On A High Note

Putting Others First: The Most Influential Nashvillians of The Past 50 Years

Originally published in a special issue of Celebrate Nashville commemorating Metro Nashville’s 50th anniversary. 

By Steve Morley

While Nashville’s Metro Charter was born out of economic and administrative needs, at its heart it was an initiative to serve the largest number of citizens in the best possible way. Metro’s “Founding Fathers” modeled the selfless acts of looking beyond themselves and thinking long-range in order to promote growth and improve the overall quality of the city. The Metro Charter Commission, for instance, represented numerous interests and political views, but its members chose to be a reconciling force. It is in honor of this spirit of selflessness that we salute Nashvillians who, over the past 50 years, have demonstrated the qualities of vision, tenacity and compassion that have led the way to an even stronger Nashville.

Politics played a major role in bringing about consolidation and the resulting benefits of an expanded and more robust city, but many, both inside and outside of that arena, have made noteworthy contributions to Nashville’s quality of life. With apologies to those who could not be included, Celebrate Nashville! brings you this overview of some who have played a significant role in the city’s evolution.

The notion of a consolidated city/county government wasn’t new, having first been introduced in 1915 and revisited in 1940 by Seth Wall, a member of the Davidson County Court. It was a forceful local physician, though, who would demonstrate the functionality of consolidation. In 1952, the outspoken Dr. John Lentz—who also used his influence to introduce such disease control measures as restaurant inspections and rabies control laws—proposed a merger of the city and county health departments that resulted in an annual savings to the city of $165,000.

AlexanderLooby

AlexanderLooby

Z. Alexander Looby, a respected attorney known for winning civil rights cases, later became a city councilman. As a member of the Metro Charter commission, he helped draft the charter that would pass in 1962—a time of great racial unrest throughout the country. Looby would actively support the charter for its overall benefits as well as the benefits it would bring his fellow black citizens, who would be more fairly represented in local government under the charter’s consolidation plan. Another driving force for Nashville’s black population was Baptist preacher Kelly Miller Smith, who played a major part in organizing the lunch counter sit-ins that helped turn the tide for a desegregated Nashville. Smith was memorialized when the Jefferson Street Bridge was renamed in his honor—a tribute particularly fitting for a man who helped to bridge one of society’s widest gaps.

Nashville’s most prominent businessmen sometimes found themselves in competition, but they often pooled their resources and influence to effect changes benefiting the city. Real estate man Nelson Andrews, as head of the Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1958, led its efforts to promote the adoption of the Metro Charter. He was instrumental in the creation of Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital and Leadership Nashville, as well as pushing for an income tax to fund quality public schools—against his Republican grain. In 2002, Andrews revealed his involvement in Watauga, a long-secret businessmen’s group which discussed local issues, proposed solutions and then reached into their own deep pockets to make them happen. Watauga is now recognized for having consistently acted in the city’s best interests—from improving public education and promoting racial reconciliation to such relative mundanities as reviewing the sewer system—doing so outside of public view in order to remain efficient and effective.

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler, a journalist with ascending roles over four decades at The Tennessean, was also active in civil rights. Seigenthaler was making news rather than reporting it in 1961, during a brief hiatus working as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. While in that job, he was knocked unconscious during an attack on the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., while protecting young Peabody College student Susan Wilbur from assailants. He was similarly uncompromising in his long tenure at The Tennessean, where he accepted the position of editor in March of 1962, about three months before the Metro Charter would be voted in. The newspaper’s hard-hitting political coverage under Seigenthaler held local government accountable as the era of Metro consolidation got underway.

A contemporary of Andrews, William C. (Bill) Weaver III, focused on aiding Nashville’s less fortunate. Weaver worked for his family’s company, National Life and Accident, but he spent much of his life in philanthropy. His “Time to Rise” program, which helped at-risk youths “increase their life chances through academic excellence,” is typical of the projects he supported.

David K. “Pat” Wilson, cited by fellow business leaders as Watauga’s probable founder, stepped into his role as Chamber of Commerce President in 1967 with Andrews as a VP on his team and some big goals in mind. Wilson, president of Cherokee Insurance Co., was especially astute in recognizing what he correctly saw as “unlimited potential” for free enterprise in late-1960s Nashville. During his term, a newly formed commission called Forward Nashville represented Wilson’s goals for the city, which included the expansion of air travel (to in turn attract businesses) and the introduction of legislation permitting liquor by the drink. Under the chamber’s supervision, this legislation would later come to pass, with massive implications for the local economy.

The chamber’s Forward Nashville initiative also sparked Nashville Plus, a marketing initiative to publicize the city nationwide as a business hub. The short-lived venture was headed by Vanderbilt business professor David Steine, described after his death in 1976 as an “analyst of community potential.” Steine chaired Cheekwood’s Fine Arts Committee, worked with the American Red Cross and became a partner with James (Jimmy) Bradford, Jr. in the legendary local investment firm J.C. Bradford & Company. Bradford was noted for his contributions to Nashville’s economic vigor and his service on the boards of Baptist Hospital, Peabody College and other schools.

