JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — In the final months of his life, fighting a losing battle against the effects of brain cancer and a stroke, Republican U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee of Mississippi said he drew strength from a Bible verse about giving thanks to God in all circumstances.
"I am glad the Scripture in Thessalonians does not say to give thanks for all circumstances because I would have a difficult time being thankful for a tumor or a stroke, much less both," he told supporters in an email last August. "I have learned the way to approach the difficulty of stroke rehabilitation is to give thanks in all circumstances."
Nunnelee was 56 when he died Friday at his home in Tupelo, less than two weeks after being released from a local hospital and into hospice care.
A fiscal and social conservative, Nunnelee was elected to Congress in a Republican wave of 2010 and became a member of the Appropriations Committee. He had already served 15 years in the Mississippi Senate, where he often set aside partisan differences to build friendships that lasted for years.
President Barack Obama was among those expressing condolences to Nunnelee's family.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio described Nunnelee as "the rare calming presence in the cauldron of politics."
"He never let cancer get the best of him," Boehner said Friday. "We know this because, at the end of his life, all Alan asked of us was whether he made a difference. Indeed he did, very much so."
Republican Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said Nunnelee was like a brother: "He was the best man I've ever known." Bryant will set a special election later this year to fill the vacancy created by Nunnelee's death.
In addition to chemotherapy and radiation, Nunnelee underwent physical therapy and speech therapy last year to try to recover from the stroke that he had while surgeons were removing a brain tumor.
In late December, Nunnelee was hospitalized in Tupelo for treatment of a bleeding problem in his left leg. He was too ill to go to Washington in January to be sworn in for his third two-year term, so House leaders let him take his oath from a federal judge in Mississippi. Nunnelee took the oath in the hospital, joined by a small group that included his wife, Tori. Nunnelee was released from the hospital Jan. 26 and sent home under hospice care.
In 2010, Nunnelee unseated Democrat Travis Childers, who had held north Mississippi's 1st District seat since mid-2008. Nunnelee had portrayed the Democratic incumbent as beholden to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. The Republicans won the House majority in that election, elevating Boehner to the speakership.
Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, said in a statement Friday: "We are all saddened by the passing of Congressman Alan Nunnelee, who, throughout his time as a public servant, strived to represent his constituents with integrity and energy."
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky called Nunnelee "a true gentleman at his very core."
"Alan was one of those rare individuals that was driven, astute, and loyal to God, family, and country," said Rogers, a Republican. "As a colleague, he was a workhorse — at times eschewing the limelight but ever-willing to dig down and get the hard work done."
Able to make just a few campaign appearances in 2014, Nunnelee nevertheless easily defeated a Democratic challenger who ran a low-budget campaign and had never held public office.
During his final years in the state Senate, Nunnelee was Appropriations Committee chairman and worked to make the state budget writing process more transparent, said Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory. Bryan said he and Nunnelee sometimes disagreed on issues, but Nunnelee was honest and hard-working.
"He was just the sort of good, solid legislator you need in office," Bryan said.
In the state Senate, Nunnelee pushed for tougher anti-abortion laws, including one that requires doctors to tell women in mandatory pre-abortion counseling that terminating a pregnancy increases the risk of breast cancer — an assertion that abortion-rights supporters say is inaccurate.
During his final state legislative session in 2010, when he was running for Congress, Nunnelee persuaded his colleagues to pass legislation specifying that no tax dollars would be spent on abortion if Mississippi ever creates a state-sponsored health exchange under the federal health overhaul law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010. Mississippi is among the states that have not created their own exchanges.
"I think it's very important that Mississippi go on record as saying we don't want any taxpayer dollars spent to abort children in this state," Nunnelee said after the bill passed.
Nunnelee had overcome health challenges in the past. He was nearly blind in college because of keratoconus, a degenerative eye disease. He received a left cornea transplant in April 1980 and a right one in January 1982.
Nunnelee is survived by his wife, Tori, their three grown children and two grandchildren.