10 Fascinating Knoxvillians of 2010

Here are the most interesting figures we wrote about in the past year

James McMillan

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David Luttrell

James McMillan, 49, doesn’t call himself an environmentalist, a conservationist, or a naturalist. He doesn’t quote Teddy Roosevelt but he will cop to farmer, hunter, workingman, neighbor, Republican. He made a run for County Commission in 2006 and placed a respectable second in the Republican primary against a better funded, better known candidate who had been running for the seat for most of a decade.

“When I first started hearing about environmentalists, I thought about crazy people that sat up in trees,” McMillan says. “I’m not an environmental radical. People have a right to [do] what they want to on their property. But they don’t have a right to overbuild and damage everybody else just to maximize their profits. The Republican view I was raised with was you pay your own way. You don’t put the cost and the liability on somebody else. That was the moral backbone and the foundation of the Republican Party. And we always believed that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. I guess that could be a motto for tree-huggers, but it could be a motto for our country. That’s the way I thought Republicans were supposed to be.”

McMillan has waged a five-year war with developers and regulators and bureaucrats and politicians and lobbyists over stormwater regulations. It started in 2002, he says, when he got into an argument with a county official about worsening flooding conditions on his family’s 179-acre Shannondale farm.

“He called me a dumb-ass farmer, and I didn’t kill him. If that hadn’t been such a big table between us, I’d of climbed across it and whipped his ass, but I didn’t, and that was the first time I knew I had it in me to hold my own in a fight—verbally. Not with my fists,” McMillan says.

—Betty Bean, “Tree-Hugging Republicans,” Jan. 7

R.B. Morris

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Shawn Poynter

From his home base in Fort Sanders, R.B. Morris swaggers through downtown with the regal certainty of a man who takes ownership of the very ground he treads.

His clothes are often rumpled, as if pulled from a heap on the bathroom floor moments before bolting out the door, and his hair appears unkempt—though some level of calculation may be involved—as if he ran shaky fingers through greasy locks moments after rising from the sofa. And yet characteristics that would come off as unassuming or just plain disarrayed in other men seem fashionable and self-aware in R.B. Morris.

In conversation, he holds forth with a formidable, learned intelligence, and he issues some of his pronouncements with the sort of gravitas usually reserved for prophecy—most often after a pint of Guinness or other libations. As his longtime friend, the local artist Eric Sublett, puts it: “When he’s in his cups, he gets grandiloquent.” One might even ascribe it all to the “Morris Mystique.”

But while the sure step, the just-so hair, and the erudite ramblings may be outer vestments of R.B. Morris, poet and performer, they leave a lot unsaid. They say nothing of the hard choices he’s made, trading a normal life for that of a respected, but sometimes struggling musician. Morris dismisses the notion that he has any special charisma.

“Mystique? I wonder what that would be?” he asks. “The thing is, to be crazy, or whatever qualifies for that, to be that about your work, or about the life you have to live in order to do your work, that’s the point. The rest is just mental problems, or just posing. Forget that stuff. I don’t try to be difficult. I’m just serious about certain things.”

—Mike Gibson, “The Last Bohemian,” Jan. 28

Ryan Foltz

CHILLWAVE DUDE: Ryan Foltz, 22, runs his Arcade Sound label out of an apartment on Summit Hill Avenue. His artists include the Florida producer MillionYoung.

photo by Sheena Patrick

CHILLWAVE DUDE: Ryan Foltz, 22, runs his Arcade Sound label out of an apartment on Summit Hill Avenue. His artists include the Florida producer MillionYoung.

A hodgepodge of scissors, glue, construction paper, and cassette tapes is sprawled out over every surface of Ryan Foltz’s downtown apartment. At first glance, it looks like an arts-and-crafts session gone awry. “We’re sold out,” says Foltz, co-founder of the Knoxville-based boutique record label Arcade Sound Ltd. He gestures at the cassettes on the floor. “We ran out of copies on the website just, like, a week after we made them available. It’s awesome.”

Foltz’s apartment, a law office on Summit Hill Avenue that was converted into a residence about a year ago, looks exactly like you would imagine a makeshift studio/office/home to three other people would look like. In his studio, foot space is virtually non-existent; a maze of cords and music equipment fill almost every inch. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with posters, from the Velvet Underground to Sound Tribe Sector Nine. The adjoining room, where Foltz keeps most of Arcade Sound’s odds and ends, is just as packed, mostly with vinyl.

—Carey Hodges, “21st-Century Music Magnate,” March 4

Sherry Johnston

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Sherry Johnston knew she was overweight—sort of. But she had already been selected as a contestant on NBC’s The Biggest Loser Season 9—vying for a $250,000 prize if she was the last one of 20 standing, a “couple” with her daughter Ashley—and was at the doctor’s for a physical before she had what she calls her “come to Jesus” moment.

