H.L. Merideth Jr.
Funeral services for H.L. “Sonny” Merideth Jr., 86, of Gulf Breeze, Fla., and formerly of Greenville and Jackson, were held September 9 at Avon United Methodist Church in Washington County. Sonny died suddenly at home September 5, in Gulf Breeze, Fla.
Sonny was born December 7, 1930 at the home of his parents in Swiftwater, Miss. He grew up in James, Miss., and worked there as a young boy in his father’s country store. He graduated in 1948 from Riverside Consolidated High School in Washington County and received his undergraduate degree in accounting from Mississippi State University in 1952.
With an ROTC commission as a second lieutenant, Sonny served his country with distinction in the Korean Conflict, being awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, and the Korean Service Medal. He was stationed at Itazuke Air Force Base near Fukuoka, Japan, when his first son, David, was born in 1955.
After his honorable discharge from the Air Force, Sonny took his young family to Oxford in 1956 to enroll in the University of Mississippi School of Law, where he graduated in 1958. He opened a solo law practice in Greenville and later joined with attorney James Robertshaw to form the partnership of Robertshaw and Merideth, a law firm that still exists under another name.
At the age of 28 in 1959, Sonny defeated an incumbent legislator in a race to represent Washington County in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He was re-elected seven times and served in the House from 1960 until he retired in 1992. During his legislative tenure, Sonny served as chairman of the County Affairs Committee, chairman of the Select Committee on Economic Development, chairman of the Judiciary “A” Committee, chairman of the Special Gaming Commission Subcommittee, and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. On two occasions, Sonny was elected Temporary Speaker of the House while the House was getting organized on the first day of the legislative session. He was instrumental in crafting and passing the Education Reform Act of 1982, the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Construction Program, and he was involved in many other important pieces of legislation, including property reappraisal, the defeat of the Mississippi Milk Commission, and laws that brought casino gaming to Mississippi. Working with his close friends and legislative roommates Charlie Deaton and Teddy Millette in the mid 1970s, Sonny engineered a surprise vote on the floor of the House to elect Buddie Newman as Speaker Pro Tempore, which paved the way for Mr. Newman’s later election as Speaker of the House. Sonny is also remembered for his courage in raising a point of order on the floor of the House in 1962 and leading a walkout of a small group of legislators (including Rep. Natie Carraway of Jackson) in protest of the invitation by Speaker Walter Sillers for the controversial Army General Edwin Walker to speak on the House floor.
Sonny was known for his tenacious work ethic, sharp mind, knowledge of House Rules, and keen ability to steer bills through the legislative process, all of which contributed to his being affectionately dubbed by his colleagues as “the Silver Fox.” He was a skilled orator and was known for his meticulous preparation, command of the facts, fairness, and honesty. He frequently told his House colleagues to “Search your mind and search your heart” before a vote on a bill. His trusted word was his most valuable asset. He was respectful of others and always made time for everyone. His friend, former House staff member Bobby Waites of Jackson said, “I admired Sonny’s attention to detail and preparation. He always stressed the importance of having a good set of facts to support your position. He was a great mentor and a trusted friend to me and many others.” U.S. District Court Judge Mike Mills of Oxford served in the House from 1984 to 1992 and commented about Sonny, “Strikingly memorable eyes. Voice of an angel. Even his faults were bottomed on virtue. Sonny bought his own whiskey and could not be influenced by special interests. He was kind to naïfs; ladies loved him and Governors feared him. Sonny Merideth was the most splendid lawmaker of his century.”
Sonny’s reputation as a skilled legislator has been noted in numerous articles and several books on the Mississippi gaming industry and other topics, including “Building Consensus: A History of the Passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982,” by Andrew Mullins, and “Mississippi Fried Politics: Tall Tales from the Back Rooms,” by Jere Nash and Andy Taggart. It has been said that John Grisham used Sonny’s physical appearance as a model for the character of Nathan Locke in his 1991 book “The Firm,” with these words, “It was the eyes, the cold black eyes with layers of black wrinkles around them. Great eyes. Unforgettable eyes.”
When Sonny announced his legislative retirement in 1991, a newspaper editorial praised his career with the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Sonny divided his time between his legislative duties in Jackson and his busy law practice in Greenville. An early riser, Sonny was known to be the first person at the Capitol or the law firm, often calling fellow legislators or lawyers at home as early as 5 a.m. to discuss pending issues. Sonny’s second son, Philip, was born in Greenville in 1960 as his law practice was starting to thrive. Sonny ended his law practice in about 1999 and later donated all of his extensive legislative files and correspondence to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Sonny’s marriage to his first wife, Mary Louise “Totty” Terney of Greenville, ended in divorce and he later met his second wife, Linda Jeffcoat of Greenville. Linda was the love of his life and their marriage on his birthday in 2001 led to his happy retirement years at their home in Gulf Breeze, Fla.
Sonny received numerous honors including “Mississippi Elected Official of the Year” in 1983 by the Mississippi Chapter of the American Society of Public Administrators, “Outstanding Orator” award in 1977 by his fellow legislators, and “Outstanding Legislator” in 1975 by the Mississippi State Bar. Sonny was a member of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Bar Association, Mississippi State Bar Association, and the Washington County Bar Association, and a Fellow of the International Society of Barristers.
In his retirement years, Sonny enjoyed reading biographies and autobiographies with his trusted dog “Lady” at his side, visiting with friends and family at his home on Pensacola Bay, telling and listening to old war stories from his political days, hunting, traveling, and riding horses in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming. Sonny was a distinguished leader in state government and in the practice of law and a mentor to many who knew him. He will be greatly missed by his family and friends.
By Executive Order Number 1404 signed by Gov. Phil Bryant, flags in Mississippi were flown at half staff on the day of Sonny’s funeral, “in remembrance of a dedicated Mississippi public servant, statesman, and a good man.”
Sonny was preceded in death by his father, Horace Lavelle “Red” Merideth Sr., and his mother, Cassel Boatright Merideth (later Pitman). Sonny is survived by his wife Linda, son David and David’s son Squire, son Philip and his wife Denise, and their children Luke Thomas, Haley Thomas, Sumner Thomas, Philip Carter Merideth, Annie Thomas, Reeves Taylor Merideth, Judson Wesley Merideth, and Sarah Helen Thomas.
Since Sonny was a dog lover and a strong advocate for education, his family suggests that memorials be made to an animal charity or to an educational scholarship fund.