John Stennis, ex-U.S. senator, dies

April 24, 1995|By New York Times News Service

Sen. John C. Stennis, a courtly Mississippi Democrat who served in the Senate longer than all but one other person in history, died yesterday at St. Dominic-Jackson Memorial Hospital Jackson, Miss. He was 93.

Mr. Stennis died of complications of pneumonia, according to Rex Buffington, director of the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service at Mississippi State University in Starkville.

When he retired on Jan. 3, 1989, Mr. Stennis had been in the Senate 41 years, 1 month and 29 days. Carl Hayden of Arizona, who retired in 1969, served nine months longer.

Mr. Stennis dominated legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was the most influential voice in Congress on military affairs as chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services committee.

Widely respected for his integrity, diligence and judgment, he was called upon time and again to investigate touchy political matters, particularly those that had embarrassed the Senate. In 1954, he was the first Senate Democrat to call for censure of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, R-Wis..

Eventually it became routine to refer to Mr. Stennis as the conscience of the entire institution.

In many respects, Mr. Stennis was the last of the Senate's Southern barons -- Democrats elected from one-party states who gained power through seniority and often wielded it autocratically to block liberal initiatives His support for the military was unswerving; his advocacy of racial segregation was also unalloyed for most of his career.

Mr. Stennis was born Aug. 3, 1901, in De Kalb, Miss., and grew up on a farm. He graduated from Mississippi State University in 1923 and four years later received his law degree at the University of Virginia. He served as state legislator, as district prosecuting attorney and circuit judge before he joined the U.S. Senate in 1947.

Mr. Stennis endured personal hardship, too. He was shot by robbers in front of his Washington home, in 1973, at the age of 73. Doctors doubted that he would survive, but after visiting the senator, President Nixon predicted he would live because "he's got the will to live in spades." The senator had cardiovascular surgery in 1983 and a year later had his left leg amputated because of a malignant tumor.

Mr. Stennis is survived by two children. His wife, Coy Hines Stennis, died in 1983.

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