At 51, she was 5 ft. 1 in. and around 218 pounds, “about double my healthy weight,” she says. “I didn’t see myself that way, that severe. My concern had always been for Ashley [who by this time was age 27 and 374 pounds]. But we had to have a doctor sign off before we could participate in The Biggest Loser. It was a blessing, really. He told me I was borderline diabetic. That my cholesterol was out of control and I needed to be on cholesterol meds. That I was at risk for a heart attack.”

Johnston reeled. “I’m diabetic? I’m at risk? I never dreamed I was putting my health in jeopardy. That moment of my life turned me around, physically, emotionally. Suddenly I knew, ‘I have to change, I have to do something.’”

—Rose Kennedy, “Living Large,” April 15

Michael Knight

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photo by David Luttrell

The short story is a distinct form, different from the novel, with its own traditions and challenges, and its own pleasures and rewards. Good short-story writers don’t necessarily write good novels, and good novelists aren’t necessarily good short-story writers.

Michael Knight, the head of the University of Tennessee’s creative writing program, has been known for most of his decade-plus career—much of which he’s spent in Knoxville—as a short-story writer. He’s been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, and Playboy; his two story collections, Dogfight and Other Stories (1998) and Goodnight, Nobody (2003), and the two novellas included in The Holiday Season (2007), sold modestly but earned almost uniformly positive reviews. His second book, in 1998, was the novel Divining Rod, but his reputation rests almost exclusively on his stories.

“What I love about the short story, as a writer and a reader, is this sense of taking a novel’s worth of emotional complication and compressing it down into a very small space,” Knight says. “To me it makes for a very intense reading experience. And I also like that short stories, they allow for an air of mystery. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.”

Circumstances change, though. Knight’s just published his slim second novel, The Typist, and it could mark a significant turn in his career.

“You know, honestly, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, by a pretty long shot,” Knight says. “It may be, in fact, the best thing I’ll ever write, which is a sort of grand and terrifying feeling, you know?”

—Matthew Everett, “War Story,” Aug. 5

Rocky Wynder

SMOOTH OPERATOR: Rocky Wynder’s been part of the Knoxville jazz community since 1950, when a shady tour manager left him and his bandmates stranded here after a gig. Donald Brown calls Wynder “one of the greats of our music.”

photo by David Luttrell

SMOOTH OPERATOR: Rocky Wynder’s been part of the Knoxville jazz community since 1950, when a shady tour manager left him and his bandmates stranded here after a gig. Donald Brown calls Wynder “one of the greats of our music.”

Ordinarily, people tend to call active gentlemen of Rocky Wynder’s vintage “spry,” but he’s much more than that. At times, the 82-year-old saxophone player is positively electric; his long, lanky frame perambulates across the floor in a series of quick, almost bird-like movements, and his raspy voice is loud but bright. Longtime friend and fellow sax player Bill Scarlett describes him as “a live wire … always full of energy and talk.

“He’s tall and thin,” Scarlett says. “But you can tell by the way he moves, he’s got a lot of strength in him.”

It may come as a surprise, then, that when he lays into one of the jazz standards close to his heart at one of his now-less-frequent club dates, his playing is pure silk, his seductive tones and breathy phrasings encapsulating the essence of love and longing, reaching the hearts and ears of audiences in a way that only the most intuitive players do.

“I’m a people’s player,” he proclaims, relaxing in the impeccably neat office he keeps in the apartment he shares with wife Catherine off Western Avenue. “I play the melodies, dig it? And when I see the people in my audience happy, then I’m double happy.

“I don’t play for musicians. A lot of players do that; they play all fast, de-de-de-de-de, and they forget there’s an audience out there.”

—Mike Gibson, “The Winding Road,” Aug. 26

Carol Ann and Laura Stutte

Laura (left) and Carol Ann Stutte have been a couple for 16 years, and had custody of Carol Ann’s daughter, now 26, since she was 13. All three are scared to go back to the site of their Monroe County home, burned down by arson Sept. 4.

photo by David Luttrell

Laura (left) and Carol Ann Stutte have been a couple for 16 years, and had custody of Carol Ann’s daughter, now 26, since she was 13. All three are scared to go back to the site of their Monroe County home, burned down by arson Sept. 4.

Carol Ann and Laura Stutte know someone hates them because they’re lesbians—and that’s why their Vonore house got burned down Sept. 4.

