10 Fascinating Knoxvillians of 2009

Knoxville is certainly chock-full of characters, but here are the most interesting ones we wrote about in just the past year:

Sanda Allyson, jazz singer

It's an experience that borders on jaw-dropping, watching willowy, wheelchair-bound Sanda Allyson wend her way to the mic in the middle of Purada on a Friday night, her frail figure seemingly lost in the powerful, enveloping swing of the jazz quintet grooving behind her. Then, when she sounds the first note of her first song, the clubgoers' attentions are fairly riveted by the arresting beauty of her voice.

Possessed of octaves-spanning range, Allyson nails the huskier side of alto, then warbles spot-on soprano; she scat-sings nimbly, just like Ella Fitzgerald, then holds a final note with sustain worthy of the Met.

Yet Allyson never flaunts her gifts. Her performance is often reserved, never histrionic. And when the music does call for one of those scale-busting high notes that a less sensitive chanteuse would drive like a cold spike through one's inner ear, Allyson soars into the pitch with the supple grace of a bird reaching the apex of its flight.

"One of the few things I know about life is that I was meant to sing. It's a sacred commitment for me, the reason I'm on this planet. Even if it means that I end up on a street corner with a tin cup."

—Mike Gibson, "Lady Sings the Blues," Jan. 15

Melinda Meador,civil litigator

"One of the greatest aspects of this country is its judicial system," says Melinda Meador. "I absolutely believe that. Part of the bedrock of that judicial system is the separation of powers. The executive branch has no direct control over the judiciary apart from making court appointments. So the president cannot simply, at his discretion, direct a court to rule in a certain way, or intervene in a proceeding, unless at some point before going out of office he decides to commute someone's sentence or pardon them. That's the only power that he has to effectively override the judicial system.

"The president—now former president—took unto himself the authority to direct the judicial system as it exists and operates outside the country. In doing so, not only did he circumvent the judicial system, he also circumvented the Geneva Conventions that we are signatories to."

Meador is a civil litigator at the Knoxville firm Bass, Berry and Sims. She represents the firm's corporate clients in complex business litigation suits.

"I go to court a lot," she says.

For Meador, what would a day in court be like without the fundamentals that were lacking in the military commission system, such as habeas corpus and declaration of evidence?

"Honestly," says Meador, "it's incomprehensible."

—Chris Barrett, "We the People," Feb. 12

Mike Hamilton, University of Tennessee athletic director

Mike Hamilton doesn't fit the old model of an SEC athletic director. Athletic directors used to be ex-football players and ex-coaches, hard-nosed men like Georgia's Vince Dooley and Doug Dickey, Hamilton's predecessor at UT. During the 1990s, as college football turned into a billion-dollar business, those ex-players and ex-coaches were replaced by directors with business and management backgrounds.

Dickey was a quarterback for Florida and head football coach at Florida and Tennessee before joining UT's athletic department. The 45-year-old Hamilton has an MBA from Clemson and has spent almost his entire career in college fund-raising and sports administration; he worked at a bank and as director of the Wake Forest booster club before he joined the UT athletic department as a fund-raiser in 1992. His office is decorated with sports memorabilia—most of it reflects the university's accomplishments, like conference championships and the football team's 1998 Fiesta Bowl win, rather than personal achievement—and scattered legal and financial documents.

When he describes his pragmatic approach to running the department, it sounds like a business seminar: "Given the fact that there are winners and losers in every athletic event, you're not going to win them all, all the time," he says. "What you're trying to do is put the methodology in place, put the people in place, that you're going to have much more success than failure."

—Matthew Everett, "On the Line," April 2

Jered Sprecher, artist & Guggenheim Fellow

Jered Sprecher teaches painting and drawing at the University of Tennessee. Next year he'll be teaching, primarily by example, the importance of perseverance, healthy self-esteem, and individuality. He won't be in the classroom or his faculty studio. This week, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced that Sprecher will receive a year-long fellowship that will basically give him a year off from teaching and allow him to paint full-time.

