One Mama’s Longing

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I was in my last year of college when future senator Lamar Alexander first ran for governor of Tennessee against Ray Blanton. In the only debate I have ever participated in, I supported Alexander and my opponent supported Blanton before a campus audience of about 100. At the end of the session, students left the room through one door if they supported Alexander and through another if they supported Blanton. The vote was split almost exactly down the middle with Alexander one vote ahead.

1974 political debate about the Tennessee governor’s race a couple of months before I married Ray (seeing my engagement ring makes me happy).

However, in the actual Tennessee vote in November, Blanton was victorious. Four years later, Alexander ran again. We watched the campaign with some interest even though Ray and I had married, Ray had finished graduate school, and we had moved to Mississippi for him to serve as a campus minister to students at Ole Miss.

This time Alexander walked across the state of Tennessee—no small feat in a state that measures 440 miles across. I guess he didn’t walk in a straight line though because he actually walked 1,022 miles. Along the way, Alexander spent the night in the homes of 73 families. This time Alexander defeated Jake Butcher, becoming the 45th governor of Tennessee.

During the campaign, Alexander had spent one of those 73 nights in the home of Billy and Lillian Knight of Rutherford County. Mrs. Knight told Alexander that her biggest fear was that her sons would not be able to find work near where she lived. She feared that they would have to move away and she would never be able to see her grandchildren.

As governor, Alexander worked to bring a Nissan factory to Tennessee. On a visit to Japan during his first year in office, Alexander showed a Nissan executive a satellite image of the United States at night.

Composite image made from satellite data in April and October, 2012. Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC.

The executive asked Alexander exactly where Tennessee was. Alexander told him that it was in the middle of the lights. He said that’s where you want to have a plant for shipping heavy things around the U.S.

The following year the CEO of Nissan came to Nashville. He told Alexander that he wanted 800 acres in Rutherford County. In October Alexander got a call from the president of Nissan telling him that Nissan was coming to Tennessee.

Three hundred Tennesseans traveled to Japan and spent several weeks learning how to build Nissans. In 1983 the first Nissan truck rolled off the assembly line in the town of Smyrna in Rutherford County.

Mrs. Knight’s fears were real in 1978. Tennessee was then the third poorest state in America. Family income has risen significantly since then.

In 1990 GM opened a plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant opened in 2011. Today 88 of Tennessee’s 95 counties are home to a factory related in some way to the automotive industry. One-third of Tennessee’s manufacturing jobs are automotive. Ford has just announced its plans to open a new facility near Memphis which is to build electric trucks.

We often hear about the negative deeds of politicians, and it is easy to become pessimistic. However, many do make contributions that change lives for the better.

The Tennessee automotive industry came up in conversation during a Notgrass History Zoom meeting last week. As I searched for a detail that was pertinent to our discussion, I came upon an article in the Nashville Tennessean which Senator Alexander had written about the automotive industry. I learned many of the facts in this post from that article, including the story about Lillian Knight’s request.

While writing this post, I searched for Billy and Lillian Knight to find out the rest of their story. The Knights were married for 53 years before Billy passed away. Lillian passed away in 2013. Her obituary described her as an active person who enjoyed cooking, gardening, and traveling. She loved music and played piano well. She loved to be around people. At the time of her death, those three sons she had worried about and told candidate Lamar Alexander about were all married. She had four grandchildren and three great grandchildren. It was sweet to read the condolences to those three boys whose mother loved them so much. One person wrote to one of the sons that his “mom did well in her duties here on earth as [was] evident in the good Christian son she sculpted.”

“You are the light of the world.
A city set on a hill cannot be hidden;
nor do people light a lamp
and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand,
and it gives light to all who are in the house. 
Your light must shine before people in such a way
that they may see your good works,
and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 5:14-16






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