Mary Pom: Around the world and back at home

Sandra ClarkOur Town Neighbors, West Knoxville

Mary Pom Claiborne grew up in Westmoreland – not that long ago, but when green space surrounded the few existing subdivisions and kids played in the woods.

Some might call it a charmed life, but it’s funny what a kid remembers.

Her dad, the late Glen Claiborne, was an attorney who practiced with Zane Daniel and Jimmy Duncan until Duncan’s election as Criminal Court judge. Mary Pom was 8 years old when Bill Brock ran for the U.S. Senate. She remembers her parents hosting Brock at their home.

Later, Mr. Claiborne got involved with the committee to save the Bijou Theatre.

Jack Neely writes: “Without preservationist organization Knox Heritage, the city of Knoxville would lack many of its now-familiar landmarks. The nonprofit began in 1974 as a group of volunteers gathered to save the Bijou Theatre, at a time when it appeared the 1909 landmark was going to be demolished. …”

The Bijou was saved, but not before Mary Pom got patched up at a local hospital.

Glen recruited his daughter and friends to paint “Save the Bijou” posters.

“We had great fun and ended up with paint all over us,” she recalls. Without cleaning up, she slipped away for a solitary ride on a horse from a nearby field. She jumped on bareback and was shocked when the horse bucked and she sailed off. Thump. Wailing ensued. She had broken bones in one arm and her hand.

Glen and Bebes scooped her up and headed for the hospital. She remembers “dad driving fast and my mother trying to clean that paint off my arms and face before we got there.”

Her name is Rhys Claiborne, but everyone calls her Bebes. And if Glen Claiborne always had something going on, Bebes had twice as much.

“She started the opera in our living room,” Mary Pom recalls. Bebes and friends met regularly at her house to plan and launch the Knoxville Opera. Mary Pom thinks it was because of her mother’s hors d’oeuvres. “I loved them. I’ve always said the opera made me fat.”

Mary Pom Claiborne is an assistant director at the Knox County Public Library, overseeing marketing and development. And although she lived in Paris for a year and once had a job offer in Zürich, she is where she’s meant to be.

Development, a euphemism for fundraising, is a big deal at the library, which gets meat-and-potatoes funding from the state and county. “We raise $250,000 to $300,000 a year for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library,” she said. And a few years back, the library raised about $600,000 to digitize the News Sentinel in a “paper to pixels” campaign chaired by columnist Sam Venable. An auxiliary group, Friends of the Library, raises $30,000 to $50,000 annually through used book sales. And next up is fundraising for a Clarence Brown Film Festival.

It’s not hard, she says, because Knoxville is such a generous community.

Gotta ask. Why Mary Pom?

Claiborne says it’s a family name – Pomeroy – and she didn’t know changing her name was allowed until it was too late.

Now she wears it proudly, to honor her great grandmother Pomeroy, the last to carry the surname. “She was the first woman to hike up Mt. Le Conte, back in 1916 with her friend Molly Kimball.” This was before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created. “They attached a mirror to a tree to prove they had been there.”

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