Bennie Wallen Jean may be the only woman in town who gets her hair done in the former office where she used to work. She’s certainly the only woman who has her hair done in the space where she used to work for grocer Cas Walker.
The longtime South Knoxvillian worked for Walker at Tennessee Valley Advertising in a little building off Chapman Highway behind Wendy’s. After Walker closed his business, the building sat dormant for some time before it was renovated and reopened as a beauty salon.
La Belle Coiffures has served many customers over its two-plus decades. Jean became one a few years ago when it was recommended to her by a couple of friends from her church, Mount Olive Baptist.
She’s proud of having worked for the iconic Walker – she always calls him “Mr. Walker,” not “Cas” – and she loves to share stories of him.
Reared on a farm in Claiborne County, the former Bennie Wallen came to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee. Her family expected big things for her, and they weren’t thrilled when she decided to switch to a business school downtown.
She says she liked the idea of finishing school and getting out into the working world in a fraction of the time it would have taken to go through UT.
She met Walker when she interviewed him for a class, and he was so impressed with her that he told her if she ever needed a job to come see him.
That’s exactly what she did when she finished her business courses.
Before she went to work at his office, however, he had her train at his grocery stores so she would be familiar with the operation from bottom to top.
That training came in handy.
“When they had the flood up at Pennington Gap, Va., and they had a flood sale, on Saturday, I went up there and worked the flood sale,” she recalls. “He calls me up at 7 in the morning or something and says, ‘Get ready to ride with me. I need you to help at Pennington Gap today.’
“So I did, but I loved it.
“Those people, they tried to buy my raincoat. It looked like velvet, but it shed water. It came from Rich’s department store. I had it hanging on the rack with everybody else’s overcoats, and somebody came and said, ‘How much is this?!’ I said, ‘It’s not for sale!’
“I really enjoyed working up there that one day. We all went to lunch, but Mr. Walker didn’t buy everybody’s dinner.”
Was he a cheapskate?
“I would not classify him as a cheapskate, but he was, I should say, really conservative with money.”
Jean worked at the advertising company from 1958 to 1967. She took dictation and documented important deals. She also – at Walker’s insistence – filled in as the recorder for Knoxville’s City Council one time when council was going to have to cancel a meeting when the recorder was sick.
Walker was a longtime member of City Council and briefly was mayor.
“By the time I left, I knew every council member and the mayor,” Jean says.
Walker was an expert at using media to promote his grocery stores. In addition to billboards, radio spots and newspaper ads, he used television to woo customers.
He was on the air every morning to plug his specials. Jean had to arrange for the featured products to be at the television station.
“My sister watched the show, and she said she could tell how my day was going to go.
“One time he was advertising apples, his nice apples, and he reached down in the bag to get the apple, and his finger went right through it – it was rotten – right on the air.
“I never watched the show, and I didn’t know what was going on. … He calls me up – and I’m not a morning person – and he’s rantin’ and ravin’, ‘What did you do that for?’
“I said, ‘Mr. Walker, call (the) Chapman Highway (store). Don’t blame me.’”
Chapman Highway wasn’t nearly as developed then as it is today, and there weren’t many options for lunch.
“We were so glad when Shoney’s went up there,” she says. “There was a Krystal and a Blue Circle close together, and you know, you can’t stomach Blue Circles every day.”
When McDonald’s came in, they leased property for the restaurant from Walker. He owned the stretch of land from his office to his store, which was across the road from Shoney’s.
A practical woman, Jean decided she needed to find a job with a retirement plan.
“Every time I said I was quitting, he gave me a raise.
“One time, I was going to work with the FBI, and I’d already passed it (the test) and everything. He even had somebody from Washington come in and talk to me about how evil it was to live in Washington, D.C. I mean, he talked me out of that.”
She finally did leave in 1968 and moved to Mobile, Ala., for a while. She didn’t like it, and with a short-lived marriage behind her and a young daughter to provide for, she moved to Nashville to work for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. She retired from there after 26 years, in 2002.
“Then I hated it so bad after I quit that – every time they had a disaster I wanted to jump up and run. It was very interesting; it was never boring.”
While at TEMA, she joined the Army National Guard. She did basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
“Women were separated from the men, which it still should be like that ’cause there are a lot of jobs in the Army that women can do better, but there are a lot that men can do better,” she says.
She met her future husband, Jim Jean, in the National Guard, but he didn’t make an impression.
“It was just another man,” she says.
It was only after her daughter started UT and met him when he taught a class that he made an impression on her.
“She called me up and said, ‘Mom, I’ve met the perfect man for you. And he knows you.”
Bennie and Jim married in 2003. Tragically, her daughter died after a car crash in 2005.
Walker, who died in 1998, has been the center of attention recently thanks to a new book, “Cas Walker: Stories on His Life and Legend.” The author, Joshua S. Hodge, interviewed Jean at length.
She says there was much to admire about Walker.
“There was not a dishonest bone in his body,” she says.
“My favorite thing was that I could tell him anything that I liked or disliked, and he wouldn’t ever scold me.”
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.