Sprecher's abstracts are simultaneously playful and challenging. They celebrate and explore the complicated relationships between colors; between light and its absence; between forms that might, at first, seem to have no relationship other than the fact that he has placed them together on the same canvas. It's easy to imagine the attraction to more real estate, and the demands and pleasures that might come with attempting to solve those same kinds of problems on a larger scale.

"It's important for me to make the work," says Sprecher. "That's something I'm dedicated to. I don't want to make the work and have it just sit in storage. I want to get it out there and enter into a dialogue with other artists, people who enjoy art, or people who have never seen art before. You want to get it out there and see what people's reactions are to it."

—Chris Barrett, "The Art of Art," April 9

Dr. Tom Keun Kim, medical caregiver

Dr. Tom Keun Kim, founder of the Free Medical Clinic of America, is seated at his desk in the tiny office he shares with his nurse and business manager. Funded solely by volunteer help, personal donations, and grant assistance, Kim's Christian ministry has provided no-cost primary care to almost 6,000 patients since its inception in 1993.

For Kim, the clinic is a labor of love—and frustration. Today, though he's on his lunch break, the physician can't seem to relax. He used to see between 25 and 28 patients per day, but since the beginning of the year, that number has grown to between 35 and 40.

"If Americans quit smoking, eat half, and walk more, in 10 or 20 years we'll save a trillion dollars, I guarantee it," he says. "Every morning, afternoon, I preach this to my patients. ‘You're problem is not the cold, the cough, the back pain. Your problem is the smoking.'"

Kim says it saddens him when patients come in who haven't taken their blood pressure pills or insulin or thyroid pills for months because they can't afford it. "The middle class, their health is the most important thing, right? They're able to pay monthly premiums for insurance, and they know that when your health is broken everything is gone," he says.

"But the lower class, their health-care priorities are bottom because they have no money. Their top priorities are paying bills, groceries, gas, while their own health, life or death, is at the bottom. Is this right or wrong?" His voice rises, his face suddenly flushed with anger. He pushes his chair away from his desk in disgust and stands up. "I'm serious! Somebody tell me, is this right or is this wrong?"

—Leslie Wylie, "Sick and Fired," April 23

Bryanna Shelton, activist

When the ACLU filed a lawsuit May 19 against Knox County Schools demanding that it cease and desist filtering educational lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender websites on school computers, 15-year-old Bryanna Shelton says she had no fears about being named as one of two Knoxville-based plaintiffs. "First off, I'm out, and second, everybody at my school, Fulton High School, has been nice about it and very supportive," she says. "Plus, I have people to talk to if I need to."

But the television appearance on WBIR after the news of the suit broke? "Now that was scary!" says Shelton, who prefers goofing off at the lake and chatting on Facebook to answering questions in front of a television camera. "It was nerve-wracking, even though everyone on set was really nice."

Some who commented on the story on the WBIR and WATE websites, though, weren't so nice. Remarks on WBIR.com alone number in the 600s, and one particularly galled her: "‘Gays, queers, and lesbians should not be allowed to attend the same schools as normal people.' It's just one of the many that are crazy!" she says. "We're not a different species. I'm not gonna rub off on them. They were born what they are, and they're not gonna just wake up like, ‘I'm going to start liking girls today.'"

—Rose Kennedy, "The Teenage Plaintiff," May 28

Marcus Parcus, comics illustrator

Want to be a professional comic book artist? Good luck—so does everyone else with a stack of Bristol board and a head full of superheroes. But thanks to the wonders of the Internet and strong performances in several high-profile contests—and scads of talent—Knoxville-based artist Marcus Parcus (familiarly known as Marcus Thiele) might be well on his way to securing one of pop culture's most coveted job titles.

For Thiele, drawing was a pre-literate, and even pre-verbal, activity. "I'm pretty sure all children instinctively draw," he says. "Picasso once claimed that ‘All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.' As far as I can tell, he was right. I'm still working on that whole ‘remaining an artist' part."

