11 Fascinating Knoxvillians of 2013

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

Con Hunley

Despite jaw-dropping good looks and talent formidable enough to win the admiration of established stars and snag an Academy of Country Music Newcomer of the Year nomination in 1979, and despite touring with some of the biggest names in the industry and being the first artist invited to sing on Ralph Emery's Nashville Now, Cob Hunley lost deal after deal in the late '80s to lesser talents in big hats. His drinking became the subject of gossip, and he finally came home to Knoxville and went into business with Steve, leaving behind a contingent of fans who wondered whatever became of Con Hunley.

The short answer is that he's fine. He's sober and making music that matters with people he trusts. He's reconnecting with his fans via a thriving Internet-based family music business, and his personal journey is the stuff of classic country songs—and is, in fact, the subject of a moving, as-yet-unreleased autobiographical song called "If You Could Read Between the Lines on This Face."

The former Warner Bros. publicist who was one of the first to believe in him thinks he probably got out in the nick of time.

"He could have gone on and on like he was and he probably would've been singing with Elvis by now," says Bonnie Taggert, who once stopped New York City traffic at the Holland Tunnel so Hunley could be photographed for an official promotional shot.

"Instead, he stopped drinking, took control of his life, and he's still loved and still has an incredible life and I think his silver hair is gorgeous." (Betty Bean, "Con Hunley," Jan. 31)

Cruz Contreras

Clutching a pair of vintage yellow lamps he bought two hours ago, Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras strolls past the sleek, modern front office of Gay Street's Attack Monkey Productions and heads downstairs into his band's de facto headquarters: a messy quasi-living room littered with effects pedals, musical instruments, and shabby furniture. To his right is a media shelf filled with CDs, separated by genre and other categories—jazz, country, local, independent; on his left, a roughed-up Fender Rhodes piano.

"This is my crash pad," he says.

Crouching to the floor, Contreras pulls a hidden latch to open a trap door that leads to another stairway, which leads to another basement—one that vaguely resembles a medieval dungeon. Dirty and mostly bare, it hardly looks like a functioning rehearsal space.

"There's no dead bodies down here," he says, a coy grin punctuating his scraggly, country-boy beard. "I promise."

Contreras has big plans for the basement, which he is in the process of converting into a rehearsal space for the band. He's spent most of the day in local thrift stores, finally ending up with the yellow lamps he's holding.

"In a few days, you won't be able to recognize this place."

He also has big plans for his band, which has undergone its own extensive renovation since forming in 2009. Fans familiar with Contreras from his former band, the CCstringband, or the Black Lillies' casual early shows, might not recognize the seasoned group they have become. They played more than 230 shows in 2012, while also finding time to record their third and most fully developed album, Runaway Freeway Blues. They have earned spirited praise from all over the country, including from Nashville's country-music industry, and now they're set to play their first headlining show at the Tennessee Theatre to celebrate the release of their new album.

In many ways, this long-awaited homecoming performance will serve as a victory lap for the band, whose quick ascent to regional success with national potential almost didn't get off the ground in the first place. But it's also the beginning of a new chapter, with brand-new challenges. (Ryan Reed, "Runaway Success," March 14)

Holly Warlick

There's a Pat Summitt bobblehead doll on the shelf above Holly Warlick's desk. Usually, it has a whistle hanging around its neck—the one Summitt presented to her longtime assistant coach last year when she formally stepped down, ending a season of stress, speculation, and grief that followed Summitt's announcement that she has early-onset Alzheimer's Disease—but lately, the whistle's been out in the front office because so many people want to see it. Almost as much as the eight gleaming Waterford Glass national championship trophies, it is a historical artifact. But Summitt stays where she is, right over Warlick's shoulder.

"I like having her here," Warlick says.

Leaving aside bleed-and-die partisans, there are two kinds of sports fans: those who love winners and those who love underdogs. Both kinds can find something to love in Holly Warlick, a winner to whom nothing has ever come easy. (Betty Bean, "#StillTenn," March 21)

Ashley Klappholz and Ellie Kittrell

Tucked against the far wall of Panera Bread on North Peters Road, among the besuited business people chatting seriously over coffee and the large groups of moms whose members alternate between wrangling small children and laughing with their friends, are two women sitting at a table covered in binders and documents. One is on her cell phone and the other is sipping her coffee as she looks over the pages of notes in front of her.

When Ashley Klappholz hangs up, she smiles and apologizes. She has the harried look one assumes is typical of a person in charge of a big project. And Klappholz's project is indeed big. She, along with Ellie Kittrell (sitting across from her at the wobbly table), are trying to start a completely new children's science museum for Knoxville called the MUSE.

"When we moved here with our kids, we realized this [a children's museum] was something Knoxville was lacking," Klappholz says.

"There's some good things here. Oak Ridge has a great science museum. But in terms of a larger-scale, discovery, interactive center—we don't have [one]," Kittrell says.

