Recipient Biography

Lamar Alexander


Lamar Alexander was born in Maryville, Tennessee, the son of a kindergarten teacher and an elementary school principal. He is a seventh-generation Tennessean.

He is the only Tennessean ever popularly elected both governor and U.S. Senator. He has been U.S. Education Secretary and University of Tennessee president. He chaired the National Governors Association and President Reagan's Commission on Americans Outdoors.  

When first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002, Alexander had spent more adult years in the private sector than in public life. In 1972 he co-founded a Nashville law firm. In 1987 he and his wife and three others, including Bob Keeshan, television’s Captain Kangaroo, founded Corporate Child Care, Inc. The company became publicly traded in 1997 (NASDAQ) and later merged with Bright Horizons, Inc., creating the world’s largest provider of worksite daycare.

Three times between 2007 and 2012, his colleagues elected Sen. Alexander Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference – the third-ranking Republican position in the United States Senate.

In January 2015, Alexander was elected by his fellow committee members to serve as the Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee where he has said his top priorities are fixing No Child Left Behind, deregulating and reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, and modernizing the Food and Drug Administration so we can bring more cures and medical devices to market faster and cheaper.

Alexander also serves as Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees energy and water appropriations. His priorities include unleashing nuclear power and other sources of the cheap, clean, reliable energy America needs, supporting government-sponsored research that leads to innovation and jobs in our free enterprise system and controlling the costs of big government construction projects in Tennessee and across the country. He also continues to support our nation’s harbors and inland waterways. Alexander was re-elected to a third term in the U.S. Senate in November 2014. 

In his campaign for governor, Alexander walked 1,000 miles across Tennessee in his now-famous red and black plaid shirt. Once elected, he helped Tennessee become the third largest auto producer, the state with the top-rated four-lane highway system and the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well. He started Tennessee’s Governor’s Schools for outstanding students. When he left the governor’s office, the state had a Triple AAA bond rating, fewer employees and no long-term highway debt.

From the National Park Centennial Act Introduction

     “I grew up and live on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and firmly believe there is nothing more central to the American character than the great American Outdoors,” said Alexander during a news conference on Capitol Hill. “This legislation will give millions of Americans an opportunity to contribute to the preservation of our national parks and plan ahead so future generations can have places to enjoy our outdoors.”

From the Tennessee Wilderness Act Introduction 

     “I grew up hiking the mountains of East Tennessee, and conserving what are some of the wildest, most pristine and beautiful areas in our state, and this gives future generations of Tennesseans the same sort of opportunity,” Alexander said. “This legislation takes important steps toward protecting our natural heritage, and gives the millions of people who visit Tennessee each year an additional reason to come and enjoy our outdoors.”

From the Americans Outdoors Act Introduction

     “There is nothing more central to the American character than the great American Outdoors. That is why there is such a large conservation majority in the United States,” Sen. Alexander said during a news conference on Capitol Hill. “This legislation looks ahead for a generation to make sure we have places to enjoy our outdoors. This bill would fully fund already existing programs for wildlife conservation, which will benefit hunters and fishermen, birdwatchers, walkers, bikers and all Americans who enjoy outdoor recreation. It would fully fund city parks, so children can have decent, clean places to play. It would also protect wetlands.”

75th Anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

     "Governors Bredesen and Perdue, Secretary Salazar, Dolly Parton, my colleagues in Congress, fellow friends of the Smokies, in 1934 a ranger wrote a memo identifying the wildlife he had found in this new park. There were 100 black bears. Today there are 1,600. There were 315 wild turkeys then. The other day I saw 21 outside my home two miles from the park boundary. Seventy-five years ago there were 12 whitetail deer in Tennessee and six in North Carolina. Today they’re everywhere. Then there were no peregrine falcons, no river otters, no elk in the Great Smokies, but they are all here today.

     “Twenty-five years ago, as governor, I spoke at the 50th anniversary. There was no law then controlling acid rain and no organization called ‘Friends of the Smokies.’ Today, acid rain laws are working and the ‘Friends’ have contributed $28 million. 

     “So what should we hope for as we look to the 100th anniversary? I hope we have finished cleaning the air so that, instead of seeing smog, we can always see the blue haze about which the Cherokee sang; and that we will have done more to celebrate the way of life of families who lived here; that we will have become better students of the remarkable environmental diversity here – more different kinds of trees than in all of Europe, new species discovered every year; that we do a better job of creating picturesque entrances and encouraging conservation easements along the park boundaries to protect the wildlife and the magnificent views. And I hope there are more private contributions and federal dollars to protect and maintain one of the dozen most-visited places in the world.

     “India has its Taj Mahal, Italy has its art, England its history, but we have the Great American Outdoors. Ken Burns says our national parks are ‘America’s Best Idea.’ Well, then the Great Smokies must be the very best idea of all because so many more people come here.

     “Just as remarkable, I believe, is how we who live here feel about the park. We feel like we own it because our families did. We love it because we grew up hiking here or adopted it as home. And we are proud we gave this park to the country for others to enjoy.

     “The psalmist wrote, ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.’ There are 151 cemeteries in the Great Smokies, usually on a hilltop, closer to God. The headstones face east because, as mountaineers will tell you, ‘You don’t want to have your back to Jesus when he comes again.’

     “There was a reverential feeling among the thousands who came to Cades Cove on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in June to hear fiddles imitate bagpipes as the Knoxville Symphony played ‘Amazing Grace.’ At the 50th anniversary, I tried to explain that feeling this way: ‘These mountains … Blount County … my home … are where I enjoy being, where I swap people for nature and feel closer to God … when I am here, it helps get the rest of my life in a little better order.’

     “That is why I celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

Alexander is a classical and country pianist and the author of seven books, including Six Months Off, the story of his family’s life in Australia after he was governor.

Lamar Alexander and Honey Buhler were married in 1969. They have four children and eight grandchildren, and a dog named Rufus. He is a Presbyterian elder. [September 2015]