JACKSON, Miss. — Former state Sen. Billy Thames died Tuesday of complications from surgery for colon cancer. He was 69.
Thames' wife, Ann, said he died at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
Thames was a Democrat from Mize who served in the Senate from January 1980 until January 2008. He was known for working on agriculture and mental health issues.
For most of his time in office, Thames' District 34 included parts of Smith, Jasper and Clarke counties in central Mississippi. During his final years in office, it included Smith and Jasper counties and parts of Jones and Scott counties.
Thames chose not to seek re-election in 2007. He and his wife had moved to the Jackson suburb of Brandon, and he was a self-employed lobbyist. After he left office, Ann Thames told The Associated Press on Tuesday, "He loved going to the Capitol, where he could shake hands, slap backs and get out of there."
She said her husband grew up poor in rural Simpson County and at one point considered entering the ministry. Instead, he ran for office and helped people find jobs and get health coverage and disability benefits, she said. During an especially contentious debate that pitted chicken growers against poultry processing companies one year — a debate that resulted in a House member hitting an Elvis-impersonator senator (not Thames) on the Senate floor — Thames sided with the growers, many of whom worked in mom-and-pop operations.
"He saw public service as a ministry," Ann Thames said.
Democrat Bob Dearing of Natchez was elected to the Senate the same time as Billy Thames, and served until January 2012. As freshmen senators, they were desk mates for more than two years when the Capitol was under renovation and the Legislature was meeting a block away, in Jackson's former Central High School. Dearing said Thames was a skilled budget writer and "probably the number one champion of mental health issues."
"He was just one heck of a guy," Dearing said. "If he told you he was going to be with you, he stuck with you to the end, no matter what kind of pressure came."
Ed LeGrand, the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, said Thames "tirelessly advocated for Mississippians served by the public mental health system with grace and compassion."
"His genuine desire to help better the lives of Mississippians could clearly be seen during each legislative session. Even after Sen. Thames left the Legislature, he continued to advocate for Mississippians in need of mental health services. His enthusiasm and compassion was a rare find. His dedication will never be forgotten. He was a colleague and a personal friend, and I will miss him greatly," LeGrand said in a statement.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, has served in the House since 1984 and worked with Thames for more than 20 years to find funding for mental health centers and shape agriculture policy.
"He was an unbelievable public servant of the New Testament variety," Holland said. "I'm about to get emotional because I loved that man. He's probably the finest colleague I served with in 30 years."
In addition to his wife, Thames is survived by daughters Lisa Williams of Seattle and Lori Grimes and Belinda Harrington, both of Mize; sister Jane Pittman of Brandon; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
"He loved his family more than anything in the world," Ann Thames said.