As Congress and Mississippi prepared to mourn Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee of Mississippi, who died Friday afternoon barely two months after winning his third term, those who knew the conservative best recalled the fighting spirit that made him an "overcomer."
In his 56 years, Nunnelee had been forced to grapple with some of life’s most adverse situations and emerge triumphant.
As a high school student in Tupelo, Mississippi, Nunnelee was taught the game of golf by his grandfather. He hit the ball with a nine-iron but, as he recalled to this reporter, "I could not see how it landed." A few years later, while studying at Mississippi State College, the young man later learned the reason: He had severe irregularity of the cornea and was legally blind.
After leaving college and a time of considerable prayer, Nunnelee received a cornea transplant. As long as he lived, he later said, "I will never forget when they took the patches off and the first thing I saw — very clearly — was my mother’s face."
The Tupelo boy quickly resumed his education, earned a degree at Mississippi State, and launched a career in the insurance business in northern Mississippi.
When Nunnelee’s company merged with another business, he was dealt a hand that many in business face in similar situations: He lost his job.
It wasn’t easy for Nunnelee, a husband and father of three. But he and wife Tori drew up a list of what they had in their financial situation and how they would budget while he pursued a new job. He soon restarted his career, this time as a life underwriter.
Nunnelee also put meaning in the words "giving back to one's community." He became a leader in the local Lion's Club (which provides eyeglasses to those in need) and was active in local Republican politics. When close friend Roger Wicker ran for the state Senate, Nunnelee was his finance chairman.
When Wicker, now a U.S senator, ran for Congress in 1994, Nunnelee moved up to his state Senate seat. In short order, he became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and was soon known as then-Gov. Haley Barbour's "terrible swift sword."
Working closely, the two Republicans helped cut spending and sculpt budgets that put the Magnolia State’s finances back in the black.
In 2010, Nunnelee carried the Republican banner against then-Rep. Travis Childers, self-styled "moderate Democrat." Although Childers did vote against Obamacare, Nunnelee noted to this reporter: "He opposed it because [then-Speaker] Nancy Pelosi didn’t need his vote. But he voted for the stimulus package when she needed him. I don’t like Nancy Pelosi very much and I would probably vote the opposite of her every time."
Nunnelee won with 55 percent of the vote.
Although House freshmen are rarely picked for the powerful Appropriations Committee, Nunnelee’s experience chairing Mississippi's state Senate Appropriations Committee made him the rare exception. He won a coveted seat.
He was also a member of the conservative House Republican Study Committee and pretty much lived up to his promise to "vote the opposite" of Democrat Pelosi: his lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union was 85.11 percent and 66 percent with the Heritage Action Fund.
Last summer, the Mississippian found himself facing an opponent stronger than any he had dealt with in his life or faced at the polls: brain cancer. As his health deteriorated, Nunnelee was handily re-elected. But friends and colleagues knew how this chapter in his life would end.
"We had prayers for Alan Nunnelee today," freshman GOP Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama told Newsmax on Jan. 27, "and he's home with hospice care. It's a matter of time."
He will be remembered as a strong conservative who kept his campaign promises in office and as a leader in his community. But those who knew Alan Nunnelee best say he will be remembered as "the overcomer."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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