Remembering Dwight Kessel

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Decades after he’d left Tennessee, Chris Holzen had a short but memorable encounter with his first boss.

“By complete chance I bumped into him in a parking lot outside a local restaurant. He recognized me first and called out my name. It was as if no time had passed at all. I owe him a great debt for having believed in me. As I wrote in the book (of condolences), he is one of the few people who made me who I am today. And for that I am eternally grateful.”

Holzen is talking about former Knox County Executive Dwight Kessel, who died Saturday, June 3, at the age of 96. Back in 1994, Kessel hired Holzen as his public information officer. Later that year, Holzen, who was 26, took a leave of absence to run Kessel’s re-election campaign, which he lost by a whisker to challenger Tommy Schumpert. Holzen still frets about what might have been if he’d been able to convince the notoriously frugal Kessel to open his wallet during the last days of the campaign.

But even though both his short career in Knox County government and Kessel’s long one ended with that loss, Holzen cherishes the memories of his time on the sixth floor of the City County Building.

“I bought a book last year that is designed for one to put down in writing their thoughts based on pre-written prompts. One was, “Five milestone experiences that made me the person that I am today.” On that list I wrote, “Working for Dwight Kessel.”

Holzen, whose family lived in Hendersonville, had come to Knoxville to major in political science at the University of Tennessee. He knew little about Kessel beyond the fact that he was facing a stout re-election challenge from Democrat Tommy Schumpert, a popular football coach and school administrator who had moved into the political arena by getting elected county trustee.

“In my first week on the job, I opened the Knoxville News Sentinel and saw a front-page story about the wealthiest people in Knoxville – and there was a photo of Dwight. I was stunned. Surely not that guy in the back office who wears old suits with short-sleeved dress shirts and drives a pretty average car…”

Holzen asked to see Kessel that morning.

“He invited me into his office, and I said, “The Sentinel says you’re really rich.”

He replied, “Do you believe everything they say?” I said “No.”

He said, “OK. There you have it. Anything else?” I thought, “Hmmm. This is odd.” It took me a week to finally get him to come clean that he had money; and, well, the Sentinel was right. He had a lot. But you’d never know it. You could see that he didn’t like people thinking of him as rich. He winced at the subject when it came up…”

Dwight and me

I met Kessel when I went to work for the Knoxville Journal and was assigned the county government beat. The only thing I really knew about him was that he opposed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. We got off to a real bad start.

My editor didn’t much like the notoriously parsimonious county executive and told me to keep an eye on him. I took that marching order so seriously that I barged into Kessel’s inner office when somebody tipped me that he was having a private meeting with state Rep. Ted Ray Miller, another local official I’d been told to watch.

It’s embarrassing to remember this incident: I was new to the job and thought I was deputized by the Sunshine Law to go anywhere I needed to go to expose the inner workings of government, which, of course was always up to no good. Kessel was surprisingly calm when he asked me to leave the room, and when I got around to reading the law I’d relied on, I was mortified to learn that it afforded me no such superpower.

It took some time to repair the damage I’d done and establish a working relationship with Kessel’s staff, but gradually I realized that he was honest (sometimes brutally so) and absolutely determined to pinch the public purse until it screamed. He opposed the MLK holiday because it was going to cost the taxpayers money, not because he was a bigot.

I also discovered that he had a sly sense of humor. Nothing got by him. What I didn’t discover was something he never talked about – he was as generous with his own money as he was frugal with the taxpayers’ dime.

Kessel at work

If you asked him what the county executive was, Kessel said he was “the chief fiscal officer” of Knox County. He wasn’t there to tell anyone how to conduct their lives and he never considered his position a steppingstone to higher office (imagine that).

Chris Holzen’s a quicker study than I am, and it didn’t take him near as long as it took me to figure Dwight Kessel out.

“The months I worked with him both as his county government spokesman and later as his campaign manager, I saw a most charitable man. And one of the funniest people I have ever met. Never told the same joke twice and had an endless playlist. He was also a great listener, and his door was always open. He solicited advice broadly but once he decided, you could sooner move a mountain than get him to reconsider something, and this of course makes enemies in politics.

“We lost that re-election race in a nailbiter, and he was quite disappointed, but the days following the loss, he immediately started taking great pains to make sure everyone of his team was going to be OK in the transition. The final farewell party in his office was bittersweet, but it had the feeling of a family that I will never forget. The tightest team I’ve ever worked with, just starting out my career. He trusted me and that gave me incredible confidence at a young age that has lifted me throughout my personal and professional life.

“I owe him a great debt for having believed in me. As I wrote in the (condolence) book, he is one of the few people who made me who I am today. And for that I am eternally grateful. May he rest in peace.”

Memories of Kessel’s irreverent sense of humor still make Holzen laugh, though.

“Remember when he referred to the Knox County Commission as a cat with diarrhea? You knew after they were thrown in the air, they would eventually land on all fours … but you never knew what would happen next. He loved saying stuff like that.”

A couple of years after Kessel left public office, I visited him out at Knox Air (a private air strip adjacent to the airport) to talk to him about his new line of work. He’d started a business incubator, which involved finding promising new start-ups and funding their projects. One of the new businesses he’d invested in was a cash-strapped medical research team. After he funded them, they discovered an early warning marker for prostate cancer.

Dwight Kessel was a family man who lived to meet his great-great grandchildren (I was astounded to see in his obituary that he and his wife, Gloria, were married for 72 years), a lifelong entrepreneur, a philanthropist and an example of what Republicans used to be. Like Chris Holzen, I am fortunate to have known him.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for


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