By Ray Hill

Disappointed by his failure to be appointed to the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Dr. John R. Neal continued to be the Volunteer State’s political gadfly extraordinaire. John R. Neal ran for the United States Senate eighteen times, governor nine times and the U. S. House of Representatives once. Neal claimed he was always battling the prevailing political machine that rule the state and never failed to complain he had been defeated by huge expenditures on behalf of his opponents (while he spent virtually nothing on his own campaigns) and voter fraud.

Dixon Merritt wrote a letter to the editor of the Nashville Tennessean just after Dr. Neal’s death recalling he had been the press agent in 1912. Merritt had helped Neal campaign for the gubernatorial nomination until Neal’s eventual withdrawal. Merritt recalled that he was in Knoxville and to his chagrin discovered he could not find a room at “any acceptable hotel” and decided to simply wait out the night in the lobby of the Farragut Hotel. Merritt was sitting in the lobby when John R. Neal came in off the street. The two men spent the entire night talking with Dr. Neal finally explaining, “And so, I have never wanted to win any race that I was in. But always there was some matter of public interest, general welfare that needed to be brought to the attention of the people who might activate it through the legislature, the governor . . . a law . . . enforcement. Sometimes it worked. Measured from that angle, I have won more than half the time.” Merritt said, “Dirty shirt and all, John R. Neal was a great public servant.”

The soft-spoken and bushy browed Dr. Neal certainly did not seem especially bothered by his continuous defeats. “I enjoy the humor of life, politics and everything else,” Neal said. “The main thing in life is fighting for the thing you want to fight for and if you succeed, all right; and if not, all right.”

John R. Neal needed to be philosophical about his electoral career as he seemed to have no compunction about entering races he simply could not win. Neal challenged Kenneth D. McKellar in 1940 when the senator was at the peak of his popularity and political power. No other Democrat in the State of Tennessee would risk running against McKellar, but John R. Neal entered the race with gusto and promptly spent the entire campaign nipping at the senator’s heels. Neal roared his denunciation of McKellar’s own political organization, as well as that of his warm personal friend and political ally, Edward H. Crump of Memphis. McKellar won 230,033 votes to 14,653 for Neal. In Neal’s own home county of Rhea, McKellar won 1,490 votes to 126 for Dr. Neal.

John R. Neal ran against Senator Tom Stewart and Edward “Ned” Carmack in the 1942 Democratic primary. It was a close election and Neal cried “fraud” at the top of his lungs and contested Stewart’s election all the way to the United States Senate. Neal, hardly taken seriously by any of Tennessee’s political professionals, mauled several of them in verbal and written exchanges when the professionals tried to diminish the notion of voter fraud. When Charles Crabtree of Memphis offered to put up money if Neal could prove the Crump machine was guilty of voter fraud, Neal snapped he would indeed produce evidence, presuming a court would hear it. Neal tartly said if Crabtree put up any money, he hoped it would not be assessed from public employees. The Chairman of the Democratic State Committee, Russell Kramer, a Knoxville lawyer, issued an invitation to Dr. Neal to make his charges and provide evidence to the state committee. Dr. Neal refused and sniffed, “You and your committee not only designated all the Primary Boards throughout the state who appointed all the primary officials, but were yourselves candidates for reelection in the same primary to which my charges of fraud are related. Many of these charges have to do with these appointments and the action of your appointees. For your committee to assume sole jurisdiction of an inquiry into charges of corrupt election practices connected with the recent primary would be similar to judges assuming jurisdiction involving contests in which they were a party.” Dr. Neal then issued an invitation of his own, asking Kramer to cordially join him in asking the Senate Elections Committee to come to Tennessee and make an on the spot investigation.

Neal had successfully irritated the Memphis Boss during the primary campaign, although that was not especially hard to do, as Crump was notoriously thin skinned. When Neal began wondering where the money came from to pay for Crump’s large scale advertising campaign on behalf of Senator Stewart, the Memphis Boss said the professor was barely worthy of notice and could not be taken seriously as a candidate. Crump said Neal had no “organization of any kind”, no manager, no headquarters and “hasn’t made a speech” during the course of the campaign. Crump was a millionaire from his own business enterprises and the Shelby County machine was superbly well organized and had little trouble raising money for the candidates it supported, but Neal’s charges the ticket supported by the Memphis Boss had exceeded the legal limit of expenditures allowed by the law, Crump was highly annoyed. “I challenge Mr. Crump to state whether he is paying out of his own pocket for the advertisements, and, if not, from what source the money comes,” Dr. Neal demanded.

John R. Neal was especially active in 1946 when he was running for both governor and U. S. senator in the Democratic primaries. Neal challenged incumbent governor Jim Nance McCord and Senator K. D. McKellar. Dr. Neal received less than 3,000 votes statewide in the gubernatorial contest and just over 3,000 votes in the senatorial contest. Almost immediately, Neal contested the election. Neal contended both Governor McCord and Senator McKellar had spent $50,000 to win renomination and noted the maximum expenditure under the law was $10,000. Neal quarreled about virtually every aspect of the election, saying the coalition ticket run by McKellar, McCord and Andrew “Tip” Taylor (candidate for the state utilities commission) was a violation of state law. Neal thundered that the McKellar – McCord – Taylor ticket had been guilty of “statewide violation of registration law” and the counting of the ballots had been “fraudulent.” J. Frank Hobbs, Chairman of Tennessee’s Democratic Party, laconically noted Dr. Neal ran for office often, rarely got more than a handful of votes and “frequently” contested the election results. Governor Jim McCord acknowledged that Neal had informed him of the impending contest. Once again, Neal’s charges went nowhere.