But even though the two and Carol Ann’s adult daughter have been left homeless and their earthly possessions are gone, Carol Ann can see the good in the event that spawned an outpouring of support from local and national LGBT-friendly organizations, and financial donations from more than 30 states and three foreign countries.

“Honest to goodness, if this hadn’t happened, I would never have been able to meet the Maryville PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] group, and lots of other good folks from Blount County,” she says. “They have made us feel like we aren’t alone anymore, and it’s like a load has been lifted. I have to look at the positives.”

Just 14 days after the fire, the experience has also transformed them from an isolated, under-the-radar couple to people ready to stand up and be recognized, come what may. Says Carol Ann, who does most of the public speaking for herself and Laura, who is shy: “What else can be taken from us? We have told PFLAG and various other groups that as far as we’re concerned, we have our lives, the three of us, we have each other, we’re willing to go out on a limb because that’s what we have left to offer: ourselves. Anything they need us to do, we’ll speak up. We would love to help with fund-raising, help others in need.

“Hopefully this won’t arise for anyone else, but if it does—if we could pay it forward as love and kindness, that would be the best part of all this happening.”

—Rose Kennedy, “How We Handle Hate,” Sept. 23

Stacey Campfield

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photo by David Luttrell

Oh, Stacey Campfield.

There is not another name in East Tennessee politics today guaranteed to generate so much immediate distaste, so many lip curls, eye rolls, head shakes, or sighs of exasperation. Those reactions are near universal among politically engaged people of a more liberal persuasion, but hardly uncommon even on the right. In August, Campfield won the Republican primary for the state Senate’s 7th District seat, but with just 40 percent of the vote. Fortunately for him, the other 60 percent was split largely between two contenders, Ron Leadbetter and Steve Hill, who were both running on platforms that amounted to variations of I’m-not-Stacey-Campfield.

Now he is running against Democrat Randy Walker for the seat that was until recently held by Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett.

Campfield, with ginger hair and an Eddie Haskell grin that makes him look younger than his 42 years, likes to present himself as just another conservative Republican in a region rich with them, a common-sensical guy who favors low taxes, less gubmint, and better schools. And for about five minutes, it’s easy to believe him—which may be one reason he’s successful at shoe-leather, door-knock campaigning. But the eye rolls and head shakes and sighs come from the things Campfield has actually done since taking office as a state representative in 2005. He has tried to join the legislative Black Caucus. He has pushed for bills to issue death certificates for aborted fetuses, and to force women to look at fetal ultrasound images before having an abortion. He has lobbied for the right of both faculty and students to bring guns onto college campuses. He has proposed a range of legislation on things like child support, orders of protection, and sexual-abuse allegations, that, as a Nashville Scene blogger put it a few weeks ago, seem to derive from a sense “that women are crazy lying bitches men need protecting from.” He is bothered by the existence of gay-straight student alliances, and he is passionate about a bill that would forbid any discussion of homosexuality in elementary or middle schools. He wants to eliminate the state’s pre-kindergarten education programs.

And, yes, there was that whole thing with the wrestling mask at the UT football game.

—Jesse Fox Mayshark, “What the Heck is Wrong with Stacey Campfield?”, Sept. 30

Will Roberts

SEEKING HARMONY: Will Roberts, director of Knoxville’s Race Relations Center, sees Knoxville as “a place that recognizes that there is an opportunity for everybody to live together.”

photo by Sheena Patrick

SEEKING HARMONY: Will Roberts, director of Knoxville’s Race Relations Center, sees Knoxville as “a place that recognizes that there is an opportunity for everybody to live together.”

From his office on the edge of Mechanicsville, Will Roberts can see the skyline of his adopted city. Born in Detroit and raised in Los Angeles, the attorney has lived in Washington, Dallas, and Nashville, but moved here late last year to become executive director of Knoxville’s Race Relations Center. When he’s in, he answers the office phone.

“Right now, it’s just me,” he admits, though he has hopes of hiring an administrative assistant soon. The organization, one of the few intact remnants of the 9 Counties 1 Vision days—it actually had earlier origins as the Levi Strauss racial-harmony initiative known as Project Change—was in disarray when Roberts arrived about a year ago. At the moment, he’s trying to reconstitute the nonprofit’s nine-member board (it currently has only five) while responding to daily requests for help with race-related challenges in the broad community. The KRRC has lately been conducting diversity workshops with the Girl Scouts and helping post-parole ex-convicts learn how to recover their voting privileges.

A former mortgage banker (he worked in Dallas for Fannie Mae) and public defender, he says, “This job seems to combine everything I’ve seen. It touches everything from accessibility to housing to criminal defense to voting rights. This job serves everything I’ve worked in in 20 years.”

—Jack Neely, “No War Zone, No Haven,” Sept. 30

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