John T. Russell died Friday. He was 84.
He was from Lebanon, Missouri and the people sent him to Jefferson City to represent them in the House and in the Senate for 42 years because they could. And they probably would have kept electing him if he wanted to keep running, but they were among the Missourians who approved term limits in 1992, giving up their right to end him back to the Senate in 2004 elections.
Russell, a Republican, and Wayne Goode, a Democrat from the St. Louis area, served together in the General Assembly for 42 years. Only Michael Kinney served longer—56 years, all in the Senate. For a brief time, Russell, a conservative, and Goode, a liberal, were co-chairmen of the Senate Appropriations Committee. It was during the switch from Democratic to Republican control of the Senate and although Russell finished out his career as the committee chairman, he and Goode worked closely together.
We watched him for most of his career, first in the House and then in the Senate. He never left any doubt about his political leanings but he also left no doubt that he could work with the other side, and did. He honored the title of “Senator” with his service. His generation, now only a memory in the minds of many who are themselves close to being only memories in the Capitol, understood words like honor and courtesy, respect, and decorum, words that in recent days or even in recent years increasingly have become just words.
He represented Laclede County, the place where he was born and grew up on a farm and went to a one-room country school. He was not a man who felt he was bigger than the place he came from. And the place he came from knew it. John T. Russell was elected to seven terms in the House and seven terms in the Senate. In half of those elections, he had no opponent in November.
He was a successful businessman in Lebanon for decades, an Air Force veteran from the Korean War, not given to hyperbole and only occasionally did his firmness give way to anger. But when John T. Russell thundered, the Senate understood he had been pushed beyond his line of reasonableness—and that took quite a bit of pushing.
John Russell looked like a Senator, with his dark hair, gray at the temples, his deep, authoritative voice, and his confident demeanor.
He was firm but not unalterable in his positions, understood the value of respecting the other side and—when necessary—yielding on some points so he could achieve others.
He is the third member of his generation of Missouri politicians to leave the scene in recent months. We lost Senator Harold Caskey of Butler last October and Senator Emory Melton of Cassville in December. Caskey, like Russell, served 28 years in the Senate. Melton served 24. No members of today’s Senate ever served with them—and the Senate is a poorer chamber in spirit because there is no one there to remember three men who knew how to be Senators.
Senator Russell’s funeral will be Wednesday morning at the First Baptist Church in Lebanon.