Relationship skills pay off for Hugh Nystrom

Larry Van GuilderOur Town Leaders, West Knox

From a $5.65 per hour desk clerk job at a Disney resort after college to the chair of Knox County Commission is at first blush a gargantuan leap. Yet, some valuable character traits have worked well in both positions for Hugh Nystrom: civility and courtesy.

For those who know Nystrom, this is hardly a revelation. On the other hand, for those like this reporter whose most lasting impressions of the commission were formed by the backroom shenanigans of Black Wednesday, Nystrom’s low key approach is a breath of fresh air.

Nystrom is a UT graduate with a major in finance. His qualifications and performance at Disney did not fail to impress, and he climbed through the ranks over 14 years taking on increasingly responsible positions in sales and marketing. Disney eventually posted him to Nashville.

“There was a ton of travel,” Nystrom said of his last Disney job, but the transfer to Music City became the luckiest move of his life when he met a brilliant attorney who would become his wife. Angelia is an East Tennessee native who hails from Jefferson County. She now works at UT’s Agricultural campus.

Angelia is a “Mensa type” person, Nystrom said. “UT doesn’t know how lucky it is to have her.

You get the impression he feels the same way about Angelia: He glows with love when he speaks of her.

Two years after they married Angelia became pregnant with their son, Trace. Nystrom took a year off work to become a dad and a helpmate. Soon enough, Childhelp Inc got in touch with him about coming to work. His first thoughts were that he was ill-prepared for “social work,” but it turned out to be a good fit. He stayed 10 years, serving as the director of program operations and community relations until 2016.

Nystrom “came home” to Webb School about three years ago (he’s a graduate of Webb) where he works in development. He says he’s grateful that his employers are understanding about the demands of his “other” job, county commission chair.

Self-assessing, Nystrom says he developed a “broad sort” of relationship skills in corporate and social work. He understands the importance of listening.

“The humble approach is what moved other commissioners to elect me chair,” he said, smiling. “I think my peers would say I’m pretty consistent, even-handed and available.”

Nystrom said every commissioner brings different skills to the table. Moving ahead, he hopes to harness those skills to develop a greater emphasis on planning. Consistent with that goal, commission recently held its first-ever strategic retreat.

The chair recited a list of areas in which more planning is crucial.

“Jail overcrowding, not just the facility, but the system; infrastructure (including greenways); mixed-use development along busy corridors like the Schaad Road extension; and updating county zoning regulations (to facilitate mixed-use development).”

Nystrom also cited the importance of flood control. The county recently signed an engineering firm for $200,000 to study that issue.

Electric vehicles are becoming more common on local roads, and he would like to see more charging stations available. Along with recycling, that’s a step toward a healthier community.

Nystrom’s days can run from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m., but you come away with the impression that his relationship skills don’t fade regardless of the day’s challenges.

“I hope to set an example of civility,” he said, and few would argue that he doesn’t. Whoever said nice guys finish last never met Hugh Nystrom.

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor of KnoxTNToday. Write to him at  


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