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Cas Walker Penny Jay

Cas Walker’s political end by Don K. Ferguson

There was more drama involved in the ending of Cas Walker’s long political career in 1971 than most people knew. The story of how it all happened has never appeared in print. Only a handful of people have heard the story. For many years, Walker, the controversial owner of a chain of supermarkets, had held an at-large seat on City Council, but by 1970 his political strength had begun to wane. In 1971, he pulled back and announced that he would seek a district seat on Council, thinking it would be easier to win than an at-large seat. Walker and H. A. Tiller, who had served as a member of City Council years earlier, had qualified to run for the Fifth District seat. I had been urged to run for that seat by the Citizens Group, a coalition of business and civic leaders. I was 39, Walker was 69 and Tiller was 82.

On the afternoon of the final day for qualifying, I decided to run and filed my qualifying petition with the Knox County Election Commission. I did so with a degree of apprehension, because Walker was known for using smear tactics against his opponents. It was my first and only campaign for public office.    The next morning, one of Walker’s close associates, speaking for Walker, called my campaign manager, D. Neal Adams, to ask if I would consider changing races and instead seek an at-large seat on council. The caller said that if I would withdraw from the race altogether, Walker would help me get appointed to the job of city welfare director. I declined.

The following morning, Walker himself called Adams. The two of them were well-acquainted; both were old political warhorses who had been through many campaigns. Walker asked Adams if there was any chance at all that he (Adams) could get me to withdraw, and Adams told him no. Walker said then that he might just switch to the at-large race. That evening, Adams said, “I’ve got a hunch Cas will pull out.” I was sensing the same thing.

The next morning, Walker called me at my office — a local advertising and public relations firm. He said he was going to withdraw altogether and that he would send a telegram to the Election Commission to notify them. He said he was going to call the newspapers and television stations and tell them that he was withdrawing and endorsing me, and he did just that. While we were talking, the power went off in my office building and I worried that the phone would go out, too, leaving Walker to wonder if I had hung up on him. Fortunately, we stayed  3 connected.

There were problems, though. It was past the deadline for withdrawing. The ballot was already in the process of being printed. If Walker’s name remained on the ballot, there was a chance that he might have been elected because his name would draw a number of votes. I called the manager of the Western Union office, a friend from boyhood, to alert him that Walker had sent, or would be sending, a telegram to the Election Commission. I urged him to be sure that it got delivered promptly. He looked for it, found it, and dispatched it by messenger.

I called City Law Director William W. Petty, who said that if Walker wanted to withdraw and have his name removed from the ballot, that it should be done, that no one had proper standing to oppose it. But was there time to get it off before the ballot was printed? I called lawyer William R. Banks, a member of the Election Commission, also a longtime friend, who was at that moment proofreading the final draft of the ballot. He said he and the other members of the Election Commission had received the telegram and had approved the removal of Walker’s name. “I’m striking it off the proof right now,” he said.

I was elected and I served until April 1974, when I resigned upon appointment to a federal job. Walker never sought public office again. He died in 1998.

When my uncle was two or three years old, he fell backwards off of a chair/porch (two different stories with same outcome)hitting the back of his head. From that point on he was “different.” Physically, his right side was like he had a stroke. He drug is right foot, right arm curled up and his hand simply hung there. His speech was negatively impacted as was his ability to learn how to read or write. He was one of seven brothers and one sister-second from the youngest. 

As my uncle grew, his parents (my grandparents) searched for any medical help they could afford. They were very poor, with a small house on Northshore Drive when it was a two lane, dirt road. My grandmother knew that he would have to work hard not to be a “ward of the state” as they said back then. She prayed and prayed for him to work somewhere that they would protect him from being taken advantage of, let him feel valued/needed and work that would allow him to live on his own someday. 

Little did my grandmother know that the place they shopped for groceries would answer her prayers. Cas Walker knew my uncle from a child and hired him to be a “bagger” and to sweep. My uncle was so proud. When I was young and my uncle was in his 20’s, we would go by and see him at work when we came into town. He was so proud of where he worked and Cas would come up and just brag on him. My uncle’s face would drop to an angle, he would blush and his grin so wide. Even as a child, I recognized what those words meant to him his idol “the television star Cas Walker.” 

My uncle eventually went to work with what was then Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital for more than 40 years as the lead groundskeeper. He was able to live independently with a home and two cars for decades. Today, he is the last surviving son out of seven enjoying life in his mid 80s. Cas Walker gave him more than a job, he gave him value, confidence and a drive to accomplish his goals. For those things, our family is eternally grateful.

Bill Cherry, long time & popular UT Geography Professor, & businessman (owned some Knoxville Apartment Buildings, etc.) said he would give up teaching if he could be, to paraphrase, “Cas-Walker-successful in business.” I took a class under Bill Cherry & got to know him. While in the Nursing Home in Blount County, Cas would organize the men in some activities, & came in swiftly one Sunday morning to my Mother’s room delivering her paper, & did it for others who could not get around as he. I was there that morning & did not notice anything wrong with his health by his actions & talk. Also, he got off the meds he was on in there, and became much better, then was released. Made me wonder at the time if it was the meds that had to do with him being there.

