Longtime lawmaker Bill Hefner dies at age 79

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Scott Jenkins
Former U.S. Rep. W.G. “Bill” Hefner, who represented Rowan County in Congress for 24 years, died Wednesday at the age of 79.
Hefner’s wife, Nancy, said he died shortly before 4 p.m. Central Time after suffering a massive stroke Tuesday that involved bleeding in the brain stem.
“He had been to a Democratic meeting and took ill after that,” she said from the couple’s home in Guntersville, Ala.
Hefner was taken by ambulance to a hospital, then by helicopter to a larger facility in Huntsville, Ala.
“I just cannot believe it,” Nancy Hefner said. “I’m still somewhat in a state of shock.”
Hefner, a Democrat, served the 8th Congressional District from 1974 until his retirement in 1999. The district includes Cabarrus County and during Hefner’s tenure included Rowan County as well.
Salisbury’s W.G. (Bill) Hefner V.A. Medical Center is named in his honor. As a congressman, Hefner made improving the lives of veterans, soldiers and their families a priority. In 1999, the Department of Veterans Affairs showed its appreciation by putting his name on the veterans hospital.
His connection to the Salisbury VA was formed before his time in Congress, when he was a Southern Gospel singer and owned a radio station in Kannapolis. With the Harvesters Quartet, Hefner often visited the hospital to perform for patients.
As a member of Congress, Hefner said at the 1999 ceremony officially naming the medical center for him, his work for the hospital was “a labor of love.”
“Salisbury means a whole lot to Bill, the hospital there, and he always said that was one of the main counties when he first ran for Congress,” Nancy Hefner said Wednesday. “Salisbury was very big in Bill’s life. … I think the people of that area thought a lot of him, too.”
Hefner and his wife had lived in their home state of Alabama since his retirement. He was succeeded in the 8th District by Robin Hayes, a Republican from Concord. U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, a Democrat, defeated Hayes for the seat in 2008.
In a statement released by his office, Kissell said Hefner served the district “with tremendous honor and distinction.”
“When I think about Bill Hefner, I think about his work on behalf of our veterans, our military and their families,” Kissell said. “He set the example of how to care for those who fight for our freedom.”
Hefner won a seat in Congress on his first run for public office, riding a wave of voter backlash to Watergate. And he defeated a succession of challengers, surviving the Reagan Revolution and the GOP’s ascension to congressional power in 1994.
Hefner eventually gained a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and, when Democrats controlled the House, served as chairman of the Military Construction Subcommittee, responsible for many improvements made to base facilities and housing over the years.
But he remained humble, supporters said.
“He didn’t picture himself a kingmaker and a big wig in Congress,” Nell Sowers, a Salisbury resident who worked on Hefner’s first campaign in 1974, said in January 1998 when Hefner announced his intention to retire.
Later that year, he proved it, asking that a road at Fort Bragg not be renamed for him after a Republican colleague proposed the honor. All American Parkway had been named for the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division ó the “All American Division” ó and Hefner wanted it to stay that way. An elementary school in Fayetteville, the home of Fort Bragg, does bear Hefner’s name.
He championed the causes of senior citizens as well as soldiers, helping to protect Social Security and Medicare.
At his retirement, Hefner was the senior member among North Carolina’s 12-person congressional delegation and ranked 25th overall in longevity among U.S. House members.
In his appearances in the 8th District during his time in office, Hefner often brought along influential members of Congress. At those appearances, he was often asked to sing ó usually a verse or two of “Amazing Grace.” A former gospel singer and radio station owner, he often asked crowds to sing along, and warned them he intended to include the third verse, which he didn’t believe many people knew.
“He was smart and funny and had a reputation for making people laugh, but he also had a reputation for being a tough legislator when it was called for. … It is an honor to serve in his seat in Congress,” Kissell said. The 8th District, he added, “has lost one of its dearest friends today.”
And though redistricting removed Rowan from the 8th District for the 1998 election, Hefner’s legacy remains, in the VA Medical Center and the former federal post office he helped secure that’s now the county government center, among other things.
And even though he’d lived in Alabama in the decade since leaving Congress, his wife said, “he always loved and had a special place in his heart for North Carolina, and certainly Cabarrus County and Rowan County.”
Hefner is also survived by two daughters, Stacye and Shelly. Services will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Albertville Memorial Chapel in Albertville, Ala.