Among Bradford’s many high-powered clients was Ingram Industries, owned by E. Bronson Ingram. He and his wife for nearly 37 years, arts philanthropist Martha Rivers Ingram, each hold an important place in Nashville business history. Mr. Ingram would diversify part of his father’s oil company into a portfolio of businesses that made him Tennessee’s first billionaire. Martha Ingram’s role as the city’s “angel of the arts” began in earnest after meeting with the members of Watauga to discuss the formation of an arts facility. With support from key members but mainly armed with her own passion, she raised the funds to make the Tennessee Performing Arts Center a reality. Husband Bronson then asked her to join him at Ingram Industries, where she assumed chairman of the board duties soon after his death in 1995. She remains a tireless giver who is partly responsible for developing Nashville’s distinguished Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

In a city reputed for its banking prominence, Andrew Benedict, Jr. was a titan of the financial services industry who spent more than 40 years with First American National (originally American National) Bank, the dominant bank in Middle Tennessee under Benedict’s leadership. Benedict, whose importance is difficult to overstate, was active in local charities and was a trustee of Vanderbilt University. While Benedict considered fellow banker Sam Fleming a tough competitor, he also called him a good friend. The genial Fleming, president (and later CEO) of Third National Bank, is remembered for his faith in new ventures; for one, he approved the $1,000 loan that launched Castle Recorders, Nashville’s first professional recording studio and an important precursor of its eventual identity as country music’s capital. Fleming also secured an 11th-hour rescue when an investor pulled out of the startup deal for healthcare giant Hospital Corporation of America.

HCA was founded in 1968 by Dr. Thomas Frist Sr., Jack Massey and Dr. Thomas (Tommy) Frist Jr. Massey, a major Nashville benefactor who amassed a fortune with the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, joined Frist Sr. to help manifest an idea conceived by Frist Jr.—a chain of for-profit hospitals. The concept grew into a multibillion-dollar industry, cementing Nashville’s reputation as the nation’s healthcare leader. Frists Senior and Junior, who believed in a strong correlation between pleasant surroundings and patient recovery, both advocated for hospitals with people-friendly design. Dr. Frist Jr. remains active in the community; in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from United Way, for which he has helped raise more than $7 billion to date. Following closely on the heels of HCA came Joel Gordon, who co-founded healthcare firm General Care Corp. before going on to head Surgical Care Affiliates, a visionary concept enabling specialized outpatient surgery. Under this system, surgery became more affordable and allowed for a more personal doctor/patient relationship. Gordon, active on community boards and widely recognized for his many contributions to the city, received the Joe Kraft Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2006.

FrancesPreston

FrancesPreston

Metro consolidation may or may not be a factor in the rise of women within Nashville’s business community, but that occurrence, too, is in keeping with the spirit of broadening possibilities that the charter helped set into motion. Frances Preston shattered the proverbial glass ceiling in 1958 as Music Row’s first female executive, working with performing rights organization BMI and later becoming the first female chair of the Country Music Association. In addition to making inroads in her own industry, she raised millions for charity and is also remembered for helping create the Frances Williams Preston Research Laboratories at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. Connie Bradley, a contemporary of Preston during much of her career at rival performing rights organization ASCAP, didn’t take on a role similar to Preston’s until 1980, though she would reach comparable career heights, and continues on in an advisory capacity today. Bradley, who has nurtured the careers of such major stars as Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire, is cited for having raised the perception of country music with Madison Avenue advertisers and demonstrating the genre’s appeal to high-spending consumers.

E.W. “Bud” Wendell’s appointment as manager of The Grand Ole Opry came while the Opry was in the throes of major change, being moved northeast of the city as part of Opryland. Wendell, who ably guided the Opry through the transition, built valuable relationships between the country music industry and Nashville’s business community, later transitioning into executive positions with WSM and Gaylord Entertainment. A force for country music’s continued growth from the 1970s through the 1990s, he oversaw the Ryman Auditorium’s renovation and resurgence as well as the development of the Wildhorse Saloon, helping to revive an ailing downtown Nashville.

Mike Curb

Mike Curb

Mike Curb waited until 1992 to move to Music City with his successful independent record label—which recently celebrated its 50-year mark—but he’s more than compensated for his relatively late arrival, establishing himself as a major benefactor. One of Belmont University’s biggest donors, his Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business is Belmont’s largest college. Among his other gifts to the city are Nashville’s Junior Achievement Center and the family music center at Harpeth Hall School. A board member for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and supporter of programs at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Curb was honored as Nashvillian of the Year in 2007.

A member of the family that founded the Dollar General Store chain, Steve Turner has been investing in Nashville for more than two decades. Now a principal in development company MarketStreet Enterprises, Turner and his wife, Judy, are regarded as key players in the revitalization of downtown Nashville. They moved there in the early 1990s, well before the deteriorated area was considered a desirable place to be. Turner once encountered zoning opposition to adding a screened porch atop the roof of the five-story Lipscomb Hardware building on Second Avenue that he and Judy turned into both a home and a commercial property, but such is his ahead-of-the-curve vision. With it, he also saw the potential for what has since become the rebirth of the Gulch, a once-declining industrial part of town that is now arguably the trendiest area to crop up in the city’s recent history. Turner, a strong believer in the possibilities of urban zones as residential areas, was fittingly named Nashvillian of the Year in 2011; in 2009, the Gulch received a “LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Neighborhood Development” certification from the United States Green Building Council.

Nashville has long been fortified by the presence of creativity and entrepreneurship, and it shows no signs of departing from this trend. The Metro Charter consolidated not only Nashville’s government and services, but also its many strengths in the form of forward thinkers whose talents, energies and resources have kept the momentum going. And, just as a parting thought . . . “Music County, USA” just doesn’t have the right ring to it. We tip our hat to all those who contributed, and continue to contribute, to the beautiful reality that is Music City.