When Neal ran against Governor Gordon Browning in 1950, the professor announced visits to Oak Ridge, Clinton, Kingston, Norris, and Rockwood in East Tennessee, saying he planned to campaign in Middle and West Tennessee later. Toward the end of the campaign, John R. Neal actually opened a campaign headquarters in Nashville’s Tulane Hotel. Dr. Neal announced his campaign manager, H. N. Camp of Knoxville, would run the state headquarters.

Aside from spending a pittance on postage and riding the bus to various locations across Tennessee, John R. Neal would speak whenever he could get anyone to listen. Invariably, Dr. Neal would mutter, “We’re progressing, we’re progressing.”

Near the end of his life, John R. Neal told a reporter he was losing interest in politics and doubted he would run for governor. Dr. Neal said his interest was waning “because governors don’t really do anything interesting, just build roads, run schools and things like that.” Yet two years later, Neal was off and running against incumbent governor Frank Clement and former governor Gordon Browning. At some point, Dr. Neal found himself on a platform with Governor Clement, whom he dismissed as “that little boy who is running against me.” The high water mark for John R. Neal in his all too frequent statewide campaigns was when he received 51,757 votes against Gordon Browning’s 184,437 votes. It was not unusual for Neal to lose the Democratic primary and run in the general election as an Independent. One year, John R. Neal was on the ballot in the general election for governor and the United States Senate. In 1954 when Dr. Neal was Governor Frank Clement’s opponent in the general election, he had already challenged Senator Estes Kefauver in the Democratic primary.

Dr. Neal continued to be careless with his money until the end of his life. One of the more famous stories told to illustrate John R. Neal’s indifference to money was a check from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the purchase of property Neal owned. The amount may have been $55,000 or as much as $90,000. The TVA bookkeeper was at wit’s end as Dr. Neal had never cashed the check. Neal’s biographer said the check was eventually discovered on Neal’s person, much the worse for wear and the bookkeeper went with Dr. Neal to deposit the check. According to the Nashville Tennessean, the check was for $90,000 and had been placed in Neal’s wallet. The check was so disfigured and worn, another had to be issued with Dr. Neal’s solemn promise it would be cashed. Considering $90,000 at the time would equate to almost $1.6 million today, it is an astonishing tale. That indifference would cause him to lose much of his considerable wealth as Neal’s biographer Bobby E. Hicks noted some of the professor’s acquaintances relieved him of quite a bit of money. Yet another illustration of Neal’s perpetual carelessness with money was told by his biographer, Bobby E. Hicks, who related the professor had left a tattered coat at Regas restaurant in downtown Knoxville. The coat remained there as the restaurant owners thought he would return to claim the garment. When they finally inspected it, they discovered the pockets contained bonds.

John R. Neal’s eccentricities were hardly confined to monetary matters. Hicks wrote that Neal had been gifted with a new suit by his students. Rather than expressing gratitude, Neal and tossed the suit to the floor and growled if he wanted a new suit, he would buy one himself. While in Knoxville, Dr. Neal lived at the Watauga Hotel. The only part of the Watauga still in existence is one floor and became part of the Regas restaurant. John R. Neal’s living habits became so objectionable he was evicted from the Watauga Hotel. The bathtub in his room was filled with books. Neal always attended presidential inaugurations and wore new clothes, shaved, and bathed for the occasions. Friends referred to those excursions as Neal’s “quadrennial cleanup.”

During the last few years of his life, Neal’s eccentricities grew and his mind deteriorated. People took advantage of him, much of his wealth was gone, and he became ill and was taken to a Rockwood hospital. Neal died from pneumonia on November 23, 1959.

The Kingsport News, noting, “You can’t tell a book by the cover” remembered Neal tramping down the streets of Knoxville, “his shoes untied, his clothes unpressed, his hair unkempt, his face unshaven” and admitted many people, especially younger people who knew little about his life and record, believed the professor to be just “another odd-ball.” The Kingsport News readily acknowledged Dr. Neal had been “one of the most brilliant lawyers in Tennessee” as well as “a constant champion of the underdog.” Admitting that John R. Neal “was not a ‘success’ by the world’s usually accepted standard”, the professor was instead “a non-conformist who acted in acted in accordance with his own personal creed.”

After John R. Neal died, the Tennessean published an editorial lauding “the brilliant octogenarian.” The Tennessean noted Neal never seemed to care about losing elections at almost every election cycle and concluded, “Apparently he just liked to get around the state and visit his many acquaintances occasionally.” After reminding readers that Neal was far more than a figure of fun, derision and revulsion, the Tennessean said, “The world requires its John R. Neals to balance its natural inclination toward conformity and orthodoxy. Perhaps his greatest contribution came in his persistent refusal to be like the man at the next desk.”