Be Careful In What You Wish For

My first day as editor of the Nashville Banner, with owners John Jay Hooker, Brownlee Currey and Irby Simpkins.

One of the questions most often asked of young people is, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Initially, I had a passion to be a play-by-play announcer of sporting events. As an undergraduate, I majored in broadcast journalism and had the opportunity to broadcast the University of Tennessee’s basketball and baseball games on the student radio station.

That dream evaporated upon graduation for two reasons: (1) I quickly found out that the trip to the top of the profession in broadcasting started typically at a small radio station as a disc jockey playing the “top 40,” a role that had no appeal to me, and (2) my best job opportunity after college was the editorship of a weekly newspaper in my hometown.

The “printer’s ink” permeated my system almost immediately upon assuming my role as editor. Within weeks, it became clear to me what I wanted to do with my life. I set my sights on becoming an editor of a major daily newspaper.

My plan was to do the best job I could as a weekly newspaper editor under the watchful eye of my boss, Coleman Harwell. Colie, as he was known, was a well-respected journalist who was connected across the nation with the movers and shakers in the profession. The weekly newspaper was my mechanism to build a foundation of experience.

The next logical step was to parlay the weekly experience and my association with Colie into a promotion to a major daily, preferably the Nashville Tennessean. With Colie’s help, I made it to the Tennessean, where for four years, I received the equivalent of several doctorates as I served in a variety of roles, including news editor.

I concluded that if I really wanted to be an editor, I needed to step out of the newsroom and gain some experience as an insider in other professional worlds. After considerable thought, it occurred to me that the major areas of newspaper coverage were politics, government, and education. With that in mind, I charted the pathway I would take in my journey to an editorship.

My first step was to take a position in 1967 as an administrator with the University of Tennessee, with an eye already focused on step two: serving as press secretary for a major Democratic candidate for governor in the upcoming 1970 campaign, which was a strong possibility because Seigenthaler was the candidate’s best friend and confidante, and he knew of my interest and ambitions.

Indeed, at the beginning of 1970, I received the call to serve as press secretary. The university granted me a leave of absence, and I was off to the races. My candidate won the primary but lost the general election. It was a major setback in my game plan.

However, the university that had granted a leave of absence chose to make me chancellor of one of its campuses, and I was back on track, waiting for the moment of fulfillment. Five years as chancellor passed, when, suddenly, two things happened to open the door.

The university campus where I served as chancellor was knee-deep in a federal desegregation lawsuit that was about to lead to a merger that would put my institution out of existence. On the very day that the Supreme Court chose not to hear our appeal, ending for good any hope that we had to survive, I received a phone call in Washington from Dan Coleman. He advised me that John Hooker – the same John Hooker for whom I had served as press secretary at the beginning of the decade – was poised to buy the Nashville Banner.

As soon as my plane landed back in Nashville, I called Hooker from a pay phone at the airport. He said he wanted to talk with me about becoming editor. All at once, the proverbial dog seemed to have caught the car. I was ecstatic, suddenly realizing that my long-time dream was within reach.

But the last step was not an easy one to take. A couple of complications immediately surfaced. Ed Boling, the president of the University of Tennessee, wanted me to become chancellor of another campus in the system. At the same time, I learned that John Hooker would have two partners, neither of whom I knew.

Initially, it appeared to be a no-brainer for me. Within my grasp was the fulfillment of my dream. Moreover, accepting the offer to become chancellor of another university would require uprooting my family from a city we loved to move to a small rural community in West Tennessee. I was prepared to say no to the president, but he was persistent. He asked that I at least spend a couple of days on the campus for interviews to see if that would generate interest.

I agreed to do that, and after two days of intense interviews with scores of constituents at the campus, I began to waver a bit. The comfort level I achieved during the visits blended with some growing doubt about the partners of John Hooker. Working for Hooker was something I knew would be comfortable for me, but I was not at all sure that he would be in charge. His partners, both wealthy businessmen with no experience in journalism, appeared to be very strong personalities. Conflict between Hooker and his partners seemed inevitable, even before the deal was consummated.

I decided to make another trip to the campus for a second look, which convinced me that the chancellorship was the right choice. All that was left to do – we thought – was to find some way to break the news to my dear friend John Hooker. However, that evening, an incredible, stunning event occurred that changed everything.

My wife and I had been invited to attend what we thought was a routine dinner with the three owners of the Banner and their wives. It was a pleasant evening, with dinner at one of Nashville’s most exclusive restaurants. Everything seemed normal. Then, as we waited for dessert, the three owners left their seats and disappeared into another room, leaving my wife and me and their three wives at the table.

Upon their return, John Hooker took a champagne glass in hand and proposed a toast to the new editor of the Nashville Banner. I looked at Shawna Lea, and she looked at me. My mind was racing. What do I say? What do I do? Should I graciously accept the toast and explain later? Or should I break the news that I am going to West Tennessee?

I decided to respond graciously and hope for the best. As we left that night, Shawna Lea and I knew we were in a dilemma, and there was no good way out. In a sense, circumstances had trumped reason. I was trapped.

After a restless night, we decided that it was meant to be that I become editor. After all, that had been my long-time dream. So, instead of going to Hooker to say no, we drove to Knoxville to say no to Ed Boling. What a turn of events, the strangest moment of my life.

The editorship of the Banner was an incredible roller coaster ride. As envisioned, Hooker and his partners disagreed on practically every matter. All three tried to win me to their way of thinking, and I could see that I was caught in the middle of a tremendous power struggle that Hooker would eventually lose.

I was miserable.

Then fate intervened once again. I received a call from the chairman of the search committee for the new chancellor in West Tennessee. His question to me was very simple: “Would you be willing to take a second look?”

To make a long story short, I made another trip to West Tennessee, and in a matter of days I was once again a chancellor. Behind me was a brief four months of doing what I thought was a fulfillment of a life-long dream.

The lesson is very simple: Be careful what you wish for, or as the proverbial dog learned the hard way, make sure you know what you are going to do when you catch the car.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 26, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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Work at Making Friends of Adversaries

As the commissioner of education for the state of Tennessee, I had the privilege of joining Governor Ned Ray McWherter in a press conference issuing our state’s first-ever state education report card.

I had the opportunity to work with and for seven Tennessee governors during my time of leadership in government and education. Each brought a unique skill set to the office. I was fortunate to have a positive relationship with each one.

Among the seven, Ned Ray McWherter was my favorite. I got to know him well during my six years as chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Martin, a time when he was representing the Martin area in the Legislature and serving as speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Not once in all my years at Martin did he ever ask me to do anything, to hire anyone, or to second-guess my decisions. We developed a strong friendship.

A few months after I left Martin to become vice president for administration for the University of Tennessee system in Knoxville, McWherter was elected governor. Within days, he asked me to be his commissioner of education. It was the beginning of a fascinating ride to the top of state government with a man who knew from day one why he wanted to be governor and precisely what he wanted to accomplish.

Shortly after he began his first term as governor, I received a call directly from McWherter, asking if I could come to his office. When I walked in, McWherter was seated alone in his rocking chair, and the trademark unlit cigar was dangling from his mouth. He asked me to be seated. It was obviously going to be a one-on-one meeting.

After exchanging a few minutes of small talk, the governor asked if I knew Nelson Andrews, a prominent Nashville businessman with strong Republican ties and, at that time, the chairman of the State Board of Education.

I responded yes, and then a curious line of questioning began.

“How well do you know him,” the governor asked.

I told him that Andrews had been a member of my support council when I was chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Nashville and that I had worked with Andrews in creating a group known as Leadership Nashville.

“Do you like him?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

After each exchange, McWherter paused for several seconds, nodding from time to time, and chewing on his cigar. “Has he been a good chairman of the State Board of Education?” he asked.

