James Lafayette Bomar Jr., a lawyer from Bedford County, Tennessee, served his state as a congressman, senator, and lieutenant governor; he then extended his commitment to service to the global community through his involvement in Rotary International. Bomar was a natural leader who believed strongly in “service above self.”
Born on July 1, 1914, in the small town of Raus, located just south of Shelbyville, James Bomar grew up on a farm. He attended a two-teacher grammar school before moving on to Shelbyville High School, where he played football and gained renown on the debate team. To continue his education, he attended Cumberland University in Lebanon, where earned his B.A. and L.L.A. Bomar was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in 1937 and established a law practice in Shelbyville in 1940. That same year he married Edith Dees.
In 1943, he began his political career by serving a term in the State Senate. He put politics aside to serve in Navy from 1944 to 1945. After serving as a soldier in World War II, Bomar returned home to his law practice. In 1947, he was re-elected to the Senate.
In 1949, he left the Senate and ran for the Tennessee House of Representatives, where he served seven consecutive terms, the last five as Speaker of the House. He finished his political career by returning to the Senate in 1963, where he was appointed Speaker of the Senate, and thus served as lieutenant governor by virtue of his position in the Senate until 1965. While serving as lieutenant governor, Bomar was honored with the title of “Tennessee’s Outstanding Legislator.”
Upon retiring from state politics, Bomar became more active in various clubs and organizations, particularly Rotary. Bomar first joined the Rotary Club in 1941 in Shelbyville. He became active on the youth activities committee, regularly serving as the chair. While serving as club president, he established the first Interact Club (a Rotary-sponsored service club for students aged fourteen to eighteen) in the district. During his term as district governor, he oversaw the establishment of eighteen Interact Clubs in the district.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Bomar moved beyond regional and state-level involvement and became active in Rotary International’s larger endeavors. He served as third vice-president for Rotary International from 1975 to 1976, and as chair of the Council on Legislation in 1977. His greatest impact came during his time as president from 1979 to 1980. While traveling to different parts of the world, he was particularly struck by the plight of children afflicted with polio. He initiated a five-year program to administer the polio vaccine in October 1979. The success of this program resulted in the creation of Polio Plus in 1985, a program that has grown over the years and has made Rotary the largest private-sector contributor to the World Health Organization’s campaign for global polio eradication.
In addition to his influence in world health matters, Bomar urged Rotary to become more active in world peace efforts. In Bomar’s words from his address to the 1979 Rotary Convention in Rome, “You and I can reduce the long-standing conflicts that have roots in history, geography, religion, race, by using the influence in our organization and its individual members to work for peace.” Being a man of action as well as words, he set the precedent for this level of involvement by helping to defuse a border dispute between Argentina and Chile in 1980.
After his term as Rotary president, Bomar returned home but remained very active in Rotary affairs (serving as a Rotary Foundation Trustee from 1980 to 1986) in addition to increased involvement with his local community. When Rotary clubs in the United States began to admit female members in 1986, Bomar was a strong supporter and ensured that women felt welcome in the Shelbyville Rotary Club.
While his greatest legacy is the Polio Plus program, the Shelbyville Rotary Club offers an Interact scholarship in his name. His achievements in the Tennessee Legislature were only the beginning of a long and successful career as a public servant. On June 25, 2001, James L. Bomar Jr. died after an extended illness and was buried in Raus near his childhood home.
Ilene J. Cornwell, Biographical Directory of The Tennessee General Assembly, vol. 4: 1931-1951 (1989); Helen Livingston, “James L. Bomar, Jr., Rotary International President, 1979-80: True Statesman and Ambassador” www.allnetbiz.com/rotary/bomar.htm; Vukoni Lupa-Lasaga, “Stenhammar’s Cyprus Visit Strengthens Local Peace Overtures,” Rotary International News, February 23, 2006