Helen Mabry Connor is entwined with Knoxville history through family, religion and business. And a more delightful woman you will never meet.
The Connor family has been engaged with Knoxville Catholic High School through four generations. As part of the school’s 90th anniversary celebration, the family gathered for pictures and we interviewed the matriarch, Helen Mabry Connor, 96, at her residence at Parkview West.
Helen and her husband, Joe, attended Knox Catholic. Their six children attended and sent their own kids there. Helen’s youngest grandchild and the last of the third generation, Patton Watkins, is a senior; and her oldest great grandchild, Connor Welch, representing the fourth generation, is a freshman.
Helen’s children are Mike Connor, CEO, and Bo Connor, COO, of Connor Concepts and brands The Chop House and Connor Steak & Seafood. Daughter Jody Connor Fair lives in Colorado, while three more daughters live in Knoxville: Cathy Connor DeCotes, Cindy Connor Coughlin and Christy Connor Watkins, who chairs the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
But this isn’t a Connor family history, nor a story of Catholic High. This is a chance to sit with Helen Connor as she tells her story. Lordy, it’s a good one.
Helen’s father was a first cousin to Evelyn Montgomery Hazen, the pistol-packing recluse who had sued and won a breach-of-promise case against a man who reneged after promising marriage. “The Seduction of Miss Evelyn Hazen” by Jane Van Ryan is based on her life and is the source of this information. Miss Evelyn’s parents were Rush Strong Hazen and Alice Mabry Hazen.
Helen remembers meeting her just once. “I took my kids to visit and she said, ‘Don’t bring them back.’ She died in the 1980s and lived to be 89.”
The Mabry-Hazen House is located atop Mabry’s Hill in East Knoxville. Built in 1858, three generations of Mabrys lived there with Miss Evelyn being the last. (We’ll save the Mabry-O’Connor shoot-out on Gay Street for another time.)
Before her death, Evelyn asked a friend, Lucille LaBonte, to preserve the house and its furnishings as a historic site, open to the public at reasonable times. If LaBonte could not liquidate her estate or otherwise raise adequate funds, then she was instructed to have the house razed and the land and furnishings sold at public auction.
Luckily, LaBonte came through. The house stands today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The early years
Helen Mabry was born to William Rogers Mabry and Gertrude Ashe Mabry who lived on Kenyon Street near Rose Funeral Home on Broadway. Times were tough during the Great Depression. The once-prominent Mabry family suffered along with others. Helen remembers as a child her mother gave her 50-cents to take to the store for a sack of potatoes and a loaf of bread. Her change was a nickel and a quarter.
On her way back home, she tripped and fell. The coins bounced out of her fist. And she could not find the quarter. “I told my mother what had happened and handed her the nickel,” Helen recalls. “She threw it across the room, then sat down on the couch and cried.” When her dad got home from work, he and Helen took a flashlight and searched the ground until they found the quarter.
“Our house was a gathering place before the war,” she said. “We had five kids and two parents with one bathroom.” Her dad never liked the first boy she dated. “He was younger than me and went to Central (High School). He would go into the bathroom and just stay.”
Helen was an athlete at Catholic High School, captain of the basketball team in the old 3-on-3 system. “We played on half-court and could only dribble once (before passing),” she said. Catholic played at TSD, Carter High and anywhere else that had a gym.
Helen graduated in the Catholic Class of 1945 and went on to the University of Tennessee where she joined Phi Mu sorority.
Helen’s dad believed in work. “He had us all working by age 16. He gave us two weeks off in the summer.” Mr. Mabry got the children jobs at Miller’s Department Store, where he worked. Helen sold shoes.
Marriage and kids
Wartime pickings were slim, but Helen was ready for marriage when she met Joe Connor. Joe’s dad was an assistant fire chief. Both had attended Catholic High and Joe was in the U.S. Marines. They were married while Joe was home on leave. Oldest son Mike “was born nine months after our honeymoon,” Helen laughed. She traveled with Joe, living “everywhere.”
Finally, the young Connor family returned to Knoxville. Joe attended UT and more kids came along.
Local couples didn’t get many nights off. “We would set up five tables and play bridge, house-to-house,” Helen said. Andy and Chickie Gettelfinger were good friends.
Their first five kids came quickly. But Christy Connor Watkins was a surprise. “I was 45 and Mike was 20 when Christy was born. Bo and his friends took me to the hospital and waited. Finally, when she came, one of them commented, ‘We waited all this time for a girl?’”
Christy, who sat in on our interview, just laughed and added: “Bo named me after a girl at Deane Hill Country Club that he had a crush on.”
We asked about Helen’s involvement with Catholic High during her kids’ time there. She said she went to ballgames, but wasn’t otherwise involved. She was working.
Helen worked six days a week. Evidently her father’s training paid off. She worked in retail sales, primarily at Crenshaw Children’s Shop in Bearden. (The 70-year-old store closed in January 2021, a victim of Covid.)
Helen also returned to Miller’s, working in the shoe department on Sundays because that day “they paid time and a half.”
Helen retired from one job at age 77 and from the second at age 92, “when I had to have a hysterectomy.”
Christy interjected: “When mom retired for good, she immediately started remodeling her house. She re-wallpapered the dining room and learned to install chair rail.”
Helen said she likes to stay busy and besides, “Can’t never did anything,” her daddy always said.
One activity Helen enjoyed was Boy Scouts. She was a den mother, still smiling about Don Cherry who got to be an Eagle Scout. But in Helen-style, she must have been outstanding. In 2019, Helen received The Good Scout award – an honor bestowed infrequently and held by the likes of former Sen. Lamar Alexander and former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer.
Helen walks two miles a day and jokes that since the surgery she can’t wear a bikini. She is extremely proud of her children and grandchildren. And she likes to tell a joke: “Bo says a Connor can’t spell cat, even if you spot them the K.”
Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.