Don’t mess with Wanda Moody

Sandra ClarkOur Town Leaders, West Knox

Pity the misbehaving student in Wanda Moody’s early classroom. Inside her somewhat crusty exterior there beats a kind and caring heart. But the kid didn’t know it.

Pity the property seller or buyer on the other side of the table when Wanda Moody is closing a deal. (More on this in a minute.)

Pity the high sheriff of Knox County when Commissioner Moody began the interrogation. Tim Hutchison, a pretty tough old bird himself, hardly knew which way to run – especially when Moody was joined by Herb Moncier and Bee DeSelm. Yikes!

Moody has turned 90. She says it’s probably time to slow down. Joan and Victor Ashe threw a party for Aunt Wanda on Sept. 21 at their Kingston Pike home. The place buzzed with friends of all ages and social status.

I met Aunt Wanda (aka Commandant Moody) in 1968 when I volunteered most days after school at the Nixon headquarters on Gay Street. Moody was a leader in the old city teachers league. On several occasions she marched a group of teachers into the headquarters where they ran a phone bank. We’re talking “tear apart the phone book, mark up pages, stay focused, no food and drink, and leave when you’re excused” volunteer work. Moody wore a light-colored all-weather coat – maybe a belted London Fog. She was clearly in charge and she made an impression.

My next encounter was a phone call, introducing “the kid of a friend” named Tim Burchett. Wanda was a political ally of Tim’s dad, the late Charlie Burchett, and a friend to his mom, Joyce. This young man was an environmentalist, she apologized, “one of those green people.” He was about to start grinding mulch and needed some publicity. No problem, I said, remembering the commandant from ’68. I’ve never seen a person work as hard as Burchett did, and I like him until this day.

Sometime in the 1980s, Moody ran for superintendent of schools. The city system had been merged into the county and Democrat Earl Hoffmeister was the elected superintendent. Wanda nabbed the Republican nomination and the race was on. I remember sitting silent during a strategy session while Wanda engaged in a knock-down, drag-out battle with an advisor who wanted to dump her campaign treasurer (who operated with a pencil and green ledger) and go with a computer-based firm that could monitor cash flow and send follow-up solicitations. “Ed House is my friend and he knows the law and I will not change him” is close to Aunt Wanda’s final answer. And House, a retired teacher of economics, kept his (volunteer, of course) job.

Knox County Commissioner Moody stayed after Sheriff Hutchison like a tick on a hound dog. I sided with the sheriff then, understanding the politics and city vs. county dynamic. But in retrospect, I’ll concede that Moody was right. Money and property confiscated in drug raids should go into the county’s account and be appropriated by the commission. A commissioner’s job is to pinch pennies. Hutchison ran an imperial office, building pods to house inmates and even getting his allies on the commission to put him in charge of building a criminal justice center. Aunt Wanda is the chief reason that monstrosity is not squatting in the middle of town today.

My favorite Moody story, though, is the time I helped her do a “tax-free exchange” real estate deal. She had put together a tract on Callahan Road big enough to serve as the regional center for UPS. She had negotiated a fair price and we all went to closing. I held title to the land in a convoluted plan sanctioned by her accountant – more a tax deferral rather than avoidance. So, we’re there at the table and Wanda discovers $50 or maybe $500 on her side of the ledger that she had not expected to pay. “Move it,” she says. The agent for UPS balked. He had secured approval for the closing statement and was not authorized to change it. We went around and round. He called the home office. We took a break.

Finally, Wanda got up to leave. “Oh, my,” I thought. “We can’t lose this deal. I’ll put in the money.” Then I remembered. I wasn’t making any money on this. I was a volunteer, getting a free lesson on tax-free exchanges. Just before I spoke up anyway, the other side caved. The buyer paid the money and Aunt Wanda smiled. Later she said, “You didn’t think they would lose this deal over $50 (or maybe $500), did you?”

Well, yes, I had.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Wanda. Hope you have 30 or 40 more.

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