A consequential man: Brown Ayres remembers

Betty BeanFeature

The first time I interviewed Brown Ayres, he showed up with a couple of leafy celery sticks in his blazer pocket. It was some 25 years ago and we were meeting for breakfast at the Bagelry (a non-alcoholic Bearden breakfast place) on a Saturday morning. I wondered if the veggie garnish was kind of a quirky fashion statement.

Brown – a successful financier/politico who’d never been orthodox in his approach to much of anything – cleared up the mystery pretty damned quick when he ordered a can of tomato juice and a glass of ice, pulled a flask and a tiny bottle of Tabasco out of a side pocket and proceeded to mix himself a Bloody Mary. He plopped in a celery stick and offered to mix me one, too. But I was working.

Brown Ayres

The topic of the interview is lost in the mists of time, but it was likely a retrospective look at his long, colorful career as he prepared to pack up and move to Florida, where he intended to spend his retirement winters. He had left Cumberland Securities – the financial advisory firm founded by his father, Morgan Brown Ayres Sr., the year he was born (1931) – in the hands of his former partners, his brother Tommy and his nephew Joe.

The annual drives to and from Knoxville every year became taxing after a couple of decades, so now he’s back – living full time in the Sequoyah Hills condominium he’s owned for 40-plus years, serving on the Hamilton House board of directors and reacquainting himself with his neighbors, some of whom probably are unaware of the outsized impact he’s had on his hometown.

It’s probably easiest to start at the beginning. Morgan Brown Ayres Jr. was born in 1931 to Morgan Brown Ayres Sr. and Patricia “Tip” Ayres. His grandfather, Dr. Brown Ayres (no middle name), was president of the University of Tennessee when he died in 1919. He was a brilliant guy who’d invented a primitive telephone line to talk to his college girlfriend (Katie Anderson, Brown’s grandmother, who was a student at Mary Baldwin) when he was a college student at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

“He was desperately in love, so he rigged up this telephone wire on top of a Western Union wire already installed. He used their poles to string up a wire between her dorm and his boarding house. He would talk to her constantly.”

Dr. Ayres’ early brilliance in electricity and telecommunications caused him to become friends with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, who offered him the opportunity to join the nascent Bell communications system when he was still a young man. He turned down Bell’s job offer in favor of continuing his career in academia, which eventually took him to Knoxville as president of the University of Tennessee, where he was instrumental in the planning and design of a spectacular new building that was to be placed on top of the highest hill on campus. But he died two years before the building on The Hill was completed.

It was named for him, and over time, became iconic, its chimes marking the most important occasions.

But what should have been a point of pride for the family became an embarrassment and a thorn in Brown Ayres’ side. There was a problem with the name on the bronze plaque in the flagship building of the state’s flagship university.

It said “Ayers Hall.”

The error would have merited an F in English 101 and stuck in Brown Ayres’ craw for decades, as the misspelled name was memorialized in news reports, history books and signage, including the big bronze plaque in the building’s entrance.

“I had politely asked university presidents down through the years to fix this, starting with Andy Holt, up through Joe Johnson. I considered the university’s inaction to be an enormous discourtesy to the Ayres family,” he said.

In 2011, UT President Joe Johnson and administrative assistant Betsey Creekmore listened.

“They said, ‘Brown, we’ll install it if you’ll pay for it.’ They were going to charge me for all of the signage.”

Ultimately, the UT brass relented and decided not to charge the family, and a new bronze plaque hangs in Ayres Hall.

For a Knoxville blueblood (Cas Walker probably had Brown in mind when he railed about the silk-stocking crowd), Brown Ayres was a pretty wild boy, evidenced by the two times he ran away from home – once when he was at Tyson Junior High School, and again when he was a student at Knoxville High School. He got as far as Chattanooga the first time, Birmingham on his second try.

“I’d always been rebellious. I saved up and bought a cue stick and figured I could earn a living shooting pool.”

Tip Ayres thought otherwise and put him in boarding school. He got his diploma in 1949, enrolled in UT and eventually went to work at Cumberland Securities.

Brown went to Nashville to lobby in 1964, and it didn’t take him long to become fed up with how things worked. He decided to run for a seat in the legislature in 1966 with the support of the politically powerful Webster brothers, Ronald and Warren.

The first time he ran, Knoxville Journal editor Guy Smith supported him, but it wasn’t long before the two of them crossed swords.

“I didn’t go along with some of his ideas, so he opposed me and used Cas Walker as his weapon. Cas called me ‘That man from the silk-stocking district.’”

Smith plucked a picture of Ayres in a silly costume from the society page and ran it on page one every time Ayres made the news – which was frequent in those days. After about two years of this, Smith sent Ayres word that he wanted to see him. Brown remembers trekking up to the Journal editor’s office.

“He said, ‘Senator Ayres, I want to bury the hatchet.’

“I said, ‘In my back?’”

During his eight years in the state Senate, Ayres authored some of the most impactful legislation on local government that Knox County had ever seen. He sponsored the bill that created the Public Building Authority and resulted in the building of the City County Building, accommodating both city and county governments.

Cas was apoplectic, and although Ayres’ vision of unified city and county government never came to pass, his Public Building Authority Act has allowed airports as well as sewer, water and gas systems and more public buildings than can be counted to spring up over the state.

And he did it his way, which was unlike anybody else’s.

His 39th birthday party was so successful that it became an annual event and was talked about in Nashville long after he left the legislature.

He was married and divorced three times, and that last time he appeared in court asking to return to singledom, the chancellor put down an order barring him from remarrying. It was done in levity and was, of course, totally unenforceable. But it’s doubtless the only such ban ever issued in Knox County.

He caused jaws to drop in the early ’90s when he took to the lectern in the City County Building and denounced then-Mayor Victor Ashe, whom he now counts as a very good friend.

I remember that occasion, and recited his own words to him:

“You said, ‘The mayor has no balls.’”

He smiled and corrected me.

“At all. I said ‘No balls at all.’”

Brown Ayres hasn’t lost a step.

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