In high school, one of the books I most enjoyed reading was The Happy Warrior, the Story of My Father, Alfred E. Smith, by his daughter, Hawthorne Smith Warner. It chronicled her father’s political life in New York through his run for the presidency in 1928, which election he lost to Herbert Hoover.
In recent times here in the Old Dominion, we have had our own “Happy Warrior” in the person of the late Lieutenant Governor John Hager. Today, in times of political crisis and unrest, John stands out as an inspiration to those who wish for a kinder, gentler form of political exchange. Throughout his life, he behaved as the quintessential gentleman he was, respected by all for his knowledge and his civility.
John was born in Durham, N.C., went off to college at Purdue where he studied mechanical engineering, then went to work in the tobacco industry. He came to Virginia in 1965 where he became an indelible part of the landscape. Initially from the sidelines while he worked, but then full-time after his retirement in 1994, he became engaged in the political realm.
Politics came naturally to John. He thrived on conventions and mass meetings, all of which he attended in his wheelchair. As one knew him, one tended to overlook his disability. He liked it that way. As an adult, he had contracted polio from changing his infant son’s diaper, and he never walked again—but with all respects, I can say he truly overcame his paralysis to the point of making others think of it as insignificant, as he did himself.
In a wheelchair, he could do remarkable things, such as participating in marathons. In my lifetime, I have run one marathon, and I cannot imagine what running the course in a wheelchair could be. Nothing deterred John. Literally, he was “off and running” in all aspects of his life.
Politically, he attended all Republican National Conventions over the last three decades. Here at home the popular joke was, “Where two or three Republicans are gathered, there will be John Hager.” He went back and forth across the Commonwealth promoting Republican candidates and causes, and he also served on the boards of many charities and non-profit organizations. He genuinely loved people and being of service to them.
In 1997, John was elected lieutenant governor. He served in that office with dignity and a level of political savvy formed in part by his many years in the business world. He liked bringing people together by showing his respect for others, whether they were in agreement with him or not. He was a proponent of the maxim that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar.
In 2001, John was denied the governorship, and although disappointed, the loss in no way diminished his commitment to be of service to the citizens of the Commonwealth. He continued attending meetings in every city and county, happily accepting invitations to speak to groups, and stopping to chat with local merchants. His public service continued as he coordinated Virginia’s responses to the 9-11 attacks and subsequently as an assistant secretary in the Department of Education in Washington. In that position, he worked to improve opportunities for students with disabilities.
Here in the Northern Neck, John strongly supported Stratford Hall Plantation as a board member of its foundation. Whenever he saw anyone with local ties to the Northern Neck, he would speak with tremendous enthusiasm of his involvement with the plantation.
Some years ago, I wrote of John, saying I was certain that he was the Virginian who knew more other Virginians than anyone else. That assertion continues to stand today, but I might add that he was also the Virginian most known, respected and beloved by others as well. The life he led was outstanding by any measure of consideration; that he lived over half of it in a wheelchair is all the more astounding. This “Happy Warrior” remains a model for us all.
John Henry Hager, August 28, 1936 – August 23, 2020. R.I.P.