By Bill Howard
Anyone familiar with this newspaper knows of Ray Hill. His encyclopedic knowledge of history and politics – both in Tennessee and beyond – fills an entire page each week. A former Tennessee state Representative and Knox County Commissioner, Hill has also held numerous positions and appointments on various government committees.
Last Tuesday night, September 28, Hill was the featured speaker at the monthly meeting of the 8th District Republican Club. The meeting was held in the cafeteria of Carter High School. Club president Alan Branch presided.
Hill’s stories and remarks covered a wide range of people, events, and political administrations at all levels. His recollections were informative, educational, and, as much as anything, entertaining.
He began by presenting to Branch a gavel that once belonged to U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich to use at future club meetings. He did so, he said, in honor of Focus publisher Steve Hunley.
“Without Steve Hunley and The Knoxville Focus, you wouldn’t have my column,” said Hill, to laughter and applause. Hill and Hunley have been friends for many years.
“If Mr. Hunley ran his paper the way he runs my page, he would be in bankruptcy, because you can’t fit a postage stamp’s worth of advertising on my page,” Hill joked.
The audience heard one of Hill’s favorite stories, about Kenneth McKellar, a longtime member of the Senate from Tennessee. One day FDR called McKellar into his office, said Hill, and asked him if he could hide $2 billion dollars of the federal budget.
Hill continued: “Without missing a beat, McKellar said ‘well of course I can Mr. President. But where in Tennessee are we going to hide it?” According to Hill, McKellar, who became the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, “hid” the money in Oak Ridge. It started the Manhattan Project.
According to Hill, McKellar was a very partisan Democrat who controlled all federal appointments during the New Deal. “You feuded with him at your own peril,” said Hill. Ross Eakin, the first superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was one of the victims of McKellar’s wrath.
McKellar wanted the Republican Eakin gone, so he simply added an amendment to eliminate Eakin’s salary. Just like that, Eakins’s job no longer existed. McKellar was in the senate until he lost to Albert Gore Sr. at 84.
One of the tidbits Hill related was a playful dig at Hunley. “Mr. Hunley did not think this story was appropriate, but of course I’m gonna tell it anyway,” Hill chuckled, along with the crowd.
David Ignatius Walsh was the first Irish Catholic elected governor; it was in 1914 in Massachusetts. According to Hill, Walsh received widespread support from Protestant, Republican women because of how handsome he was. Walsh, the “Bachelor Governor,” also served in the U.S. Senate for 26 years.
“What the little old ladies did not realize is that Senator Walsh was as gay as Christmas,” said Hill. Further, according to Hill, a wealthy industrialist from Massachusetts made the following observation: “I would trust Senator Walsh on a round-the-world cruise with my daughter; I wouldn’t trust him in a canoe across the creek with my son.”
“See?” asked Hill as he looked at Hunley. “They liked that story,” as raucous laughter abounded.
Hill told the crowd that when he was in the state legislature, his motto was “I never minded you having a ham as long as I got a hog.”
“If you knew what you were doing, you could have a big time,” Hill said.
Hill told the crowd that for the next several weeks his column would feature “colorful Knox Countians.”
Before Hill spoke, the club addressed various items, one of which was the upcoming redistricting of Knox County, which is required every ten years. The goal of redistricting is to roughly equalize the population in each of Knox Co.’s nine districts.
The club approved a motion to send a letter to the 8th District’s Commissioner – Richie Beeler – along with the commission’s two at-large members – Justin Briggs and Larsen Jay. The purpose of the letter would be to invite the three to the club’s next meeting – Oct. 26 – so that they could give their input about redistricting.
Redistricting has to be finalized before the end of the year.