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 age 88, the department he once ran confirmed Friday.
First appointed as state agriculture head in 1969 by then-Gov. Lester Maddox, Irvin won 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 Democrat Irvin, said in a statement Friday.
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.
“His lifelong service and dedication to our state, particularly to advancing the causes of our agricultural community, helped build a stronger, more prosperous Georgia,” Gov. Nathan Deal said.
For most of his career, the 6-foot-5 Irvin was both the promoter and safety regulator of agriculture, Georgia’s largest industry.
Georgia had a succession of seven governors during Irvin’s long tenure. They included Jimmy Carter before he was elected president in 1976 and Sonny Perdue, who now serves as agriculture secretary under President Donald Trump.
Carter issued a statement Friday saying, “Tommy Irvin was the most effective commissioner of agriculture in Georgia in my lifetime. He was a friend, supporter, and adviser for many decades. His towering presence filled a room with good humor and sound judgment. Rosalynn and I will miss him.”
“Tommy knew and understood more about rural Georgia and farming families than just about anyone else,” said DuBose Porter, chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party. “We’ve lost a good man, and we’ve lost a good Democrat.”
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. He brushed aside questions about meeting with the dictator.
“The meat of choice here is white meat,” Irvin said in a 2010 interview. “The meat of choice in Cuba is dark meat. And chicken has both.”
His last years at the Agriculture Department were marred by two salmonella poisoning outbreaks, 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, 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.
As a young state lawmaker, Irvin caught the eye of Maddox, an Atlanta restaurant owner who became famous for shutting down his business rather than allowing blacks to eat there.
After Maddox asked Irvin to manage his campaign, Irvin said he consulted his political allies.
“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, but not a racist. 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 2010 when Irvin attended a fundraiser for Republican candidate Black, who ultimately won Irvin’s job.
Former Associated Press writer Ray Henry contributed to this story.