J. Howard Warf, Tennessee commissioner of education (1963-71), was born in Lewis County in 1904 and rose to political power in the rough-and-tumble world of Democratic politics in the mid-twentieth century. Warf dominated Lewis County politics in a style that earned him the label “bare-knuckled political brawler.” (1)
In 1963 Governor Frank G. Clement appointed Warf commissioner of education, a controversial move that generated considerable debate. Public school officials called the cigar-smoking Warf a political dictator, but he became the most influential commissioner of education in the state’s history. His tenure spanned a period of phenomenal growth in higher education as post-World War II children came of age and entered the state’s colleges and universities. Under Warf’s administration, new construction and expansion of faculty and programs took place throughout the higher education system. Warf was a charter member of the Tennessee Board of Regents, an agency designed to oversee all state colleges and universities outside the University of Tennessee system. Indelibly shaping the state’s public colleges and universities and raising the standards of higher education, the Board of Regents system is now one of the ten largest in the nation. In 1992 the Tennessee General Assembly enacted a special law to retain Warf as a member of the Board of Regents, the sixth time legislators had voted to keep him on the board. Warf’s lasting educational legacy is the community college system. From the initial three community colleges, the system has expanded to include fourteen community colleges and numerous state technical and vocational schools.
After an unsuccessful bid for state comptroller in 1971, Warf returned to Lewis County, where he remained active in politics until 1976. In 1994 Vanderbilt University’s George Peabody School of Education presented Warf with its distinguished Peabody Award. Warf was married to Josephine Kistler Warf. He died October 27, 1996, at his home in Hohenwald.