The Bozeman Legacy

Photography Courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection

“How One Man from Happy Holler Made a Difference.”

That is the subtitle of author Debbie Patrick’s 2012 biographical tribute to C. Howard Bozeman, who played a key role in the Knox County political scene from 1948 through 1982. This is his story.

Born in 1918, Howard Bozeman grew up on Baxter Avenue. His father, Art, worked at Brookside Mills at the time and later the railroad. His mother, Mary, stayed at home raising the family. Before school each morning, Howard, beginning at age seven, began to earn his keep, waking up early for years to deliver newspapers from Church Street to Fifth Avenue. Upon graduation from the old Knoxville High School in 1936, he joined the management-training program at the S. H. Kress Five and Dime located on Gay Street. With a boundless energy which he displayed in all his future endeavors, he learned all aspects of the business — buying, marketing, and selling. 

Early on, Howard had demonstrated a strong sense of right and wrong. For example, when a school bully had taken away the lunch of a smaller boy, young Howard intervened, decking the bully and handing his own lunch to the aggrieved child. That quality resurfaced in his job. In the days of segregated Knoxville, Kress had a busy lunch counter. When the area reserved for “whites” had space, blacks often waited in line for a seat in the “colored” section. Howard suggested a remedy: expand the area for black customers into that reserved for “whites” when there were seats available. When upper management disagreed, Howard, unable to support a policy he believed to be unfair, altered his ambitions, asking permission to reduce his work hours in order to attend the University of Tennessee. 

In the summer of 1938, he left Kress after landing a job with Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, a social program created during the Great Depression to find jobs for the unemployed. He was 20 years old. His experiences there began to develop his understanding of the roles of federal, state, and local government. His mother’s side of the family, staunchly Republican, expressed concern with his summer work, while his father, a Democrat, favored FDR’s New Deal initiative. In his capacity with the WPA, Howard’s duties required a familiarity with the Knox County road system, sewer line construction, and the residential development in the community, helpful preparation for what turned out to be a career in public service. 

During this period, Knoxville Mayor George Dempster appointed Howard’s father to serve as the Democratic chair of the 11th Ward. His father’s responsibilities sparked Howard’s interest in the local political scene. By 1941, he had earned a business degree with a special interest in accounting. The university hired him as an auditor and, in his spare time, he attended UT’s law school. Within two years, Howard earned a law degree. By 1945, he was teaching Contracts and Real Property at the College of Law and accounting at the university’s undergraduate school of business. 

In 1946, the Democratic Party, while conceding that Knox County was a Republican stronghold, offered a qualified slate of candidates for office. Howard, who had previously complained about partisanship in local elections, agreed to run as a Democrat for the office of Trustee. “Two of the Democrats were elected,” Howard remembered, “Bill Luttrell because he was a war hero, and Tim Lawson, because he was articulate and with a handsome head of red hair.” While Howard lost to a popular Republican candidate, the election was far closer than predicted.

Jimmy Elmore, the Republican incumbent County Judge, was re-elected to a four-year term, a position much like the County Mayor position of today except that the job included extensive judicial responsibilities. Less than two years later, Elmore, while still in office, ran for City Mayor and won. Oldtimers will remember that the County Court, tantamount to the County Commission of today, appointed Joe Strong to the position until a special election could be held for the last two years of Elmore’s term. Strong became the Republican candidate. Bozeman, all of 30 years of age at the time, ran as the Democratic candidate. His platform consisted of “14 Points,” which he distributed to some 31,000 Knox Countians. “It’s not a popularity contest”, he insisted to voters, “If you want these 14 points, I’ll know what to do.” 

Out of over 26,000 ballots cast, “the man from Happy Holler” won by a margin of only 342 votes. When sworn in by then-Supreme Court Justice Hamilton Burnett of Knoxville, he became the youngest County Judge in the history of the state. To celebrate his win, Howard took wife Barbara, and son Barry, age 2, on a short trip to Myrtle Beach. So much for the jubilation of his hard-earned victory. It took only 10 days on the job for Howard to learn how much financial trouble the county had. “I wanted to cry,” he lamented. Sunday School teacher, County Law Director, and mentor Monty Edgerton, along with a lot of on-the-knees prayer, persuaded Howard to tackle the “financial mess” head on. Newly developed standards on Finance and Purchasing, Centralized Accounting, Taxing, and Governmental Reporting policies added a sense of accountability and professionalism in his office. Improvements to roads, bridges, and highways were essential goals for his administration. The production of clean, safe water service by the county utility districts also became an early priority. The 1952 purchase of voting machines, an initiative criticized by the old Knoxville Journal newspaper and especially Cas Walker, the notorious publisher of the Watchdog, was designed to eliminate some of the paper ballot shenanigans suspected in prior county elections. 

