Looking back at a trio of town leaders

Larry Van GuilderOur Town Leaders

Writing our regular feature “Our Town Leaders” was an ongoing reminder to stay humble.


What follows are brief looks at a trio of leaders I profiled, each with memorable accomplishments or contributions. I regret space doesn’t permit snapshots of all.

Lauren Rider

Lauren Rider is the energizer bunny of the city council and she’s fully charged. Put it down to the happy transition from living two miles down a dirt road in rural Georgia to the streets of Atlanta where she attended (no booing, please) Georgia State University.

It’s too bad we can’t clone council member Rider a few times. Her electric energy could put a sizeable dent in fossil fuel consumption and put the Saudis in their place. Take that, Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

If solving the entire nation’s energy problems and shrinking our carbon footprint isn’t presently on her radar, she sees plenty of opportunities for progress locally. Is the city fully capitalizing on its strengths?

“I think we’re getting there,” Rider says. “We have wonderful outdoor activities.”

The District 4 council member thinks we spend too much time needlessly comparing ourselves to Chattanooga or Asheville. When critics laud Chattanooga’s riverfront development she cites Knoxville’s own expanding development along the Tennessee River as well as new recreational areas like Suttree Landing Park….

If one word could sum up her social philosophy it would be “community.” She’s proud of her District 4 neighborhoods where homes, she says, are “the most diverse” in the city, and she’s noticed others noticing.

“Once newcomers to Knoxville were pointed west,” she says, but not so much these days. Besides, not every area can be represented by a bundle of energy like Rider, not even the good folks in Farragut and other points west.

Chris Beatty

Chris Beatty is an impressive man. Considering the impressive work being done by 100 Black Men of Knoxville that’s not surprising. The Jamaica native earned engineering degrees to the doctoral level beginning with an associate degree from a community college. His bachelor’s degree comes from Georgia Tech, one of the most demanding schools in the nation.

He’s worked for NASA and the Department of Defense, and at present, works at ORNL on the ITER Project, an international venture aimed at making atomic fusion energy commercially viable. A March 27, 2019, issue of ORNL Review explained it this way: “The doughnut-shaped ITER will, for the first time on Earth, create a burning (self-heating) plasma and contain it with a magnetic field. The plasma itself will be heated and sustained primarily by its own fusion reactions — literally the same energy source that powers the sun and the stars.”

Heady stuff. If your science education stopped short of enabling you to grasp the principles behind ITER you aren’t alone. Beatty’s handle on such matters is such that he’s about to be promoted by ORNL.

Beatty has been president of the Knoxville affiliate of 100 Black Men for two years. He was just elected to a second term. The same dedication that’s enabled him to rise in his profession drives his work in this mentoring program for youth, primarily but not exclusively African American young men. The national program began in 1963 and mentors 135,000 young people each year. Knoxville’s program will soon celebrate its 25th anniversary.

The mentoring program takes aim at the high incidence of single-parent or guardian households, an especially critical problem among black families. There are 27 mentors in Knoxville and the organization selects the young men to enter the program….

“Volunteerism is in my DNA,” Beatty said. Six years after he moved with his family from Jamaica to southern Florida, when he was 13, his mother died, and he has never forgotten the support he received that enabled him to get where he is today.

Karen Pershing

Quick, what’s the most abused brain-altering substance? If you said prescription opioid pain pills or any opioid, you flunked the quiz.

“It’s alcohol,” said Karen Pershing, and she should know. Pershing is the executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition, a position she’s held for nine years.

Although alcohol abuse often leads to an untimely death, death from opioid overdose is “right in your face,” Pershing said. Indeed, it makes local and national news regularly.

Pershing came to the Coalition from United Way of Greater Knoxville. She also spent three years at the health department where she did drug prevention work.

“I experienced my greatest professional and personal growth during those three years,” she said.

Despite her background, she admits to being taken aback by the enormity of prescription drug abuse when she caught up with the statistics at the Coalition. It had been building since the late 1990s and reached epidemic levels by the mid-2000s.

The brain matures at age 23 for females and 25 for males. If you begin abusing substances at, say, age 14 and stop when you reach 30, you’re stuck with an adolescent brain until you heal. Abuse stops maturation.

That’s one cautionary message for parents of teens. Here’s another: Substance abuse peaks between the ages of 18 and 25.

Adolescents who abuse substances are 17 ½ times more likely to have abuse issues as adults than their peers who stayed sober. Parents, Pershing said, should stay connected with their children at all times, but especially during those tough years.

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.

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