The 1982 World’s Fair brought a celebration to East Tennessee—followed quickly by the fall of the Butcher banks
Forty years ago, Disney opened Epcot, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was dedicated in Washington D. C., E. T. the Extraterrestrial movie debuted, and Michael Jackson released the Thriller album. A major recession hit the United States. Inflation was over six percent, the average cost of a new house was $82,200 that year, the new car average stood at $7,983, the price for a gallon of gas was 91 cents—and Knoxville, Tennessee, hosted the 1982 World’s Fair.
The process for the fair began in 1974 when Stewart Evans, as president of the Downtown Knoxville Association, made a proposal to the city council. Mayor Kyle Testerman appointed banker Jake Butcher to head up an exploratory committee. The Knoxville Foundation, Inc., was created to organize and administer what was officially the Knoxville International Energy Exposition. Attorney Randy Tyree, who had gained recognition as a law enforcement officer and eventually won his party’s nomination for governor, defeated Testerman in the 1975 mayoral election and played a major role in fair preparations. Most of the locals, however, viewed the initiative as “Jake’s Fair.” There was skepticism all around. In a 1980 publication, The Wall Street Journal expressed doubts about the ability of our community to host the event, describing Knoxville as “a scruffy little city.”
On May 1, 1982, President Ronald Reagan spoke at an opening ceremony broadcast by local and regional television stations. Tennessean Dinah Shore, a singer and TV talk show host, served as the emcee for the fair. A crowd of almost 90,000 was in attendance that day. The iconic Sunsphere towered over the 70-acre site located between Henley Street and the university campus. In addition to the U.S. Pavilion, Australia, China, France, England, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and 14 other foreign nations offered exhibits. By the time it closed six months later, the fair had attracted over 11 million visitors.
Jesse Barr, who was involved in the planning stages for the fair, was thrilled with the community efforts: “It was a lot like Camelot. For the first time, Democrats and Republicans all worked together.” At the end, a net profit was reported at $57, the last “profitable” world’s fair in the United States. On the downside, the city had incurred debt of over $40 million, and, on Valentine’s Day in 1983, just three months after the fair closed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took over Jake’s United American Bank. Most believed that the bank failure was due to his financing of the fair. A short time later, City and County Bank and Southern Industrial Banking Corporation, led by Jake’s brother, C. H. Butcher, Jr., crumbled. Parenthetically, only two years later, the New Orleans World’s Fair, the last held in this country, ended in financial disaster.
The legal profession was called upon to clean up the mess in Knoxville. Practically every able-bodied attorney in the community became involved in the ensuing civil litigation. On the criminal side, John Gill, the United States Attorney in Knoxville, brought indictments against the Butchers, each of whom hired high-profile counsel to come to East Tennessee. “The investigation of the 27 or so Butcher banks,” John remembers, “commanded all of the resources in our Knoxville office for over three years.”
The real facts were so much worse than the indictment.
Jim Neal of Nashville served as lead counsel for Jake Butcher. His background was impressive, both in prosecution and in defense. In 1961, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy selected Neal to prosecute Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa, first for corruption, which ended in a mistrial, and then for jury tampering, for which Hoffa was convicted. Afterward, Hoffa called Neal “the most vicious prosecutor who ever lived” – a high compliment in Neal’s assessment. After serving a term as U.S Attorney in Nashville, Neal was called upon to prosecute the top officials of the Nixon administration in the Watergate scandal. His work resulted in a guilty plea by White House counsel John Dean, and convictions of former U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman and H. R. Haldeman for conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice. While in private practice, Neal successfully defended Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards on a racketeering charge, and then gained an acquittal for Elvis Presley’s physician, George Nichopoulos, who had been indicted for the illegal dispensation of drugs.
Bobby Lee Cook of Summerville, Georgia, a small town situated less than an hour’s drive from the Tennessee line, was employed to represent C. H. Butcher. Cook, who had reportedly defended some 300 murder charges over the years, won acquittals in an estimated 80 percent of his cases. Known for his chin whiskers, folksy courtroom style, and brilliant mind, Cook lived by the credo that “if you can railroad a bad man to prison, you can railroad a good one.” In 1988, he achieved a favorable result for Bobby Hoppe, an All-American running back at Auburn, who had been charged in Chattanooga with a shooting 21 years earlier when he was still in high school. Cook, who during his travels worked in the back seat of a Rolls-Royce driven by his chauffeur, was reputed to have been the inspiration for the television series Matlock, which starred Andy Griffith as a Georgia criminal defense lawyer.
A few of the Knoxville combatants involved in the preparations for the 1985 Butcher trials are still with us today. As firsthand witnesses, they have their own stories, perhaps more and more colorfully embellished as time passes, but the results are not in dispute. Jake, an unsuccessful candidate for governor in both 1974 and 1978, plead guilty to bank fraud and received a sentence of 20 years. When asked why he had approved his client’s admission of guilt, Neal, who sent his junior partner to a hearing on the guilty plea, answered candidly, “The [real] facts were so much worse than the indictment.” Jake was paroled from the Atlanta Federal Prison in 1992. He resided in Canton, Georgia, until his death on July 19, 2017. He was 81.
Cook successfully defended C. H. Butcher on 25 counts of fraud related to the failure of the Southern Industrial Banking Corporation. The jury returned not guilty verdicts on every charge. C. H.’s friends had allegedly raised a quarter million dollars to pay the fee for his renowned counsel. C. H. remained jailed, however, for the charges against him related to the City and County Bank. Without financial resources of his own, C. H. was appointed local counsel for his Chattanooga trial before choosing to plead guilty to 16 different charges related to the failure of his bank. Sentenced to 20 years in 1985, he was paroled in 1993. His wife Shirley received a three-year sentence. C. H. died in 2002 after a fall at his Canton residence near Atlanta.
To paraphrase the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, the 1982 World’s Fair provided some of the best of times for the Knoxville community. Its aftermath offered some of its worst of times. For the Butcher brothers, a more direct quote from Dickens’s classic fits the course of events: “It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it [ended in] the winter of despair.”