Mayor Madeline Rogero
Lacking size or personal bombast, Madeline Rogero doesn’t crowd the huge corner office that’s been the headquarters of Knoxville’s mayor for 30 years. She has a big desk, which is still neat and orderly a few days into her administration. For an interview she opts to speak less formally at a small table suitable for gin rummy. Repeatedly she emphasizes that it’s very early to discuss her plans for Knoxville’s immediate future: “We’re just meeting with staff and figuring some of this out, you know,” she says.
We’ve never had a mayor like Rogero, in several respects, and only one of which concerns gender. Rogero is our first mayor with a Latino surname, our first Catholic mayor in almost 80 years—and, originally from Florida by way of Ohio, she’s also the first Knoxville mayor in 70 years who was not raised in Tennessee. She might be expected to jolt the status quo, and outline a sharp break in policy. Instead, again and again in an hourlong conversation, she stresses continuity and touts the already-positive trajectory of the city that’s been her home for more than 30 years, especially the improvements made during the Haslam administration, of which she was a part. Rogero is in the unusual position of defending her old opponent’s successes and championing his goals, some of which, after all, she helped formulate and implement.
“Some administrations, they come in, and if that [issue] was the person’s before them, they don’t support it, because they want to have their own mark,” she says. “I’m not like that.”
—Jack Neely, “Meet the New Boss,” Jan. 5, 2012
Watching Cole Murphy patiently connect all his electronic gear and then lift it onto Preservation Pub’s stage late on a cold Saturday night, it would be fair for the uninitiated to brace themselves against the possibilities. Screen-gazing IDM, or a Girl Talk-lite mashup bandit? Beginner dubstep, maybe? As soon as Murphy picks up the mic to build his first vocal loop, an odd blend of college kids, hipsters, and outright weirdos crowds the stage. Three minutes into a nearly two-hour block of off-kilter solo sex jams, the man known onstage as Fine Peduncle has stripped down to his charcoal skivvies; by halfway through the set much of the audience has joined him in various states of undress, and Peduncle is splitting his time between triggering drum loops, confiscating new items of clothing, and improvising a song about shots of liquor.
Later in the week, Murphy admits that he maybe got carried away.
“That may be the wildest show I’ve done,” he says. “I’m lucky I have such good friends, because I woke up the next day and I didn’t remember anything—like, ‘Did I put my equipment up?’ ‘Don’t worry, we took care of it, it’s cool.’ ‘Why am I so wet?’ ‘Oh, you puked all over everything.’ ‘Why is there money in my underwear?’”
—Nick Huinker, “Knoxville’s New Wave,” Jan. 19, 2012
Thomas Reed understands that the story he has to tell exists in a realm far beyond the pale of credulity.
“I know that this is hard to stomach,” says Reed, a stocky, bespectacled 51-year-old West Knoxville resident, sitting in the kitchen of his comfortable suburban home off Northshore Drive. “Hell, it’s hard for me to stomach.”
But he doesn’t expect anyone to accept his seemingly chimerical narratives on first blush, nor even take them, upon further deliberation, as holy writ. He simply asks that people look at the evidence—multiple eyewitness accounts, polygraph tests, readings from Geiger counters and electromagnetic equipment and spinning compasses—and scrutinize it with clear eyes and an open mind.
Reed and his family have been involved in a multigenerational series of UFO sightings. More specifically, they have been involved in a series of what members of the UFO followers’ community refer to as alien abductions. Reed generally stays away from labeling them as such; rather, he prefers to relate the facts as he has experienced them, and let others draw their own conclusions.
“I feel like we’ve put out enough information to convict somebody in a courtroom,” Reed says. “I believe it’s hard for a thinking person to sit down and really look at all the evidence and not come to the conclusion that something extraordinary is going on.”
—Mike Gibson, “The Abductee,” Feb. 16, 2012
June 27, 1993, Knoxville Gay Pride March and Rally: Keynote speaker Julia Tucker quieted the large, boisterous crowd gathered on the City County Building lawn by asking them to “keep a space” for the people who had rejected them.
