Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter dies at 97

Former Gov. William Winter speaks at a symposium on the Future of Mississippi and the South on his 90th birthday in 2013.

(CNN)Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, "who championed education initiatives, job creation, and racial harmony throughout his life," died Friday at age 97, his family said.

Winter, a Democrat, served as governor from 1980 to 1984 and is best known for pushing through the 1982 Education Reform Act, which overhauled the state's public education system.
"Known as Mississippi's Education Governor, Winter secured passage of landmark educational initiatives in 1982 bringing kindergartens, compulsory school attendance, and a range of other key reforms to a state plagued by poverty and illiteracy," said a statement provided by Dick Molpus, family spokesperson and former Mississippi secretary of state.
      Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said in a statement that Winter's work had "changed the course of education in our state."
        "(Winter) fought to bring equity to education through the Education Reform Act of 1982, which set high standards for students, teachers and schools and established free public kindergarten for all children.
          "His work will live on in the generations of Mississippians whose lives were changed by the opportunities their education provided them," she said.
          Winter's alma mater, the University of Mississippi, said on Twitter that he had been "a pillar of racial reconciliation and champion for Mississippi."

          Threatened by the Klan

          After serving in the US Army during World War II, Winter was elected to the Mississippi Legislature in 1947 while still a student at Ole Miss law school, the family statement said.
          Winter's family said he opposed the Klu Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils and their stance on strict racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, with the KKK threatening his life when he unsuccessfully ran for governor the first time in 1967.
          Winter was part of an effort to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag through a statewide referendum in 2001. The flag was eventually retired earlier this year.
          In the 1990's, President Bill Clinton appointed Winter to serve on the National Commission on Race. Winter expanded that work for racial harmony with the creation of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, the family statement said.
          Clinton issued a statement Saturday expressing gratitude for having had the opportunity to work with and learn from Winter.
          "With the passing of Governor William F. Winter, Mississippi has lost one of its greatest champions of equality, reconciliation, and progress; and I have lost a friend, an inspiration, and one of the finest people I've ever known," Clinton said.
          "Bill had the gift to see his state as it was, to envision what it could be, and to take the difficult but necessary steps to get there. His bold efforts to reform education, fight poverty, and bring people together across racial lines showed the promise of a new Mississippi," he said.
          "Hillary and I send our condolences to his wonderful wife of 70 years, Elise; their daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; to all those he empowered by his example and friendship, and to the countless people who know their lives are better today because of his service."
          Winter's life and 75 years of public service were chronicled in an Emmy Award-winning documentary film "The Toughest Job," said the statement, and his political courage was recognized when he received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in 2008.
          Current Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted that he and his wife were deeply saddened by Winter's death.
          "He truly loved this state and his country. And the people of Mississippi loved him back. He will be missed by all of us," Reeves' post said.
          Winter is survived by his wife of 70 years, Elise Varner Winter; three daughters Anne Winter, Lele Gillespie and Eleanor Winter and five grandchildren, according to the statement.
            "A memorial service will be held once the dangers from Covid-19 abate and it is safe to gather for a service," it said.
            Winter's cause of death has not yet been disclosed.