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Anna Belle Clement O’Brien was the indisputable and much beloved First Lady of Tennessee Politics, with a political career that spanned more than five decades and six administrations.
Born in Scottsville, Ky., she was the daughter of the late Robert and May Belle Clement. She had one brother, Frank Goad Clement (deceased), and a sister, Emma Gene (Clement) Peery. The family eventually put down roots in Dickson, Tenn., where Anna Belle held her first job in the office of her father’s law firm as a secretary on Saturdays.
She was introduced to the world of politics as a young woman working in the gubernatorial campaign of her older brother Frank, who served as Tennessee governor from 1953 to 1959 and again from 1963 to 1967. She began her career in public service in 1955 as an assistant to future Governor Buford Ellington, who was then serving as commissioner of the Department of Agriculture in her brother’s administration. She later served as Ellington’s executive assistant. Upon the re-election of her brother in 1962, she was named to an administrative post, making her the first female chief of staff to the Governor in Tennessee history at a time before women held such powerful roles in government or business.
Miss Anna Belle, as she was called, was known for saying, “Politics is a beautiful word to me.” She believed politics was first about people. She believed politics made children with handicaps walk, made education more accessible to everyone, gave people with mental illness a better life, and helped working people, seniors and children.
She also said, “Politics got me a good husband.” She met Charles O’Brien, a state senator and widower from Memphis, at a reception for the legislature in 1964. They were married on Nov. 9, 1966, and made their home in Cumberland County. Charles also had a distinguished career in public service that culminated with his appointment as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
In 1974, Anna Belle Clement O’Brien ran for and won election to the Tennessee House of Representatives and won election to the Tennessee Senate in 1976, becoming only the second woman to win a seat in the state senate. Later she would go on to become the first woman to serve as committee chairwoman when she was appointed chair of the Senate Transportation and Senate Education committees.
After suffering her own personal battle with breast cancer, Sen. O’Brien led the effort to pass legislation to mandate insurance coverage of mammograms. She also created the landmark Tennessee Living Will Law. As chair of the Senate Education Committee and the Joint Oversight Committee on Education, she helped oversee the bipartisan effort to pass the most comprehensive and dynamic reform of classroom education in the history of Tennessee.
Sen. O’Brien was a role model who blazed the trail for a career in politics and public service for countless women when she ran for the office of governor herself in 1982. She was a tireless campaigner statewide for Democratic candidates, including her nephew Bob Clement and her niece Sara Kyle. Kyle, inspired by the public service careers of her uncle Frank and her aunt Anna Belle, blazed her own trail for young women in politics when she became only the second woman to win statewide office in Tennessee with her election to the Public Service Commission in 1994.
Miss Anna Belle will be remembered for her positive outlook, wonderful storytelling skills and sense of humor. She set high expectations for herself and for others and was a beloved mentor to many. An influential legislative leader, she believed in always “planning your work and working your plan,” just as she believed in the importance of properly donned lipstick, earrings and high heels.
Anna Belle Clement O’Brien is survived by her sister Emma Gene Peery; stepchildren Heather O’Brien Hahn (Jan) and Diane O’Brien Soloman (David); nieces and nephews Bob Clement (Mary), Frank Clement Jr. (Lynn), B.Y. Peery (Deborah), Ann Whitis (Warren), Sara Kyle (Jim), Robert Peery (Carrie), and Betty Belle Peery; numerous grandchildren, great nieces and nephews; and dear and loyal friends Virgie Lotze, Randy Elmore and Barbara Caruthers.
She is preceded in death by parents Robert and May Belle Clement; brother Governor Frank Clement and sister-in-law Lucille Clement; brother-in-law Bruce Peery; stepson Steve O’Brien; and nephews Gary Clement and Don Peery.
Visitation will be Thursday, Sept. 3, at Hood Funeral Home, 2371 Highway 127 South, Crossville, TN, from noon to 8 p.m. (CDT).
Funeral services will be held on Friday, Sept. 4, at 11 a.m. at Tansi Community Church, 2067 Cravens Drive, Crossville, TN. Visitation will be held at the church at 10 a.m. (CDT).
Honorary Pallbearers include the members of the Frank G. Clement Museum Board of Directors, Crossville Fraternal Order of Police #163, Tennessee Highway Patrol, and former and current members of the Tennessee General Assembly.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the: Governor Frank G. Clement Museum, 100 Frank Clement Place, Dickson, TN 37055 or to Tansi Community Church, 2067 Cravens Drive, Crossville, TN 38572.
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