Former U.S. Rep. William Wampler Sr., a Republican who represented Southwest Virginia in Congress for 17 years, died Wednesday night at his home in Bristol.

He was 86 and had been in declining health for at least six months, said Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), a family friend.

Wampler served in the House for two years in the 1950s, and again from 1967 to 1982, when he was defeated by Democrat Rick Boucher.

“At the age of twenty-six, he had already served in World War II and been elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he championed the causes of his constituents in Southwest Virginia throughout his distinguished career of public service,” Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said in a prepared statement. “I have personally been touched by the passion the Wampler family has for Virginia and for creating opportunity for all of the people of the Southwest.”

Kilgore said he was in awe of Wampler’s ability to reach out to constituents and remember names, recalling how as a teenager he’d received a personal letter from the congressman, congratulating him on his high school graduation. Kilgore later put those skills to work to help his son, William Wampler Jr., campaign for state Senate.

“He could remember all these names, all these relatives of people,” Kilgore said. “Even after he got out of Congress, riding around with William [Jr.] on the campaign trail, it was unbelievable how many people’s names he knew.”

William Wampler Jr. represented Southwest for more than two decades in the state Senate before retiring last year.

“The spirit of the Bald Eagle of the Cumberlands may have ascended to the Heavens, but memories and appreciation for his strong leadership for the people of Southwest Virginia will live on,” former Republican senator and governor George Allen (R) said in a statement. “Congressman Wampler was a trusted, sharp advisor to me and a vibrant, creative and ardent advocate for common-sense conservative principles and ways to improve the lives and opportunities of his constituents.”

Former Democratic governor Tim Kaine also issued a statement.

“A bastion of Virginia politics and no doubt a driving force behind his district's ‘fighting ninth’ nickname, William will be missed by all those he has worked with over his many years in state politics,” Kaine said. ”My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and I join all Virginians in thanking him for his great record of service to our Commonwealth.”