“We know how large our hearts are, so open them up and hold a space. Hold aside the righteous indignation and the judgment toward them for not being as we want them to be. Send them a bridge. Send them the love that will get them here to you.”
This was two years after her son, Bill, had died of AIDS at the age of 30. Julia Tucker, with her unrelenting demands that attention must be paid to this epidemic, had become an icon in Knoxville’s gay community and a thorn in the flesh to local government. She became a tireless advocate, a fund-raiser, a lobbyist, and a hands-on caregiver who cared for the sick and eased the fears of the dying. When she saw people with AIDS facing homelessness, she bought the Graham, a two-story, eight-apartment brick building on Magnolia Avenue that became Knoxville’s first residence for people with AIDS.
Over three decades, Julia Tucker has contributed and raised countless dollars for charity, served on scores of boards, and became the city’s most influential AIDS advocate. She is a historic preservationist and a political activist who has never been far from the crossroads—if not the crosshairs—of Knoxville history.
—Betty Bean, “Public Figure,” March 15, 2012
Larry Silverstein is sitting at a table at Barnes and Noble. The table is covered in stacks of paper, as is the one behind him, as are two chairs beside him. There is a light in Silverstein’s eyes that is almost gleeful as he talks about his favorite subject of late: the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“They probably hate my guts,” he says with more than a hint of pride in his voice. “I don’t care.”
Silverstein is 56, and from a distance, he has the look of a mild-mannered accountant, although he is actually a retired lawyer. There is the carefully cropped light grey hair, the square wire-frame glasses perched expertly on the bridge of his nose, and the way the dark grey polo shirt neatly fits his trim frame. Which is to say, Silverstein looks too nebbishy to be an environmental activist. But looks can be deceiving.
“I’m the first one who’s ever dared stand up to them,” Silverstein says. In the broad scheme of things, this statement is of course patently untrue—TVA has come under the wrath of environmentalists for years, since not long after it was established in 1933. But here, now, in Knoxville, Silverstein has a point. No one is going after TVA the way he is.
The object of Silverstein’s ire, and the reason he has brought so many reams of paper to our interview, is TVA’s transmission right-of-way vegetation-maintenance plan, which is only just now beginning to be enforced in the Knoxville area.
“There are just a gazillion trees that are going to get cut down that nobody knows about,” Silverstein says, his voice growing more impassioned with every word. “Unless this policy gets changed, these trees are gone!”
—Cari Wade Gervin, “Speaking for the Trees,” April 19, 2012
On West Knoxville’s Robindale Road is an unassuming rancher on a hill with a small vegetable patch out back. Accessible by way of an aisle between a few winters’ worth of stacked firewood is a remarkable basement rec room. Sliding doors separate it into three almost-soundproof chambers. In the smallest is a drum set. In the largest is a Yamaha upright piano and a stand-up bass.
In the darkest room is a standing soundboard and a double-screen Macintosh computer, tended by Allen Smith, engineer of this homemade recording studio. Also in the room is internationally renowned jazz pianist Donald Brown, who’s lately been doing some record-producing, praised in the June issue of Downbeat for his work producing saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s new album.
And sitting in a folding chair, in white sneakers and pleated twill slacks, a work shirt, and a cloverleaf Celtics cap, is Lance Owens, holding a big 1914 model Conn tenor sax. He has only occasionally played in public in recent years, but some musicians consider him one of the finest saxophonists who has ever lived in East Tennessee.
Sitting in the studio room with him, you can’t hear anything but his saxophone, and the thocking of the valves sounds like a vigorous tennis game. Somehow the thocking disappears when you listening on the headphones to the sax with the other instruments, and it sounds like a professional recording.
About 70 years after beginning his performing career, Owens is recording his debut album.
—Jack Neely, “The Last Illusionaire,” July 5, 2012
Urban Wilderness is an oxymoron, of course, a basic contradiction in terms. Carol Evans, a bit of a paradox herself, is pushing the concept for all it’s worth. A lot of people have been volunteering time to blaze trails, build bridges, give money, property, and legal advice, but she’s the one in charge of this multi-dimensional chess game that’s making Knoxville a standout among cities known for their outdoor amenities.
