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Leslie Everett Winningham, age 81, passed away Sunday, June 19, 2022. He was born on July 3, 1940, in Byrdstown, Tennessee to the late Ward Porter Winningham and Mary Lou (Mitchell) Winningham. He was a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville for many years before moving to Cookeville and attending the First United Methodist Church of Cookeville.
In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his loving wife Peggy Jean (Pickens) Winningham, sister Elese (Winningham) Richardson, and grandparents Walter Harrison and Hattie Jane (Young) Winningham and Benton McMillan and Euma Elizabeth (Parris) Mitchell.
He is survived by daughters Carrie Scott and husband Chris of Richmond, Virginia, Allison Goolsby and husband Andrew of Rickman, Tennessee, Shannon Railling and husband Michael, of Cookeville, Tennessee, Jennifer Owens and husband Shon of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Sarah Keith and husband Joey of Knoxville, Tennessee, grandchildren Sophie and Sam Jared, Trevor Scott and wife Miranda, Brandon Scott, Dylan and Drew Goolsby, and Cole and Anna Cate Railling.
Sister Glenna Allen, Brothers Donald Winningham and wife Yoshiko, Roger Winningham and wife Meg, Ward Winningham and wife Patsy, and Doug Winningham and wife Ann along with many nieces, nephews, family, and friends.
Born in Pickett County to Mary Lou Mitchell Winningham and Ward Winningham, he was the fourth of seven children. Losing his father when he was only 11 years old, Winningham was raised by a mother who instilled in him Christian living and the value of hard work.
Winningham was educated in Pickett County Schools. Les and his siblings were known around Byrdstown for being dedicated Bobcats Basketball players.
His dedication to education was evident when he hitchhiked from Byrdstown, Tennessee to Swannanoa, North Carolina to attend college at Warren Wilson College where he graduated with a A.A. in Forestry in 1961 while lettering in both basketball and baseball. He then went on to further his education at Tennessee Technological University where he earned his B.S. in Education in 1964 and M.A. in Education in 1967.
Winningham married Peggy Pickens Winningham in 1967, and they raised five daughters, Carrie Winningham Scott, Allison Winningham Goolsby, Shannon Winningham Railling, Jennifer Winningham Owens, and Sarah Winningham Keith. Les and Peggy raised their children in the First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville, Tennessee and passed on the importance of education. Winningham was the proud “Pa” of eight grandchildren, Sophie and Sam Jared, Brandon and Trevor Scott, Dylan and Drew Goolsby, Cole and Anna Cate Railling.
Winningham became the youngest ever elected school superintendent when he was elected as Pickett County’s Superintendent in 1968.
He created a professional life that in every step focused on improving the lives of children in Tennessee. From coaching countless high school basketball players, to classroom teaching, assistant principal and principal positions, his goal was to help every student reach their potential and succeed. Under his leadership as Principal, Scott High School was named a Governor’s Great School of Tennessee in 1987.
In 1984, Winningham was elected to the Tennessee Legislature to represent the 38th district. Over a prestigious 26-year career in the legislature he represented counties including Clay, Jackson, Macon, Pickett, Scott, and part of Anderson.
Winningham served as Chair of the House Education Committee for 10 years and as the Chair of the Joint Select Oversight Committee on Education. He also served on the Education Oversight Committee, House Finance, Ways, and Means Committee, House Calendar and Rules Committee, House Higher Education Subcommittee, House Transportation Committee, House Public Safety and Rural Roads Subcommittee, the Joint Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation Committee, Joint Lottery Scholarship Committee, and Joint Lottery Oversight Committee.
Winningham sponsored or was instrumental in passing legislation that has made an immeasurable positive impact on millions of Tennessee children, teachers, and families- including the Tennessee Coordinated School Health Improvement Act of 2000 and its statewide expansion in 2006, the Meth Free Tennessee Act of 2005, the Jason Flatt Act of 2007, the Tennessee Clean Energy Future Act of 2009,
as well as playing a key role in the establishment of lottery scholarships for Tennessee students to attend college, the establishment of Pre-K classrooms in Tennessee, and ensuring rural roads remained a priority of the Transportation Committee.
Many of those who served with him in the legislature would say he never raised his voice, but if you talk to any of his basketball players, they might disagree! He had a sharp, dry wit with a deadpan delivery that often left the listener unsure whether to laugh or believe he was serious, much to his amusement.
During his career, Winningham has been recognized by many state and local organizations including being named Legislator of the Year by the Tennessee Development District Association, Legislator of the Year by the Tennessee Human Resource Agency, receiving the Leadership Award from the Tennessee Adult Education Task Force, recognition for outstanding contributions to the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, recipient of the Tennessee Education Association Presidential Merit Award, and was inducted into the Scott County Hall of Fame.
His community involvement and organizations include the National Education Association, the Tennessee Education Association, the Appalachian Arts Council Board of Directors, Scott Appalachian Industries Board of Directors, and the Putnam County Impact Club.
During retirement Winningham has enjoyed volunteering with the Cookeville First United Methodist Church Food Pantry and watching his grandchildren play sports.
He has been referred to by many as “Mr. Public Education” in Tennessee and as “an educator in the hills, the halls, and the House.” Many of his colleagues have commented on his modesty. He was fair and willing to work across party lines to do what was best for the people he served. He has been called one of the greatest statesmen in Tennessee, but for those who knew him well, he will be remembered as a good and faithful servant of Christ.
The family will receive friends for visitation on Friday, June 24, 2022, at the First United Methodist Church in Cookeville from 4-8pm. Visitation will also be held on Saturday, June 25th, from 10am until time for funeral service at 1 o’clock with Rev. Rob Wheeler officiating. Eulogy will be provided by Representative John Mark Windle with special remarks by L. Mayfield Brown. Burial will follow at the Smyrna Cemetery in Byrdstown, Tennessee.
Pallbearers will be his nephews: Jimmy Richardson, Tom Allen, Jeff Winningham, Jason Winningham, Brian Winningham, Robert Richardson, and Brad Richardson.
Honorary Pallbearers will be his sons-in-law - Chris Scott, Andrew Goolsby, Michael Railling, Shon Owens, and Joey Keith and nephews Johnny Richardson, Jason Winningham, Daniel Winningham, George Winningham, and Greg Winningham.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the following:
First Presbyterian Church of Huntsville, TN
First United Methodist Church of Cookeville Food Pantry
The Jason Foundation
Brown Funeral Chapel of Byrdstown, TN is in charge of arrangements.