When Republican Congressman James H. Quillen decided not to seek reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee’s First Congressional District in 1996, he ended more than thirty years of uninterrupted congressional service, a record in Tennessee political history. Quillen first began his service to the Volunteer State as a member of the Tennessee General Assembly in 1954. He attended his first Republican National Convention in 1956 and was either a delegate or parliamentarian to all subsequent GOP conventions until his retirement. Quillen served in the Tennessee House of Representatives for eight years after 1954, and he eventually held the position of minority leader. In 1962 he won his first election to the U.S. Congress.
Quillen was born in Southwest Virginia on January 11, 1916, one of ten children of John and Hannah Quillen. The family moved to Kingsport in East Tennessee when the future congressman was a child. After high school graduation, Quillen entered the newspaper business in both Kingsport and Johnson City; in 1939 he established the Johnson City Times. During World War II, Quillen served as an ensign on the aircraft carrier USS Antietam and was discharged with the rank of lieutenant. After the war, he entered business in real estate, construction, and insurance. In 1952 he married Cecile Cox.
Congressman Quillen took conservative stands on most issues, supporting policies of budget restraint and lower tax rates. In 1968 he sponsored and saw passage of the first federal legislation to outlaw the desecration of the U.S. flag. Quillen served on the House Rules Committee after 1965, becoming chairman of that very important committee, and was its chairman emeritus at the time of his retirement. In 1995, with the new Republican majority in Congress, he was named to the Republican Policy Committee. He also served as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority Caucus.
Quillen was instrumental in the long battle to establish a medical school in Northeast Tennessee, and his successful work resulted in the creation of the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. He was also a supporter of higher education in his district, and East Tennessee State University in 1994 established the Quillen Chair of Excellence in Education to honor him. In 2000 the new federal courthouse in Greeneville was also named in his honor.