I once bought a desk at an auction, and I did not know it was his until I opened some drawers, which had some personal information of his. I don’t think I kept the personal effects, though. I understand Cas lived in the same modest home in East Knoxville long after he became successful.

When I was a student at UT in the early 1970s, my friend Richard Higginbotham and I were leaders of two engineering societies that met monthly on campus, with a speaker. When we had Cas speak, our attendance was much higher than at any other time. He would always agree to speak if I would pick him up at his office and return him afterwards. He would tell all of his stories that seemed incredulous to us students.

Later, as a grad student taking a journalism course, I interviewed him in his office off Chapman Highway. The office was spare with a tiled floor. Only a desk, a couple of chairs, and many coon dog trophies and grocery samples were in it. Two things he told me, remain with me. He said that when a salesman was shown into his office, he would talk for a few minutes, then slowly put on his coat and his hat. The salesman would hurry up and finish his spiel because he thought Cas was getting ready to leave. It was Cas’s way of making efficient use of his time.

The other was in answer to my last question: “Mr. Walker, do you think you could speak correct English if you wanted?” He relied: “Yes I could, but it don’t sell no groceries.”

This is actually two stories. One embedded into another.

My father, Jim Thompson, was first business manager, then director of the Sertoma Leaning Center in the late 1970’s to early 1980’s. When he first joined the organization it was called the Sunshine Learning Center. Many Knoxville people know the Sertoma Learning Center serves adults with learning disabilities.

During the early years of the 1970’s, the center struggled for funds. One of its largest benefactors was Cas Walker. And, in hindsight, it was probably illegal. However it was a scheme cooked up before my father became the business manager. But he clearly continued the practice during his term.

There were numerous churches throughout Knoxville which would have their members cut coupons out of the Sunday newspapers and send them to the Sunshine Center. My dad would bundle them up and take them to Cas Walker. Mr. Walker would then bundle them up (launder the coupons) as if they were presented in his stores, resulting in huge cash flows from the manufacturers and vendors. He would then donate this money to the Sunshine Center. It was probably illegal as heck, but it was for a good cause, right?

The second story occurred when my dad was waiting in the lobby of Cas Walker’s office bringing him coupons. Sitting there was a young man with long hair, maybe a beard, applying for a job as a manager. Cas walked into the area and immediately turned to the young man (who stood up). He asked the young guy what the (heck/hell) he was doing there. The man replied he was applying for a job. Cas told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t hire no hippies and wouldn’t even interview him. However, if he went to a barbershop and got a proper haircut, then he would consider giving him a chance.

The next week my dad was back delivering coupons and he asked what happened to the hippie. Cas told him that he showed up later that same day with a respectable haircut and he hired the young man.

Cas Walker’s generosity (I’m sure he also personally donated) and willingness to “process funding” for the early years of the Sunshine Learning Center were instrumental in keeping the center open and serving the learning disabled adults in Knoxville. That same center also benefited from Sertoma civic charity clubs in such a huge way that the Sunshine Learning Center changed its name to the Sertoma Center in the 1980’s.

I also find it interesting how quickly he was to judge, offer stern success advice, and then give grace to those who heeded his counseling.

He was one of a kind.

I was a member of the student section of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers while an engineering student at UT in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The student section held regular luncheons with usually an invited speaker. On two occasions over a two-year period Cas Walker was our speaker. On both occasions I picked him up at his office on Chapman Highway in my 1968 Volkswagen beetle and drove him to Dougherty Engr. Bldg. Therefore, I got to have a few minutes of one-on-one conversation with Cas. He liked my car saying, “Heh, heh I have a car like this. I put gas in it with an eye dropper.”

Cas would often talk about the grocery “biness.” He discussed several of his methods of attracting buyers to his stores.

I recall him saying that he won his first grocery store in a poker game. He said that he had no choice but to try to make a go of it.

At his first store small wooden produce crates began piling up out back. He advertised a free chicken coop with a $10 or more purchase. (A very clever way of disposing of his rubbish.)

He always located his stores on the right-hand side of the road leaving town. Thus, it was easy to stop at his store on the way home from work in the afternoon. 

He often advertised a free dog dip with a $10 order or more. He said people would come in and buy $10 plus of anything to get a dog dip which was worth only 10 cents.

He marked items in an interesting way. As an example, he marked canned tomatoes 3 cans for 75 cents. Whereas buying a single can only cost 20 cents. People would naturally buy 3 cans thinking they were getting a bargain.

He was very open about telling us about his advertising/marketing approaches. He did not try to hide his methods.

One can say what one wants about Cas – good or bad. One thing for sure he knew human nature quite well.