Our list of this century's most influential Knoxvillians

by Jack Neely

Knoxville has never been a city that erects statues. There are some nice oil portraits of important Knoxvillians around, but you have to poke around in obscure corners of library aisles or back hallways of the City-County Building to get a look at them. Several buildings, roads, and businesses are named after prominent citizens. But ask people who know these memorials well what they know about those memorialized, and you're not likely to learn much. Our heroes are mostly strangers to us.

With only 14 months left in the 20th century, we thought it high time we looked back on this amazing century that brought us from candlestick telephones to the Internet, from horsecarts to jets, from legal saloons to prohibition to legal saloons again. And have a look at some of the people who made it happen and, in some cases, unhappen.

All the changes in Knoxville haven't necessarily been for the better. Our city-limits population quintupled in this century—but also dispersed to a point that, to a casual observer, Knoxville might seem even less of a city than it was in 1900. The 20th century brought us from one of America's better public-transportation systems to one that's well under par. We have fewer daily and weekly newspapers, fewer dramatic productions, fewer street musicians. In 1900, we were the Queen City, the Marble City, the city many were convinced was soon to take its place among the greatest cities in America; but by the century's last quarter, we had become the Scruffy City. Knoxville today is much less proud of itself than it was in 1900.

But many things have, indisputably, gotten better. Knoxville at the end of the 20th century is a much cleaner, less violent city than it was in 1900. We take care of our less fortunate much better than we did in 1900, when children lived in downtown gutters and alleys behind saloons and morphine dens. Though the first half of the 20th century brought stricter racial segregation than we had known before, the late 20th century brought us closer to racial equity than we'd ever been. While many of our public officials often seem less scholarly and articulate than their counterparts in 1900, modern literacy rates are much higher; overall, we're a much better educated city than we were then. Enrollment at our university's about 30 times greater than it was in 1900. We have replaced our ad-hoc orchestral groups with a permanent symphony and an opera company, sporadic art shows with a permanent art gallery. The river doesn't flood anymore. And largely thanks to a cadre of influential Knoxvillians, we have a huge and lovely national park nearby, straddling a mountain chain that in 1900 was being ravaged by clear-cutting.

We thought it was time to recognize the people who brought us here; so, this being the end of a century, we nominate the 100 Most Influential Knoxvillians of the 20th Century.

These weren't easy choices. When we first came up with a list of people we thought deserved to be on such a roster, we found we had close to 200 names. We've cut, and re-thought it, and cut again. With research we added some more, and then cut again. We've conferred with history professors and authors and librarians and members of the East Tennessee Historical Society and numerous books. Several Knoxville mayors didn't make the cut. A few UT presidents didn't, either.

Our arbitrary rule for inclusion is that each had to live in Knoxville or Knox County for at least five years. When we made that rule we didn't realize it might exclude dynamic City Manager Louis Brownlow, who lived here for only three years, or Chet Atkins, or former Sen. Howard Baker, whose name is at the head of a major local law firm and once kept a house here, but is not, provably, a Knoxvillian.

We also thought that five-year rule should apply to the century, as well. But that left out Charles Dabney, UT's most positively influential president of the last 100 years, who left town in 1904. It also excludes major businessmen Perez Dickinson and C.C. Howell, who both died before 1905.

Finally, they had to make a difference in how people lived in Knoxville or perceived modern Knoxville. "Influence," we decided, should be interpreted broadly to include the political, the economic, and the cultural.

Preference goes to those who made a difference locally, but the national contributions of several sometime Knoxvillians have reflected back on us in one way or another.

One caveat: This list is overwhelmed with white males, many of them big-shot philanthropists, which shouldn't be surprising, considering those who wielded power over most of the 20th century. We have tried to be fair and to represent the diversity that enriches the city, but it would be hard to neglect the contributions of many of these white males and still be honest about the thing. It should also be remembered that "influence" isn't always positive; we might have been better off without a couple of these folks, but the fact they had "influence" is undeniable.

We know we're asking for trouble, so let us have it. No two Knoxvillians would draw up the same list; we're sure many will disagree with some of our assessments. Even within this office, we spent some hours debating about who should be at the top, and we have our own regrets about those we couldn't quite squeeze in. All we can say is that this is an earnest and, we hope, comprehensive shot at remembering the 100 Knoxvillians who made the biggest difference in this complicated century.

Here goes: