 1910 elections, numerous Democrats abandoned the party to run as independents, as thus became known as the "Independent Democrats."
Tennessee's Republican Party was also suffering from internal divisions in 1910, as party bosses Walter P. Brownlow and Newell Sanders were embroiled in a power struggle. The Brownlow faction supported Alfred A. Taylor, brother of former Democratic governor Robert Love Taylor, as the party's nominee, while the Sanders faction supported Hooper. The Sanders faction and the Independent Democrats formed an alliance— later known as the "Fusionists"— and agreed to support each other's candidates. With this support, Hooper was able to win the Republican nomination, while Patterson's allies were defeated in judicial elections that August.
Realizing he had little chance of winning, Patterson withdrew from the race a few weeks before the general election, and Democrats quickly nominated Robert Love Taylor in hopes of salvaging party unity. The move proved unsuccessful, however, and Hooper defeated Taylor 133,074 votes to 121,694 to become governor.
The 1911 legislative session was tumultuous, as Fusionists controlled the state house, while the remaining Democrats, known as "Regular Democrats," controlled the state senate. Though both chambers struggled with discord and quorum-busting, Hooper obtained passage of laws limiting child labor and requiring that the wages of women be paid directly to them, rather than to any other persons (employers previously had the option of giving women's pay to their husbands). Hooper also enacted a state pure food and drug law, and authorized counties to issue bonds to establish hospitals and to purchase school property.
In the 1912 governor's race, state Republicans were divided between supporters of William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, with the latter's supporters, led by John Chiles Houk, breaking from the party and nominating William Poston for governor on a Progressive ticket. State Democrats also remained divided, with Regular Democrats nominating former governor Benton McMillin, and Independent Democrats supporting Hooper and the Fusion ticket. On election day, Hooper won with 124,641 votes to 116,610 for McMillin, and 4,483 for Poston.
During Hooper's second term, he signed measures that required mandatory school attendance for children between the ages of eight and fourteen, and ordered county school boards to provide for the transportation of pupils. Hooper also established inspections for state banks, implemented a parole system for state convicts, and changed the state's method of execution from hanging to electrocution. Pensions were authorized for veterans and widows of the American Civil War. He also signed the so-called "Jug Bill," which banned the intrastate shipment of liquor, and the "Nuisance Bill," which allowed as few as ten citizens to petition for the removal of saloons and gambling houses from a locality.
In the 1914 election season, Regular Democrats accepted statewide prohibition as part of the party's platform, ending the party's internal divisions. Lacking the support of the Independent Democrats, Hooper was defeated by Democratic candidate Thomas C. Rye, 137,656 votes to 116,667.
After his gubernatorial tenure ended, Hooper continued his law practice in Newport and maintained his interest in public affairs and Republican politics. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1916, but was defeated by rising Democratic politician Kenneth D. McKellar. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Hooper to the U.S. Railroad Labor Board in Chicago. Hooper became a national figure in labor-management arbitration when he worked to halt a railroad strike that had been planned for October 30, 1921.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hooper was the chief land purchasing agent in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.
In 1934, at the age of sixty-four, Hooper launched an unsuccessful political comeback attempt as the Republican nominee against his 1916 opponent, Senator Kenneth McKellar, but received just 35.8% of the vote.
Hooper died from pneumonia in Carson Springs in Cocke County on April 18, 1957. He is interred at Union Cemetery in his native Newport, Tennessee.
Family and legacy
Hooper married Anna Belle Jones in 1901. They had six children: Anna, Ben, James, Margaret, Lemuel and Newell. Hooper's grandson, Ben W. Hooper, II, is a circuit court judge in Cocke County.
Hooper penned an autobiography, The Unwanted Boy, which was published posthumously in 1963. In 1946, he published a book, Elections in Tennessee.
Hooper's home, Elm Hill (built in 1885 by Hooper's wife's parents), still stands in Newport, and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Ben W. Hooper Vocational School, which opened in Newport in 1976, is named in his honor. The school is now part of Cocke County High School.
In the early 2000s, Hooper was the subject of a story entitled "Who's Your Daddy?", which circulated via email. The story, though considerably embellished, was based on incidents Hooper recalled in his autobiography.