He's doing an impressive job of it. The Knoxville native recently garnered a personal invite to submit to Popgun, a highly regarded "graphic mixtape" anthology that features many of today's top illustrators and comics creators. His work has been featured on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, in UDON Entertainment's Street Fighter Tribute art book, and in the Los Angeles i am 8-bit art exhibition. Two of his pieces were recently selected as winning entries in The New Yorker's 2009 Eustace Tilley Contest, where artists were invited to reinvent the magazine's dandy mascot.

—April Snellings, "Pop Artist," July 9

Greg "Lumpy" Lambert, Knox County commissioner

On Tuesday, the KnoxViews blog reported that an angry and disruptive Commissioner Greg "Lumpy" Lambert showed up at the Monday night meeting of the Joint City/County Task Force on Ridge, Slope and Hillside Development and Protection and "basically took over the meeting."

Lambert became so enraged that at one point he let fly this little gem: "Pretty soon somebody is gonna bring a gun to the City County Building and shoot all of us and we'll deserve it!"

While Lambert acknowledges making that remark, he says that he was not carrying a firearm at the meeting and it was not intended to be taken as a threat.

"What I said was that when we as government officials make these decisions that result in devaluing someone's land, pretty soon that will be all they have left," he says. "One of these days we're going to make a decision like that, and someone will bring a gun into the City County Building and shoot all of us. I included myself in that." Lambert adds that he has "faced down two murderers" while carrying a firearm.

"I might be dead now otherwise, which I'm sure would please some of your readers," he says. "Every time I make a passionate statement, these bloggers present it like I'm going to go off shooting people simply because I carry a firearm. I am not a violent person."

—Charles Maldonado, "Lumpy Unleashes," July 16

Joe Carson,whistleblower

Joe Carson is waiting to learn the outcome of a federal legal appeal in which he is named appellant. If he wins, there will be no large sums awarded or giants toppled. He will simply have the agreement of a federal court that the United States Office of Special Counsel, a government agency intended to protect the interests of government workers who provoke the ire of their co-workers or supervisors, has failed to be effective. If he loses, he intends to take his case to the Supreme Court. It's difficult to say whether Carson has a preference.

"Perhaps it will result in a type of ‘truth commission' in which these Feds get to tell their stories for the record," says Carson of the prospect of a decision in his favor, "of how they tried to do their duty and were harmed by their agencies for it, because OSC did not protect them. Perhaps it will result in some measure of rehabilitation and restitution for some more egregious cases."

Carson is a busy man. He's a licensed professional engineer employed as a facility representative, or safety inspector, by the Department of Energy at Oak Ridge. Regardless of your perception of Oak Ridge, you can appreciate the enormity of the tasks related to that work. Carson is also an organizer and leader of Vols4STEM, a volunteer group that works to cultivate interest among high schoolers in science, technology, engineering, and math careers. He is leading an international campaign to compel his engineering peers around the world to accept and denounce their profession's complicity in the quest for oil in Darfur, which has helped fuel the human rights crisis there. And on any given day he has one or more cases similar to the one described above on some judge's desk, somewhere in the United States.

—Chris Barrett, "The Curious Case of Joe Carson," July 23

Spanky Brown, comedian & radio host

Spanky Brown is live, talking to you in your car or living room—and since his debut this past July on WVLZ 11080 AM, unlike anyone sports radio fans have ever heard locally. His 12 years as a stand-up comic, including appearances on BET and Comedy Central, give him a unique "did you just say that on air?" edge; when would you hear Heather and Doc in the morning joshing about a golfer's ethnicity?

"Being a comedian, I can get away with stuff sports journalists can't," says Brown. "I have a black NASCAR correspondent, Mr. Wendell from BET's Comic View. My show sponsors the Old English 800 Cadillac. No other sports talk show could do that and not get hit by Sharpton, Jesse Jackson."

But Brown, a 47-year-old who's originally from Memphis and has the "Who Dat?" and "Ri-DI-cu-lous" vocabulary to prove it, doesn't really qualify as a shock jock. "We're not into heavy sexual innuendo," he says. "I won't make fun of the less fortunate. I feel like there's a difference between being funny and clear, and being shocking. Anyone can write a dirty joke."

—Rose Kennedy, "What's So Funny, Spanky Brown?" Dec. 10