Retired House speaker romances the railroad

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 11, 2000

C.B. “Buddie” Newman peers through the glass door, a replica of the door from his office as Mississippi’s Speaker of the House. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

VALLEY PARK C.B. “Buddie” Newman left the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1988, but he didn’t leave the speaker’s chair. He took it with him.

The leather chair from which Newman helped direct the course of Mississippi history now sits in his living room, a comfortable viewing distance from the television, and is still embossed with the state seal.

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But that doesn’t mean he’s had time to sit in it. The gregarious former politician has been in near-constant motion since he left public life.

Although he claims to be steering clear of politics these days, members of the Issaquena County Board of Supervisors last week stopped by his house to show their appreciation for the stand he has taken in support of the controversial Corps of Engineers floodwater pump project in the area.

When the supervisors and reporters arrived, the 79-year-old quickly reverted to old form, shaking hands and distributing hats and plastic coins with his name on them to all takers.

“Here, take a mojo. Do you know what a mojo is? It’s good luck,” he said, reaching into a plastic bag full of the coins. “Here, take a hat, too.”

His longstanding love affair with the railroads was in evidence from the train-whistle door chime at the front door to the three retired Illinois Central Railroad cars he bought and had towed to a section of unused track behind his house.

As to what he’s been up to for the last 12 years, Newman is modest about his activities.

“I’ve been traveling, staying out of my wife’s way, and staying away from the bill collectors,” he said.

But though his love for travel is obvious from the international artifacts that adorn his home, including a bathroom mirror that was a gift from the governor of American Samoa, he’s been quite busy around Valley Park as well.

Among other projects, Newman has spent the past decade restoring the old railroad section house where he grew up in the 1920s and 30s to the point that it’s been accepted on the National Register of Historic Places.

On the bed of the flat car he bought from Illinois Central, he’s built a museum celebrating his own career. It includes his Capitol desk and other artifacts, which he brought home when he was defeated for re-election.

“When I retired, it was my good fortune to buy the speaker’s furniture,” Newman said. Then-Gov. William Winter was renovating the Capitol, and Newman had grown attached to his surroundings in Jackson after 40 years in the Legislature.

The one thing they wouldn’t let him take from his office was the front door. And since no office would be complete without a door, Newman commissioned an exact replica, complete with frosted glass and gold lettering reading “Speaker’s Office 306.”

Among the artifacts are pictures from his travels and gifts from foreign heads of state, including exiled Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos.

Also, a huge sunset picture of the Capitol dome graces one wall of the train-car museum.

“See, it’s late at night, and there’s my car, still in the parking lot,” Newman said. “It’s because I’m a hard worker.”

Few will argue that point. Issaquena supervisors say Newman did more for the area than any politician before or since.

“We knew we had a friend over there,” said board president Willie Bunton.

“I remember back in 1965, we integrated the schools here with no trouble at all,” Bunton said. “(Newman) came over and spoke, and he told everyone, It’s time. The time has come.’

“I never will forget those words,” he said.

Newman, the son of a railroad worker, has spent his life with a deep affection for the nation’s rail system. As a child, he even rode to school on a train in Valley Park.

Then, as a legislator, he fought to save the rail line through the area, forming a special committee to study the problem of fewer lines and fewer cars in rural areas.

As the railroad sent fewer box cars to the Delta in preparation for shutting down the line, Newman said he once went on his own and got the box cars the farmers needed to load up their crops.

“There’s a romance that has always existed between the people of this country and the railroads,” he said. “One of these days, it may not be in my lifetime, they’re going to build another railroad through here. They’re going to have to if the area keeps growing.”

The restored section house, the flat car and a box car that Newman has turned into a repository for railroad artifacts are all available for tours to anyone who wants to drop by, he said.

And though he’s no longer in the headlines or roaming the halls of the Legislature, his stamp is permanently imprinted on his hometown of Valley Park and his state.

It would be tough to miss his house beside U.S. 61 North. It’s the one with the three train cars in back. In the caboose hang matching conductor’s hats with his and his wife’s names embroidered on them.

“I sure hope they’ve got some trains in heaven,” he said. “Because if they do, I’m sure going to ride them.”