Phyllis Nichols retires on top of her game

Phyllis Y. Nichols, right, with Knoxville City Council member and Urban League board member Gwen McKenzie at a reception prior to the Urban League Gala last week. McKenzie’s father was the first president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League.

It’s been a big couple of weeks for Phyllis Y. Nichols, the longtime president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League. Nichols, who announced last June that she would retire in the fall, has been the longest-serving CEO of the five leaders in the organization’s 54-year history in Knoxville.

In December, she will officially turn over the reins to Rev. Charles Lomax, who will take over after serving for three years as the City of Knoxville’s director of community empowerment. He was selected after a nationwide search. The decision by the Urban League’s board of directors to hire him was unanimous.

Last week, during the Urban League’s annual fundraising gala, which attracted over 800 attendees to the Knoxville Convention Center, Nichols took a final bow and was surprised by the announcement that the Urban League would endow a $250,000 scholarship in her name. She also received the Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award, the most prestigious of all Urban League awards.

And, just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any better, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott announced that she was donating $1.5 million to the Knoxville Area Urban League, the largest gift in its history.

Nichols will stay on a short while as a consultant to help with the transition, but we understand that travel plans are being made. Continue reading

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Leadership Knoxville success story tastes great!

Lynne Fain and Bo Townsend, members of the Leadership Knoxville Class of ’93, posed together at the annual class party on Sunday in downtown Knoxville.

When you hear about Leadership Knoxville, you always hear about building relationships. In fact, part of the mission statement says the organization is designed to “expand community connections into lifetime friendships.” Well, in the case of the Leadership Knoxville Class of ’93, it has worked out pretty well.

The Class of ’93, of which I am a member, gathered for the 28th time this past weekend for its annual fall party. The only two years we’ve missed were 2020 and 2021. For obvious reasons.

“Everything Leadership Knoxville aims to do is focused on the ‘art of gathering’ and the Class of 1993 has mastered it!” said Tammy White, Leadership Knoxville’s president and CEO. “It’s incredible that they held their 28th class party on Sunday and only missed two years due to the pandemic. We hope more LK classes take their lead to come back together.”

Leadership Knoxville was founded in 1984 and, since that time, more than 1,300 community leaders in the business, government and non-profit sectors have completed the 10-month flagship program. Continue reading

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‘Mozart in the Garden:’ magical in many ways

Children dancing to Mozart at the Knoxville Botanical Garden last Thursday.

“Mozart in the Garden,” a free evening of music by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra held at four locations in the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, was an almost magical experience last week.

Quartets each played two sets in three locations — the Stone Terraces, the Martha H. Ashe Garden and the Stone Greenhouse. The evening concluded with the entire orchestra performing in the Dogwood Center where some audience members were seated inside and many others set up chairs outside and listened as the music wafted out the open doors.

The timing allowed guests to wander from location to location for the first hour, experiencing some of the greatest music of Western civilization in various lovely settings. Continue reading

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Green Thumb Gala: a blend of music, art and fun!

What’s better than a saxophone? Two saxophones! That’s what Marcel Holman proved during the recent Green Thumb Gala fundraiser for the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum.

The Green Thumb Gala, in its 13th year, was a wonderful blend of fundraising, art and compelling music that reflected the culture of the East Knoxville location of its beneficiary, the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum.

From the smooth jazz of Sheila Gordon and Marcel Holman to the electrifying rhythm of the youthful Drums Up Guns Down program participants, music filled the air and set the tempo for a wonderful evening in the garden.

The Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is located on 47 acres of former Howell Nurseries, featuring walking trails, display gardens, unique and historic horticulture and over two miles of distinctive stone walls and timeless buildings, just five minutes from downtown. It is privately owned and operated and supported through donations and memberships. The Green Thumb Gala is its largest annual fundraising event.

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‘Grief is the price we pay for love.’

This was the last time Christy Lee, center, appeared on the Blue Streak. It was June 22 of this year at the Lakeshore Park Picnic, which was a fundraiser for the West Knoxville treasure. She’s with her husband, Jeff, and her friend, Margie Nichols. Christy passed away two weeks later.

Although that quote is credited to the late Queen Elizabeth II, last week it rang true here in Knoxville to the many friends of Christy Lee, among whom Alan and I count ourselves. Christy passed away suddenly on July 6 at the age of 62.

Her devoted husband, Jeff Lee, hosted a “celebration of Christy” at Cherokee Country Club last Thursday, which would have been Christy’s 63rd birthday. He asked everyone to wear blue jeans and white shirts to the affair. Jeans, he said, were the couple’s “go-to attire.” And he chose to request white shirts because they would be best to showcase the battery-operated sparkling necklaces that Christy loved to give to her friends on almost every holiday. As you will see from these photos, everyone got one on Thursday.

I will remember Christy as a fun-loving — and funny — addition to any gathering. And it was so touching to see how much she and Jeff adored one another. They actually purchased a house we used to live in on Cherokee Boulevard, and we loved vising them there to see the great improvements they made over the years — and the wonderful holiday decorations they would put up. (And I mean EVERY holiday — not just Christmas!) Continue reading

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Helping Ukraine from a garden in Knoxville

Dr. Marek Pienkowski displays an elaborate Ukrainian cake that was a door prize at the gala.

