The Real McCoy

Bill Miles

(Written for the Lee County Courier, August, 2017) Editor’s Note: William Joseph (Billy) McCoy died in Tupelo on Tuesday, November 12, 2019. The original article was written and published more than two years ago. It has been modified by Bill Miles, a confidant and key advisor/leader to McCoy during and after his tenure as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. About six weeks ago Miles was summoned to Rienzi by his old friend for what was planned to be a festive outing as they often enjoyed. Miles said he and McCoy had toured Shiloh and other Civil War battlefields so much they could have been narrators for Ken Burns’ documentaries. During the immediate hours after the call to Miles the Speaker began feeling worse and Miles related that he was shocked when he picked him up the next morning. He had to be pushed about in a wheel chair. Within days he had continued a decline that led to several days at the North Mississippi Medical Center where he died.)

This epistle is revealing something about William J. (Billy) McCoy as I have personally observed and heard related by ‘reliable sources’. Speaker McCoy’s family put the “big pot in the little one” for him Sunday, August 20, 2017 to recognize what they called “75 years of Billy McCoy”. The activities were held at Gaston Baptist Church in Prentiss County. During my ‘hat-changing’ careers I’ve been fortunate to be associated with some great folks. No one ranks higher in my ‘awe’ than the wily son of the Appalachian foothills Billy McCoy. For more than three decades he represented his hill country constituents. I served with him 12 of those years and was recruited to advise him for more. During my last term and his first four as Speaker, I was Chairman of Transportation. We both love highways. We know transportation is key to building the road that will take our children by the school house and to a good job. Several hundred people came and got a piece of numerous birthday cakes served in his honor. Each got to shake his hand (his good one). Many told him that he’d made a difference. There were former colleagues from the House and a lot of family connections. He likes to be called “an advocate for the common person.” “Ordinary voters shouldn’t have to hire a lobbyist,” he said. “That’s what we are elected to do.” Unfortunately times have changed and lobbyists command much influence in Jackson, Washington, other centers of power, even our city halls and county courthouses. For more than a dozen years I toyed with idea of helping him write his memoirs. They need to be chronicled. He was instrumental in many worthwhile endeavors. One can start with his first term when Mississippi’s Education Governor Will Winter led in making giant progress for academics. He is credited with being the architect of the innovative 1987 four-lane Highway program when he held the title of Vice Chair of Transportation. As Chairman of Education, he passionately fought to pass the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Then as Chairman of Ways & Means, he was at the forefront in bringing Nissan to Canton. He also anguished at including “claw back” procedures in the event the auto manufacturer reneged on its commitment. It did not. The state’s second largest manufacturing operation, Toyota at Blue Springs, was authorized during his first term as Speaker. He supported “Well Spring” long before other state leaders endorsed the project. Billy’s parents were educators who impressed on their children the importance of lifelong learning. His father, Elmer McCoy, served in the House of Representatives and was a committee chair that helped get moneys for schools. He was a teacher and school administrator. The family also farmed. As a “rep” living in the flea infested Sun ‘n Sand Motel in its finals days, Billy regaled listeners with stories from back home. He told about ordinary characters that relied on native skills to outsmart ‘city slicker’ competitors. He is a historian, conservationist, visionary and who knows what else a wordsmith could write about him. He called those of us that he selected for major positions his “King David’s mighty men and women.” He named females to major roles. He called on more African-American leaders than anyone before or since. As our relationship grew, I was proud to ascend to a position as one who could “tamp” down the Prentiss County fire ball when he got enraged at those who placed obstacles in his path for what he deemed “political advantage”. In 2004 the Billy McCoy Team eagerly sought a progressive agenda. Haley Barbour had been elected to lead Mississippi. Barbour touted jobs and tort reform. Many of us had survived Ronnie Musgrove’s horrendous 83-day special session trying to modify the law. We had been targeted by the best organized, highly financed, insurance driven campaign ever witnessed. We thought we’d done a pretty good job. The Supreme Court had helped by laying down its own rules. But a new brand of politics convinced voters otherwise. McCoy’s agenda stymied as he tried to maintain his broad collation. It consisted of many who came to Jackson with him or right after. Now they thought they were “republicans’. Haley brought Washington politics to Jackson. He empowered his party colleagues using the latest technology and strict discipline. Threats of a primary opponent caused hair-raising anguish for those who once could be counted on to support what McCoy believed were core values for Mississippi. Finally I went to him and encouraged him to let tort reform go so that we could target other vital goals. He did. Rumors surfaced immediately that a revolt was underway to topple the Speaker by some of his own people. That afternoon I was warned by a couple of my republican friends that they had picked up such a plan. Then late that night I received a message from one of our “supposedly loyalists”. The message was that Billy would be abandoned the next day. I never figured out how they could take away his title since it was bestowed for the full four year term. I went from my second floor motel room down to his room on the ground. It was after 10 o’clock. A quick phone call to a trusted colleague disputed any organized revolt. It was at this time I learned that Bill was having symptoms of a digestive problem. He is a cancer survivor and of course we pondered if this might be a return. It was not. It was acute attack of diverticulitis. We left the capitol for a weekend at home. The next day the Speaker was flown to Jackson’s UMC. Emergency surgery was required. Complications included a series of strokes. Life hung in the balance. All wondered if he’d be back. Too many hoped he would not. I helped maintain a semblance of order and followed Speaker Pro Tem J. P. Compretta as we advanced or held our focus on “Billy’s Program.” Following a long recuperation McCoy resumed the helm. He lost use of his left hand and some in his left leg. His mind was razor sharp as always. Like all of us Billy gradually showed signs of what we’d like to call “advancing maturity”. That’s probably why his family wanted to let his friends and former colleagues show their respect on Sunday afternoon from 1:30 until 3:30. I have written in my memoirs and related tales of how I, as his “chief shepherd”, helped him keep (barely by one vote) the majority that gave him a second term as Speaker. When he left the building, so did most of rural Mississippi’s legislative influence. As the Queen of Sheba said about King Solomon in the bible, I have not told “the half” of this story.

If you would like to contact Bill Miles you can email him at bill.t.miles@gmail.com

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