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Carnahan remembered for education

October 18, 2000
By: Clayton Bellamy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Mel Carnahan's legacy, friends and colleagues said, is secure, based on the popular governor's efforts to improve the state's schools.

"Carnahan's legacy will have to encompass education," said Gov. Roger Wilson, who was sworn in to replace Carnahan early Wednesday morning.

In his first year in the governor's mansion, Carnahan was a driving force behind the then-controversial 1993 Outstanding Schools Act -- a $315 million tax increase which provided smaller classes, computers in schools, and a new education funding formula.

"Missouri schools were not in good shape when he took office," Wilson said. "Saving them took a stout effort that was politically painful but paid dividends."

Gov. Mel Carnahan died Monday of injuries suffered when his plane crashed about 30 miles south of St. Louis. He was 66.

His son, Roger, 44, and a key aide, Chris Sifford, 36, also died in the crash. The three were flying to a campaign rally as part of Carnahan's tight U.S. Senate battle against Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo.

Although he was born in the tiny Ozark Mountain town of Birch Tree, Mo., he spent much of his teen years in Washington, D.C. His father, A.S.J. Carnahan, was a seven-term U.S. Representative and later an ambassador to Sierra Leone.

Carnahan began his political career in 1960 as a municipal judge in Rolla, Mo. From there, he served two terms in the state House of Representatives, rising to the level of Majority Leader.

Leaving politics behind until 1980, Carnahan settled back in Rolla to practice law and raise his four children with his wife Jean.

Carnahan attended George Washington University, graduating in 1954 with a degree in business adminstration.

He served in the Air Force just after the Koream War Armistice. Following his discharge, he enrolled in law school at the University of Missouri-Columbia finishing with honors in 1959.

His friend for 35 years and a state senator since 1974, Harry Wiggins said the governor had an instinct for leadership and activist government.

"He was a governor who understood to get things done in the dramatic fashion that he did, you had to lead, not follow," said Wiggins, a Democrat from Kansas City. "He had the unique ability to identify the needs of the people and to determine how much of those he could provide."

In 1980, Carnahan re-entered politics when he was elected state treasurer. After two terms, he moved up to the lieutenant governor's office, serving under then governor Ashcroft.

Carnahan's won the governorship in a landslide in 1992 over a scandal-tainted Republican Attorney General. Re-elected in 1996, his second term was nearly complete.

A deacon at the First Baptist Church of Rolla, Carnahan was a deeply, though quietly, religious man.

His religion "is a central part of who he is, but it is not something he puts on a big display about," said Roy Temple a few weeks ago. Temple is the Missouri Democratic Party's executive director and was a friend and advisor to Carnahan for ten years. "He just lives it."

In Missouri, where a deep rural-urban split resides in the populous and the Legislature, Carnahan's experience growing up in little Birch Tree and cosmpolitan Washington served him well, Wiggins said.

"He had a unique knowledge of the state," Wiggins said. "He knew the difference between the bootheel and the Ozarks, between St. Louis and Rolla, yet he could pull those diverse interests together."

Carnahan governorship, especially in the last few years, was sometimes rocky as he fought with Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature over funding for abortions and partial-birth abortion.

In September of last year, the Legislature overrode the governor's veto of a partial-birth abortion ban. It represented only the third override this century and the sixth in state history.

Carnahan ruffled feathers when he heeded Pope John Paul's plea that he commute a convicted killer's death sentence. That decision, also last year, was the first quake in a growing national debate over capital punishment.

Services for the governor are planned for 11:30 a.m. Friday on the Capitol grounds. He will lie in state from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday in the governor's mansion.

He will be buried Saturday at a private ceremony at Carson Hill Cemetery in Ellsinore, Mo.

Carnahan is survived by his wife Jean Carnahan; two sons, Russ and Tom; a daughter, Robin; and two grandchildren. His parents died earlier.

The Carnahan family requests that anyone wishing to remember the governor send donations to the Children's Trust Fund, P.O. Box 1641, Jefferson City, MO 65102.