Knoxville, Klappholz and Kittrell have found, is one of the largest cities without a science center for kids. But it also attracts professionals in science fields who come here to work in places like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex.

"There's a lot of transient people in the community that are coming from all over the nation who have been exposed to children's discovery, interactive, science centers on a larger scale than what we have in our area," Kittrell says. (Paige Huntoon, "Science Project," March 28)

Tim Burchett

It's 7:30 in the morning, and the sun's not yet fully up outside Powell Elementary School. But as Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett walks down the hall, fist-bumping students and hugging teachers, you get the feeling he's been awake for hours.

Actually, he probably has been—Burchett's somewhat of an insomniac, an affliction that may or may not be influenced by his propensity for Mountain Dew regularly supplemented with iced tea. Yet Burchett's animation isn't simply that of the highly caffeinated, or the perky morning lark. Instead, the mayor seems to feed off the energy of the kids that are quickly filling the cafeteria.

If you haven't spent a lot of time with Burchett, you might just assume this is typical political glad-handing, even if the hundred or so fourth- and fifth-graders who come to see him won't be eligible to vote for him for a very long time, long after he's left his mayoral post in 2018. (Although Burchett refuses to officially confirm that he'll be running for reelection next year, it seems likely. It also seems likely he'll be unopposed, at least by a serious candidate.)

But if you have spent a lot of time with the mayor—or if you have just read through his Twitter account—you can tell his enthusiasm for hanging out with kids is real. You also get the feeling that a lot of days, he'd rather be eating lunch in elementary school cafeterias (despite his frequent complaints about the quality of Knox County Schools food, especially the pizza), rather than hobnobbing at business lunches at Bistro at the Bijou or Chesapeake's.

This, in a nutshell, is what people love about Tim Burchett. It is also what drives other people crazy. (Cari Wade Gervin, "Citizen Burchett," May 9)

Marcel Neergaard

When Marcel Neergaard decided to start a petition calling for StudentsFirst—a national political action committee pursuing "transformative" school reforms—to revoke the "reformer of the year" honor it had awarded to Tennessee state Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) in April, he grabbed a dictionary and thesaurus. The legislator had introduced the Classroom Protection Act (another "Don't Say Gay" bill) earlier in the year, and the 11-year-old Oak Ridger felt this wasn't right. So he wanted to express his thoughts just so.

"We looked at words, and they were huge words, because for something like this, I can't use fourth-grade words. This is a petition, this is something big. Instead of using the words ‘take back,' I learned the word ‘rescind.' I never knew that word!" he says.

The learning curve has been steep in more ways than one. Neergaard thrust himself into the media spotlight about two weeks ago when he put his name on the petition he posted on MoveOn.org and sent it out into the world, not knowing what kind of response he would get.

But within an hour, the petition had 1,000 signatures, thanks to MoveOn.org promoting the petition to its followers. By last Wednesday, he'd reached his goal of 50,000 signatures. And the petition worked. In a June 5 blog post, StudentsFirst director Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s troubled school system, announced that the group had revoked Ragan's award. (Paige Huntoon, "Youth Action," June 13)

Marcus Hall

In one way or another, fashion has always been part of the narrative of Marcus Hall's family history.

Take his grandfather, L.C. Nelson, a former factory worker at Dempster Brothers. A salt-of-the-earth blue-collar man by day, L.C.'s dress outside of work was executive chic. Possessed of his own prismatic vision of 1970s haute couture, he loved to peacock in bright polyester shirts with big collars, perfectly creased polyester slacks with a white belt, and patent leather shoes, polished to a glossy sheen.

Dressed to the nines, he climbed behind the wheel of an enormous blue Cadillac Fleetwood so long he couldn't close the door of the modest family garage.

"My grandfather always told me that when you leave the house, even if you didn't have a million bucks, you should dress like a million bucks," Hall says, relaxing at a desk in his eccentrically appointed warehouse off Magnolia Avenue, a concrete bunker decorated with surrealist paintings, Knox memorabilia, and 1970s furniture.

Hall's mother, Juanzel Nelson, a licensed practical nurse and a pastor at Parkview House of God, was also the family seamstress, hemming, altering, and even sewing whole new wardrobe additions for her four children when money was tight. She taught Marcus to sew when he was 12 years old.

And two of his brothers, Xavier Barton and Monrico, several cousins, and any number of other friends and acquaintances worked for years at the old Cherry Street Levi's plant off Magnolia, a veritable institution for local families until it closed in 1989. "Because my brothers were there, because I always loved clothes, I just assumed I would work there, too," says Hall, now owner of nationally known Marc Nelson Denim. (Mike Gibson, "Who the Hell is Marc Nelson?", July 11)

David Madden

The week David Madden turned 80, he took a long walk around his hometown.

