Former Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, whose four decades in office made him one of the longest-serving statewide officials in the U.S., died at the age of 88, the department he once ran confirmed Friday.
First appointed as state agriculture head in 1969 by then-Gov. Lester Maddox, Irvin went on to win 10 consecutive elections before deciding to retire in 2011 because of age and health reasons.
"Commissioner Irvin loved serving Georgia's farmers and consumers for over three generations. He touched us all with his unsurpassed spirit of stewardship, commitment and work ethic," Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, a Republican who succeeded the Democratic Irvin, said in a statement Friday. "Beyond agriculture, his commitment to education put a strong and admirable exclamation point on his life's work."
Black's spokeswoman, Leslie Davis, confirmed Irvin's death, saying his family had been in contact with the department. The cause of his death was not immediately known. Irvin was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2006.
For most of his career, the 6-foot-5 Irvin was both the promoter and safety regulator of agriculture, Georgia's largest industry.
Irvin said he was proud that he was never tarnished by scandal and pointed out that the boll weevil, a pest that once destroyed Southern cotton crops, was eradicated on his watch.
He opened a trade bureau in Brussels and led trade delegations to Cuba, meeting with Communist leader Fidel Castro and brushing aside questions about meeting with the dictator.
"The meat of choice here is white meat," said Irvin in a 2010 interview. "The meat of choice in Cuba is dark meat. And chicken has both."
He entered statewide politics when he ran the gubernatorial campaign of staunch segregationist Maddox.
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His last years at the Agriculture Department were marred by two serious outbreaks of salmonella poisoning, including a 2009 outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds more. The contamination was traced to a South Georgia peanut processing plant in Blakely.
Inspectors for Irvin's department found only minor violations there, but a federal team identified roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other sanitation problems.
Irvin's career paralleled big changes in Southern life and politics.
His parents were sharecroppers and allowed Irvin to grow his own cotton patch as a child.
When money was tight, Irvin told interviewers that he would stuff cardboard into his shoes to cover the holes. When his father died in a sawmill accident, Irvin left school at 15 to provide for his family. He remained in the lumber business.
"The kinds of farms that I talked about when I was a lad do not exist in Georgia or anywhere else that I know of," he said before leaving office.
As a young state lawmaker, Irvin, a Democrat, caught the eye of Maddox, an Atlanta restaurant owner who became famous for shutting down his business rather than allowing blacks to eat there.
Over lunch near the state Capitol, Maddox asked Irvin to manage his campaign. Irvin said he consulted with his political allies before making a decision.
"They said, 'Are you crazy? You want to get out and try and get that man elected governor?' I had read about him, and I knew his image wasn't the best in the world," Irvin explained decades later. "I found out much later he was much different from what his image was. A great man, very honest."
Irvin described Maddox as a staunch segregationist, though not a racist.
"It's hard for some people to understand the difference," Irvin told reporters. Following the election, Irvin became Maddox's chief of staff.
A self-described "Yellow Dog Democrat," Irvin served as a party elder, even while Republicans made deep inroads into state government. That loyalty showed signs of cracking in November when Irvin attended a fundraiser for Republican candidate Gary Black, who was running for Irvin's job.
Irvin even told a reporter that he thought Black would win, a statement that caught Black's Democratic opponent by surprise.
In an interview, Irvin — ever the survivor — showed a flash of his trademark politic instinct. He suggested that his visit with Black would help convince the Republican not to fire a staff that the Democrat had hired. Black ultimately won the election.
"I sure don't think it would hurt them," he said.