Bill Hefner, a former 12-term Democratic congressman from North Carolina, Southern Baptist gospel singer and radio station owner, died of a brain aneurysm Wednesday. He was 79.
Nancy Hefner said she and her husband had attended a Democratic dinner in Guntersville, Ala., Tuesday night, after which she said he complained of being dizzy, then nauseous, so she called paramedics. The couple had moved to Alabama after he decided not to run again in 1998.
Hefner was helicoptered to a hospital in Huntsville and was taken off life support at 3 p.m., dying shortly after.
Hefner joined the U.S. House in 1975 and was dean of North Carolina's U.S. House delegation when he decided not to seek a 13th term. He represented the 8th Congressional District, which comprises several south-central counties.
Hefner was a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He fought for funding for Fort Bragg in his home state when he was chairman and later ranking minority member of a military subcommittee that had say over most construction on U.S. military bases. He also was known for his work on veterans' issues.
"When I think about Bill Hefner, I think about his work on behalf of our veterans, our military and their families," U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, who serves in Hefner's old seat, said in a statement. "He set the example of how to care for those who fight for our freedom."
Hefner was the owner of a Kannapolis radio station. He was swept into office during the 1974 elections, when Republicans paid at the polls for the Watergate scandal.
He moved up the seniority ladder, becoming a power broker who was called on by both Democratic and Republican governors to get funding for state projects. Then-Gov. Jim Hunt said he contributed to getting Interstate 40 completed from Raleigh to Wilmington.
A Tennessee native who attended school in Alabama, Willie Gathrel Hefner was a founding member of gospel group called the Harvesters Quartet, which began in 1953 in Charlotte. The group disbanded but was reorganized by Hefner until he ran for Congress, according to the group's Web site.
Hefner, who had a history of heart problems, decided not to run again after hearing at Christmas the previous year that a family friend was diagnosed with cancer. He planned to move to Alabama, where he had family.
"I always counseled my staff to work hard, to take their responsibilities seriously, but to never forget their personal obligations to their families," Hefner said in 1998. "I have always thought that was good advice, and I am taking it."
Republican Robin Hayes won the seat in 1998 and held it for 10 years before losing last November to Kissell, a Democrat.
Hefner is also survived by two daughters, Stacye and Shelly. Funeral arrangements were pending.