Though he's one of Knoxville's best-known living authors, Madden hasn't been a regular on our sidewalks in half a century. After several teaching posts in the '60s, he was, for 40 years, a writer in residence at Louisiana State University, where he eventually became head of LSU's creative-writing program. In 2009 he moved back, or almost back: He and his wife live in Black Mountain, N.C. He's been showing up here in town more lately, and still knows his way around. And even when he's been gone, whether his readers know it or not, his memories of Knoxville keep churning up in his fiction. Sometimes Madden's Knoxville shows up in rural Eastern Kentucky. Sometimes, as is the case with his latest novel, Knoxville emerges in 17th-century London. You might have to know where to look.

Madden was once Knoxville's literary prodigy, our boy wonder; at 16, he won second prize in a statewide one-act play competition. His play, Call Herman to Supper, was performed in Ayres Hall in 1949. Later, his novels got national attention, among them Cassandra Singing, The Pleasure-Dome, and The Suicide's Wife, which in 1979 became a CBS movie starring Angie Dickinson in the title role.

His 1974 novel, Bijou, an explicit coming-of-age novel with the Gay Street landmark as its hub, is the one that stirred the most nervous speculation here. Set in a thinly disguised downtown Knoxville, it's at turns hilarious and appalling, as it follows the adventures of precocious 13-year-old Lucius Hutchfield, a thinly disguised version of David Madden.

At an age when some writers run out of steam, or ideas, Madden still likes to surprise. "I'm deep into seven books," he says, both novels and nonfiction works. (Jack Neely, "The Whole Story of Knoxville," August 8)

Butch Jones

Saturday night in Neyland Stadium. The lights are on. The band has played a rousing rendition of "Rocky Top." Players in orange jerseys are lined up on the sidelines, awaiting their chance to shine. New head coach Butch Jones runs out on to the field. The crowd roars.

Yet it's not football time in Tennessee, not yet, no matter what the voice on the loudspeaker says. This is practice. Not the Orange and White game, not even a scrimmage—it's practice. A Saturday night in August University of Tennessee football training camp practice.

But because it's open to the public, and it's the first time in the modern history of the program it's happened, and because Jones is new, and because Vols fans are hoping he'll erase the bad taste of the past several years—the decline and fall of Phil Fulmer, the Lane Kiffin debacle, the dyed-to-order orange pants of Derek Dooley that didn't have magical powers after all—there are 30,000 fans, give or take a few thousand, in the stands watching UT's four possible quarterbacks run plays. When the plays result in a "touchdown," the crowd cheers as if it actually counted. Even when the skies open and driving rain pours down and doesn't stop, people stay and watch. Both the desperation and excitement are palpable.

And UT fans are desperate. It's been quite a while since the Vols have been so bad for so long. Sure, Auburn had a worse season last year, and yeah, Arkansas was right up there, and Kentucky‚ well, they're Kentucky. But Auburn won a national championship in 2010, and Arkansas didn't even have their real coach. And sure, the team's still on NCAA probation until 2015, thanks to Kiffin's assistant coaches, but that's not the reason the Vols haven't won an SEC Championship since the storied 1998 season.

But now there is Jones, and he is the reason—and pretty much the only reason—fans are excited for this season. (Cari Wade Gervin, "Butch!", August 27)

Lauren Hopson

Blame it on Lauren Hopson, if you want. She's fine with that. In fact, she's more than okay with it.

"I've always been pretty vocal," Hopson says with a slight laugh.

Hopson, a cheery third-grade teacher with a blonde bob, now in her 13th year teaching at Halls Elementary, had no idea she'd become the face of a movement when she spoke for a mere five minutes at the Oct. 2 meeting of the Knox County Schools Board of Education.

"The things I said were nothing new," Hopson says. "I've been saying them for two years at teacher talks and forums. I said them at the school board last year. Nothing's changed. In fact, some things have gotten worse."

It might have ended there, as most comments at poorly attended public meetings generally do. But Hopson's speech emphasizing her frustration with the county's evaluation process and KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre's leadership was uploaded to YouTube eight days later. Entitled, "Tired Teachers - What TN teachers really think about new evaluations," it's the same poor quality video that you can watch on the KCS website, complete with a sign-language translator in lower corner.

Five weeks later, it has almost 100,000 views.

"I am tired of trying to plan five different lessons a day that hit 61 different indicators on a rubric, and that's just to score a rock-solid 3. I am tired of the public being convinced that Knox County is moving in the right direction when I see good teachers at my school in tears at some point during the day on a regular basis. I am tired of having to waste instruction time to give tests every week, whether I need to or not, just to have data," Hopson says in the video. She's calm, not impassioned, but the strength of her feeling—and her anger—comes through.

In that video, Hopson is standing in front of empty seats. But by the time the Nov. 6 board meeting rolled around, the room was full of hundreds of people wearing bright red to signify their support. (Cari Wade Gervin, "The War on Teachers 2: Teachers Revolt!", Nov. 21)