Tommy Irvin, whose politics spanned a generation of changes, dies

10:37 a.m. Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 Local
Kimberly Smith/AJC
090204 Atlanta: Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin discusses the current peanut product recall at the annual Georgia Agribusiness Council State Legislative Breakfast Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 at the Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta. Photo by Kimberly Smith /

Tommy Irvin, a sharecropper’s son who rose to the top ranks of Georgia Democratic politics and stayed there for more than four decades, died Thursday. He was 88.

Irvin served 10 terms as Georgia’s commissioner of agriculture, from 1969 until January 2011. He was elected to his final four-year term in November 2006.

Irvin holds the record as the longest-serving state commissioner of agriculture in the nation and the longest serving statewide official in Georgia. If you count his time on a local school board, his public service stretched 55 years.

A master of retail politics, Irvin came into office when Democrats reigned supreme in Georgia. He served as a top aide to one governor, Lester Maddox, and was a mentor to another, Zell Miller. Irvin departed the political arena in an era when Republicans were on their way to taking over all statewide offices, including the one he had dominated for decades.

“Tommy Irvin was one of Georgia’s great people who helped build this state. Agriculture remains Georgia’s biggest economic engines – he always looked after consumers while supporting farmer,” said DuBose Porter, chairman of the state Democratic party. “He was a lifelong Democrat who never wavered, understanding what we stand for.”

RELATED: Read and sign the online guestbook for Tommy Irvin

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner, Tommy Irvin, is on a 1924 Fordson tractor at last year's Inman Farms Heritage Days Festival. SPECIAL 9/14/00

His grandson, Chris Irvin confirmed Friday morning that Irvin died at his home in Mount Airy in east Georgia with family present. In 2014, Chris Irvin ran unsuccessfully as the Democratic nominee his grandfather’s old office.

Irvin had been in failing health, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease just before he left office. He was hospitalized after a car accident in 2014.

Tommy Irvin was from another era, when politicking was more than soundbites and 30-second TV ads, a time when personal appearances at barbecues and fish fries across rural Georgia could make or break a candidate.

“It used to be said that you couldn’t fry a fish anywhere in Georgia without Commissioner Irvin showing up,” said former Democratic state senator George Hooks of Americus. “He was a true, old Southern politician. He was a powerhouse in Georgia politics.”

Even in his latter years of service, the rail-thin, 6’5” Irvin, dressed in a coat and tie and shod in his trademark cowboy boots, would place himself at the entrance to the annual Wild Hog Supper — the state Legislature’s traditional kickoff feast that he helped create — to personally greet every attendee with a handshake.

“Hey, I’m Tommy Irvin,” he would say. “Glad you could make it.”

Irvin served four years in the state Legislature, ran the late Gov. Lester Maddox’s gubernatorial campaign and was Maddox’s floor leader in the House, then his executive secretary. Irvin was a delegate to the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Democratic National Conventions.

Leita Cowart/Special
000928 ATLANTA, GA: Former Governor Lester Maddox right, talks with Agriculture Secretary Tommy Irvin at his birthday celebration at Mary Mac's Tea Room today. (photo Leita Cowart,special)

Irvin was born in rural Hall County on July 14, 1929, the son of a tenant farmer who also worked at a local sawmill.

“I still remember having to get up and hitch up the mules and plow the fields,” Irvin recalled in a 2008 videotaped interview with Bob Short for the Russell Library Oral History project. “I remember taking the plows down to the blacksmith shop to have them sharpened.”

Irvin milked cows, picked cotton and learned firsthand the frugality required by the hard-scrabble life of the rural South of his youth.

“We would sell our cotton in the fall of the year and we would go into town and you’d get a new pair of overalls and a shirt and one pair of shoes,” he said. “And if you wore them out before winter was over you’d have to put some paper or pasteboard in them …”

Still, Irvin often spoke fondly of that time and displayed a backwoods, self-deprecating sense of humor about his upbringing among impoverished farmers, backwoods politicians and moonshiners.

Once asked in South Georgia how many bushels of corn a farmer could produce on an acre of North Georgia hillside, Irvin shot back: “Bushels? People in North Georgia sell it by the gallon.”

When Irvin was just a teen, his father was killed in a sawmill accident, and overnight he was responsible, along with his mother, for two younger brothers, and two younger sisters.

“One of his big regrets is he never went to college,” grandson Chris Irvin said. “When his dad got killed, he was only 14 or 15 so he had to quit school to start supporting the family.”

At 18, he married his wife, Bernice, and only one year later the first of their five children was born. Irvin often told the story about how he met his wife of six decades on a school bus going to the county fair. Bernice Irvin died four years ago.

Irvin was elected to his first public office as a member of the Habersham County Board of Education in 1956. He later served as school board chairman and president of the Georgia School Boards Association.

He was first elected to the state House of Representatives from Habersham County in 1957 and won a second term in 1959.

While serving in the state Legislature, Irvin was introduced to Lester Maddox, and the segregationist firebrand asked Irvin to manage his campaign for governor.

“Friends said: ‘Are you crazy? You want to try to get that man elected governor?”’ Irvin recalled. “I knew his image was not the best in the world. But he was a lot better than his image was.

“You can’t get away from the fact that he was a segregationist. But not a racist. He probably appointed more blacks to board and bureaus than every governor prior to that time put together.”

He served on the House Agriculture, Education, & Appropriations Committees and as the chairman of both the House Industrial Relations Committee and the Governor’s Conference on Education.

It was Maddox in 1969 who appointed Irvin to the agriculture commissioner’s job when the former commissioner left for a position in the Nixon administration.

Irvin pushed to expand the state farmer’s markets and often advocated trade with Cuba and the Soviet Union, even during the Cold War.

“I think trade has helped our relationship with Russia and the former Soviet Union more than anything else,” Irvin said. “People would say ‘You want to do business with the Communists?’’ And I would say, ‘No I just want to do business.”’

Irvin listed his biggest accomplishment as getting Georgia’s school lunch program set up and funded, a task that required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. He also liked to tout his efforts to eradicate the boll weevil and the push to eliminate hog cholera and TB in the state’s dairy herds.

Late in his career he lamented the partial loss of funding for the Market Bulletin, the folksy newspaper that carries news stories about Georgia agriculture and advertisements for everything from tractors to baby goats.

He said many people had urged him over the years to run for governor, but he said he never had the “fire the belly” to seek the state’s top job. Instead, he said, he found a job he loved and stayed at it as long as time and politics allowed.

“I haven’t had many disappointments,” Irvin said. “I many have had some things I could have done better. But I did the best I could.”

Tannen Maury/AP Photo
Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin announces Friday, Jan. 5, 1995 in Atlanta that the International Equestrian Federation has accepted his department's terms for allowing horses infected with Piroplasmosis, a tick-borne virus, to compete in the 1996 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo/Tannen Maury)