She has a hard time sitting still. Her office at the new Outdoor Adventure Center is unlike any other downtown; it’s an open place, with glass walls. She has not a desk, but a glass table with a bowl of oranges. Otherwise her office furniture consists mainly of what appear to be chic lawn chairs. People don’t sit around here very much.
On her wall is a framed motto: “We don’t stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing.”
She talks faster than Tennesseans have any right to, and seems always to be suppressing some inner turbine that would run too hot if she didn’t keep a throttle on it.
“I came from a high-energy family,” she admits. “But outdoorsy? I’m not. Hiking, a lot of it’s new to me. That’s how I maintain my enthusiasm. I’m also the one that will get lost.” She’s lean, physical, and wears a gymnast’s haircut. You might guess she’s been mountain biking since she was 3.
—Jack Neely, “Urban Wilderness Adventurer,” Aug. 23
Charles “Shroomer” Bledsoe
Charles “Shroomer” Bledsoe, known as Fort Dickerson Park’s unofficial ranger, groundskeeper, lifeguard, historian, and artist-in-residence, received an eviction notice around 7 a.m. last Friday morning. Knoxville police told him he has until Wednesday to remove his books and things, then the stacked-stone cabin he built himself over the last three years will be torn down.
Bledsoe—nicknamed Shroomer, he says, because he is a “fun guy,” (a pun on “fungi”)—was awakened when his dog, Booger, started growling. He recognized the voice of a police officer he knew calling his name, and says he had a feeling it was bad news.
When Bledsoe came outside, more than eight cops were standing around his cabin. He knew most of them by name. When Bledsoe moved to the Fort Dickerson quarry three years ago, he was trespassing on private land. Now the land is owned by the city, and is heavily patrolled by KPD. With the police were several firemen, and Joe Walsh, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“They were as friendly as can be,” says Bledsoe.
The stone cabin, with glass and Plexiglas windows, is situated inside a hidden compound screened by brush piles and stretched blankets. An attached storage shed holds tools, his bike, and building materials. Flower bulbs grow on the living roof.
Bledsoe built the house alone, carving a shelter out of the side of the cliff with an iron bar. The stones in the walls, patio, and steps are dry-stacked, meaning Bledsoe had to find ones that fit together.
“I know where every stone in this building came from,” Bledsoe says.
—Eleanor Scott, “Quarry Man,” Nov. 8
Holly and Peggy Hambright
Holly and Peggy Hambright are two of the busiest cooks in Knoxville, and may be the two most talked about. They both have a reputation not just for their exceptional skill in the kitchen, but for things harder to learn: imagination, inspiration, and an unconventional singularity.
Holly runs Holly’s Eventful Dining, the intuitive catering business she started about three years ago in one of the little capillaries that make up Bearden’s Homberg Place. In her own past in working for a high-end hotel in Baltimore, she has cooked for Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, and the Queen of Thailand, among others. More than five miles away, facing the sidewalk on North Central, Peggy is in charge of Magpies, an older institution, the cake and pie factory with the big black birds guarding the door. Perpetual winner of Metro Pulse’s annual readers poll for Best Bakery, usually by an extremely large margin, Magpies is not the cheapest cake factory in town, but it’s the one customers go to when they want to impress.
They’re sisters, of course, but that mere biological fact doesn’t offer much of the story. They’ve rarely worked together. They didn’t learn cooking together as kids. The last time the two lived in the same house, 30-something years ago, neither aspired to be any sort of chef. They’re six years apart, and they both claim that during their time living in the same house, they hardly knew each other, in fact avoided each other.
Peggy likes to plan things carefully in advance; Holly’s more spontaneous, and says it’s the reason they can never work together. One thing they do have in common is a rare expression, a dancing light in their eyes that suggests they know something funny they’re going to keep to themselves, at least for now.
—Jack Neely, “The Fabulous Hambright Sisters,” Dec. 13