It’s a shame local government can’t adopt Knox County Commissioner Larsen Jay’s business model. At Random Acts of Flowers, all materials are donated, nearly all the associates are volunteers, and composting faded greenery is routine. It may be tough to secure donated materials and volunteer workers, but taxpayers can dream, can’t they?
Jay is not a typical commissioner. He’s quick to declare he’s a public servant, not a politician. Ask him a question and he’ll give you a straight answer, about as un-politician like as you could ask for.
This writer likes another of his traits not always found in politicians: “I always take reporters’ phone calls,” he said.
That’s enough for me to stop right here, declare Larsen Jay “Commissioner of the Year” and move on. But our readers would probably like to know more about this rare public servant, so we continue.
Much of his story is well-known, but it’s compelling enough to bear some repetition. It includes two brushes with the Grim Reaper.
“I should have died twice,” he said. “The first time was when a canoe I was in tipped me into the river.”
Jay was a teen Scout in the canoe with another Scout when rough water flipped their vessel and tossed them overboard. The young men were lucky that day.
The commissioner has trekked to the Mt. Everest base camp and helicopter-skied in British Columbia and returned without a scratch. Yet an accident 12 years ago in his own backyard left him hovering on the verge of death. He fell a story-and-a-half from the roof of his workshop and knew immediately he was badly hurt.
Jay was more fortunate than he realized at the time: He was able to call for help.
“My cell phone and my first aid training saved my life,” he said.
Skull fractures and numerous broken bones led to multiple surgeries and a hospital stay of more than a year. He would survive, and the incident marked a turning point in his life.
“My room looked like a jungle with all the flowers,” he recalled. But when he was well enough to navigate the hallways in a wheelchair he realized how fortunate he was. He saw that many patients received nothing, and the seed for Random Acts of Flowers was planted.
Jay was born in Texas, but he has deep roots in East Tennessee. He earned two degrees from UT including an MBA. His wife, Adrian, is a former broadcast journalist (WATE).
His first love was the theater, and that morphed into video production and ultimately feature filmmaking. In 2009 Jay and his wife were executive producers of the award-winning film, “That Evening Sun,” with Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter.
Asked if film producing was as frenetic and cutthroat as portrayed in films like “Swimming with Sharks,” he nodded. Before he had the opportunity to help produce a film himself, one weekend he was part of a team working for a producer he tactfully did not name.
Noting some absences among the crew, the producer roared: “If you can’t come in Sunday, don’t bother to come in on Saturday!” OK, then.
A couple of years ago Jay began to think about the importance of local government.
“Why shouldn’t I serve and take the opportunity to be part of the future?” he asked himself.
If more would-be officeholders considered their reasons for running for office in that manner we would all be better served.
In case that sentiment sounds too noble, Jay explains he’s not out to change the world, just “nudge” it a little bit. He’s off to a good start.
Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.