In the spirit of non-partisanship, “Judge” Bozeman forged a strong relationship with Republican Mildred Doyle, who was to become a legendary figure in her own right as Superintendent of Schools. Together with the County Court, the two addressed the woefully underfunded school system and were able to upgradeteacher salaries. The Knox County Library System was established to augment access to education. Noteworthy, prior to a federal mandate passed by Congress, these two community leaders founded an educational program for the mentally and emotionally challenged. Through the Sertoma Club, Howard and his old friend from law school, Bill Davis, generated support for the John Tarleton Institute for Dependent Children and for the Sunshine Center, which was later renamed the Sertoma Center. Davis, a prominent lawyer in the community by then, eventually became the President of International Sertoma, an organization dedicated to service of the community with a “passion to improve the quality of life of those at risk … through education and support.” 

In 1950, Knox County voters rewarded Bozeman with an eight-year term. Governor Frank Clement, recognizing his educational background and political acumen, named Howard to chair a committee charged with the revision of the juvenile court system. In 1955, Tennessee’s Juvenile Justice Code became a model piece of legislation that other states adopted. Despite his obvious leadership skills, Howard insisted upon a team concept, quoting Ben Franklin, 

“We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” {figuratively speaking for Bozeman, literally so for Franklin). Healthcare became an even greater priority in the 1950s especially with the polio epidemic. Until the development of the Salk vaccine in 1955, some 15,000 Americans suffered various forms of paralysis from the disease. The Knox County Health Department stood tall during those critical years.

The consolidation of city and county schools and consideration of unifying city and county governments became issues during the Bozeman administration. It was Howard’s belief that the people deserved efficiency in governance above all else, even if it meant the loss of his own job. School consolidation, which was opposed by Howard’s serial nemesis Walker, failed in a 1954 vote. In 1963, the initiative passed in the city but failed in the county vote—a major disappointment. 

In 1966, after 18 years as County Judge, Howard lost in his effort for re-election, probably due to his support for consolidation. Never one to leave a job undone, he won back his position eight years later. The Office of “County Judge,” however, lasted only until 1978, when the state legislature changed the organizational structure for 93 of its 95 counties, including Knox. With most of his duties being replaced by the newly created office of County Executive, Howard, as County Judge, was left only with judicial responsibilities during his last few years. Although the administration of county government had previously consumed most of his workdays, Howard was respected as a knowledgeable and demanding jurist. His legal acumen did not go unnoticed by Chief Justice Ross Dyer and the associate justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court. He was asked to sit specially in a number of cases with the high court and authored at least five Supreme Court opinions. 

Meanwhile, after his last election win, Howard persisted in his efforts to unify the city and county governments. The measure lost again in 1978, just as it had during Howard’s first terms in office. Ironically, yet another failed unification vote took place at the turn of the 21st Century, again rejected by county voters. Parenthetically, of the state’s four largest cities, only Nashville and Davidson County have successfully merged their local governments. 

Finished with politics in 1982, Howard offered support for practically every “do-gooder’’ organization in Knox County and the surrounding areas. A 33rd degree Mason, he held the highest office in the Kerbela Shrine Temple and became an important board member of the Shriners Children’s Hospitals and Burns Institute. Never forgetting the importance of his alma mater, Howard served a term as President of the University of Tennessee Alumni Association. Of all his various interests, however, his friends and family would likely concede that Boy Scouts of America was his favorite. Howard served as President of the Great Smoky Mountain Council and continued as a member of the Board for the rest of his life, earning the prestigious Silver Beaver Award for lifetime service. Howard and Barbara set and strictly demanded high standards for their four boys, Barry, Charles, David, and Sam. All earned the rank of Eagle Scout. 

“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country” is the pledge of every boy and girl in scouting, and especially, “to help other people at all times.” Howard Bozeman, who died in 2011 at the age of 93, dedicated his career to this promise. 

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