HUNTSVILLE — When Howard H. Baker was elected to the U.S. Senate by Tennessee voters in 1966, his first legislative assistant was an up-and-coming Republican politician named Lamar Alexander.

On Thursday, as news of Sen. Baker's death spread quickly, Alexander — now a member of the U.S. Senate himself — was among the first to issue condolences.

"Howard Baker was Tennessee's favorite son," Alexander said. "(He was) one of America's finest leaders and for Honey and me an indispensable friend."

Alexander met Honey, his wife, while working for Sen. Baker. While Sen. Baker would go on to become the Senate Majority Leader and, later, chief of staff in Ronald Reagan's White House, Alexander would go on to become governor of Tennessee. Their paths crossed frequently.

"He built our state's two-party political system and inspired three generations to try to build a better state and country," Alexander said Thursday. "It is difficult to express how much we honor his life and how much we will miss him."

Alexander was traveling in Tennessee when he learned of Sen. Baker's death. He dropped his plans for the afternoon and scheduled a media availability to discuss the former Senator's importance to his state and nation.

Back at home, business leaders from across Scott County were gathered at the Scott County Visitor Center for the local Chamber of Commerce's monthly directors' meeting when Sen. Baker passed. When news reached the meeting room, there were audible gasps, then a stunned silence.

Although his death — officially said to be from complications of a stroke Sen. Baker suffered last week — was not unexpected, losing her favorite son was not something for which Scott County seemed prepared.

Scott County — and, more specifically, Huntsville — was Sen. Baker's lifelong home and a place he often referred to as "the center of the universe."

State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, was at that Chamber of Commerce meeting when news of Sen. Baker's death arrived. He called himself a "Baker Republican," saying that Baker had a big influence on his career.

"I first met him in 1966 when I worked for his election to the U.S. Senate," Yager said. "Senator Baker was the right man in the right place so many times when this country needed him."

"He was more than just a legend in Tennessee — he was a titan in American politics," Chris Devaney, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, said Thursday.

"It's clear, when you think of the modern Republican Party in Tennessee, you think of Senator Baker."

Many remembered Sen. Baker, who was sometimes called the Senate's "Great Conciliator," as a man who put politics aside when America's best interests were at stake.

"One of his greatest abilities was bringing civility to the table in times of crisis," Yager said. "There are many of us today who can learn much from the service and life of Senator Howard Baker. Tennesseans are very fortunate to have benefitted from the courage and conviction of his service."

"When I think of the ultimate statesman, the very first person who comes to my mind is Howard Baker," said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. "He was one of those people who had the unique ability to bring out the very best in those around him. He always put our country's interests first, and lived a life of service that everyone in public service should aspire to emulate."

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam called Baker a friend and mentor.

"He made Tennesseans proud, and he taught me an important lesson when I worked for him 35 years ago," Haslam said. "Anytime he was sitting across the desk from someone in disagreement, he told himself to keep in mind: you know, the other fellow might be right."

Perhaps ironically, the subject of conversation at the Chamber of Commerce meeting when news of Sen. Baker's death arrived was how to grow tourism in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Baker championed the creation of the Big South Fork and considered its establishment one of his greatest accomplishments.

"We carry on the vision that began with him," Chamber director Paul Strunk said.