It was an extraordinary evening recently at the Knoxville Botanical Garden with moving music and a delicious — and unique — dinner. But the most special thing of all was the purpose. It was a fundraiser organized by Dr. Marek Pienkowski to benefit Doctors Without Borders’ work in war-ravaged Ukraine.

The gala evening raised more than $26,000 for the effort and featured music and food from the Ukrainian nation. Also on tap: an auction of works by artists of the region.

Ukraine’s official colors — blue and yellow — and its trademark sunflowers in the centerpieces made it hard to forget the purpose of the gathering. Musicians — several from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra — were conducted by James Fellenbaum, director of operas at the University of Tennessee and resident conductor of the Knoxville Symphony. Food was by Rosa’s Catering which put together the meal using special advice from Olena Korotych, an award-winning scientist and instructor at the University of Tennessee who hails from Ukraine. Continue reading

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Marblegate Farm perfect site for Tremont event

Donna and Bill Cobble own Marblegate Farm, located on a peninsula that was the site of a train derailment that resulted in huge chunks of raw marble being dumped on the site.

Sometimes an event and its location are a perfect match. That was the case recently when the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont held its annual fundraiser at Marblegate Farm in Friendsville, Tennessee.

It’s not the first time this event has been held there. But it’s the first time we’ve been to it at this site. (We attended it when it was held at Lakeshore Park several years ago.)

I was, frankly, blown away with the beauty of Marblegate Farm. It’s no wonder that, as owner Donna Cobble told me, they already have 72 weddings on their books this year.

Marblegate is located on 200 acres of farmland with 8,500 feet of waterfront. And, since the Institute at Tremont is all about “connecting people with nature,” you couldn’t pick a better location.

Tremont, located in the Walker Valley area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Townsend, currently is engaged in raising money for a second campus that will expand the educational offerings of the more than 50-year-old institute. Continue reading

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World’s Fair celebration mimics the real World’s Fair — a great party followed by a stormy aftermath

1982 World’s Fair President Bo Roberts, left, with former Knoxville Mayor Randy Tyree, center, and Duane Grieve, executive director of the East Tennessee Community Design Center.

Forty years ago, I was a reporter for The Knoxville Journal. I covered business and city government, which meant, of course, that in 1982, I covered the World’s Fair.

The World’s Fair claims to have had 11 million visitors. That’s actually 11 million “visits.” I was at least 120 of those visits, as I was assigned to cover something there almost every day.

At the invitation of our great friends Duane and Marsha Grieve, we “returned” to the World’s Fair earlier this month as the East Tennessee Community Design Center, where Duane is executive director, hosted a very festive celebration of the World’s Fair — 40 years in the rear-view mirror.

The event was held on a sweltering Wednesday at the Amphitheater at World’s Fair Park. Our clever host cunningly commandeered a table directly in front of a “Big Ass Fan” — I swear, that’s really the name of it! And we enjoyed great live music, food from around the world and a short presentation featuring former Knoxville Mayor Randy Tyree and World’s Fair President Bo Roberts. Continue reading

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Even after Selma, a call for new guardians

JoAnne Bland, noted civil rights leader, hugs a young girl who had presented her with roses. She said the youngster was about the age that she was when she was getting arrested in Selma, Alabama. “Thank you for everything you WILL do,” Bland said to her and some other children in attendance.

Noted civil rights pioneer JoAnne Bland was in Knoxville last week and I’m so glad I got to see her. She was at the historic Tennessee Theatre as part of Beck Cultural Exchange Center’sEighth of August” celebration. The event also featured the showing of “After Selma,” a documentary about the suppression of voting rights today in America.

Bland, from Selma, Alabama, was arrested 13 times by the time she was 11 years old for participating in acts of civil disobedience. Her prime motivation, she told the audience, was that she just wanted to sit at a lunch counter and eat ice cream. She saw the white kids doing it. And she just couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to, as well.

She also participated as a child in the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that resulted in the nationally televised police attacks that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” She says she will never forget the sound of a woman’s head hitting the pavement after she was struck down with a billy club by a policeman on horseback. Or her 14-year-old sister’s blood dripping on her face as she lay in the backseat of a car in her sister’s lap after fainting. The gashes on her sister’s head as the result of police clubbing that day required 37 stitches. Continue reading

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Kids get shoes, school supplies — and smiles!

Phyllis Y. Nichols, president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League, just prior to start of the event.

About 6,000 people packed Caswell Park on Saturday for the Knoxville Area Urban League’s annual “Shoes for School” event, which provided local children with new shoes and school supplies and connected families with valuable community resources. The back-to-school bash — in its 20th year — was presented by sponsors Covenant Health, Pilot Company and TVA.

Knox County students stocked up on items before returning to school today. With the help of community partners, the Knoxville Area Urban League doubled the number of children who received shoes compared to 2021. Nearly 1,700 pairs were distributed to students who pre-qualified with local nonprofits, and the organization estimates that more than 3,000 picked up school supplies.

“We are grateful to our sponsors, booth sponsors, non-profit partners and community for helping us make the 20th anniversary of Shoes for School bigger and better than ever,” said Phyllis Y. Nichols, president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League. “This event isn’t just about shoes – it’s about breaking down any financial barriers for parents so their students can start the school year on the right foot with school supplies and confidence.” Continue reading

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