I noted that I couldn’t answer that question from personal knowledge, because my previous roles in higher education had not included participation with the state board. However, I had no reason to doubt his effectiveness.

“Could you work with him if we kept him as chairman?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

At that point, again with long pauses, McWherter shifted from questions to comments. “Commissioner,” he said, “let me tell you my concern. As you may not know, Nelson was a close adviser to Winfield Dunn (the Republican nominee), and I can’t get out of my mind that it was Nelson who was standing over Winfield, coaching him prior to each of our debates.”

I responded that I understood.

At that point, the governor leaned back in his chair and began to rock, saying nothing for many seconds. Then, suddenly, he began asking me the same questions in the same order in which he had asked them earlier. Long pauses again punctuated each question and my responses.

When the second round ended, McWherter again leaned back in his rocking chair, and the seconds ticked off. He was clearly in deep thought, seriously weighing the options. I sat quietly.

Then came the verdict, clearly articulated. “Commissioner, if you are comfortable with Nelson, so am I. Let’s keep him,” he said.

With that, the meeting ended, and I left. To me, it was a defining moment. Political statesmanship was on clear display. I had just participated in a process that convinced me that I was working for a man who truly cared about people, practiced fair play, and respected the political process. Moreover, I saw firsthand that this governor was committed to putting the good of the state above partisan politics.

The rest of the story is simply this: Nelson Andrews was retained, and he served as chairman of the State Board of Education during McWherter’s two terms as governor. Throughout that time, they had a positive relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and open communication without regard for party affiliation.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 24, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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If You Have to Eat Crow, Eat It While It’s Hot


My wife Shawna Lea, son Chip, daughter Tandy and myself in a feature story in the UT Martin alumni publication.

One of the great lessons to be learned from the infamous Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration is that human beings tend to forgive acknowledged mistakes. However, obstinate refusal to admit mistakes or, even worse, an attempt to cover up mistakes is a sure-fire recipe for failure. In literally hundreds of examples over my career, “eating crow while it was hot” made the penalty of mistakes much less painful.

One such mistake occurred during my chancellorship at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Historically, our campus had been a leader in providing interns for members of Tennessee General Assembly. The bulk of our interns had traditionally been assigned, for logical reasons, to West Tennessee Democrats who dominated the legislative seats in the Martin campus service area.

One day I received an early morning call from Jim Kennedy, the chief of staff of the Speaker of the House, alerting me that I had been the topic of discussion at that morning’s Democratic caucus breakfast. He further advised that I would be receiving a call from the caucus leader, Frank Lashlee, a temperamental senator from a small town near the campus. The problem was that somehow one of our interns had been assigned to a prominent Republican House member from Memphis.

This came as news to me, and I recognized immediately that we had a problem. I thanked the Speaker’s chief of staff and moved quickly to determine what had gone wrong. Within minutes, I discovered that the faculty member who staffed the intern program was on leave of absence and that his stand-in had decided to assign an intern to the Memphis Republican, unaware of the long tradition that had provided rural West Tennessee Democrats with this service.

Recognizing the error of his way, the faculty member was receptive to corrective action. In short, we made a quick decision to fund an additional internship and assign that individual to the Democratic caucus.

Without waiting for the caucus leader to call me, I placed a call to him. The initiative clearly startled him. Without hesitation, I told the senator that my daddy had always told me that if you had to eat crow, you should eat it while it is hot. “We’ve screwed up,” I told the senator, “and we apologize. Moreover, here is what we plan to do to rectify the situation.”  

When I finished talking, I held my breath and waited for his response. I will never forget his words. “Mr. Chancellor, thank you and have a good day.” That was all he said, and I never heard another word from him or any other member of the caucus.

We had dodged a bullet. Had we tried to defend or cover up the indefensible, we would have paid a huge price. Mistakes had been made and corrected. Proper apologies had been issued. The crow had been eaten while it was hot.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 13, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.