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December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

Albert Gore Sr. had just been elected to Congress in 1938 when he stopped by a country store near his home in the Tennessee hills. Flush with pride from his victory, he noticed a woman staring at him. “Ma’am, you know who I am, don’t you?” he asked her. “Yeah,” she replied, “you’re the new preacher, ain’t you?” It was a lesson in humility that Gore carried through 32 years of public service.

When he died, of natural causes, on Dec. 5 at age 90, his only son, Vice President Al Gore Jr., and Pauline La Fon, 86, his wife of 61 years, were by his side. (The Gores’ daughter, Nancy, died of cancer in 1984 at age 45.) Known for his forceful public speaking, the charismatic Gore was a rare liberal Southern Democrat, supporting civil rights and opposing the war in Vietnam. “He was not a politician to put his finger to the wind,” says Jim Neal, Vice President Gore’s attorney. “He was a man of great intellectual honesty.”

Born to working-class parents in the hill town of Granville, Gore attended Middle Tennessee State Teachers College and earned a law degree at night. He won seven terms in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate, writing legislation that created the interstate highway system before his liberal views led to a bitter defeat in a 1970 election. “He would rather lose,” says attorney Mike Cody, who worked on that campaign, “than stand for something that he felt was not what a leader would do.”

A coal company CEO and cattle breeder later in life, Gore Sr., said President Clinton, was “just a little too far ahead of his time. He was the embodiment of everything public service ought to be.”

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