Courtney Shea came to East Tennessee in pursuit of a career, but she also found a home. Now that she’s retired from practicing law, she’s still giving back to the community she loves.
Shea was born in New Jersey and grew up in Connecticut, attending University of Connecticut for her undergraduate and law degrees. She went into private practice at first, and eventually started looking for a law job in Washington, D.C. She applied with the Department of the Interior and was recommended for a job in Knoxville with the Office of Surface Mining. That was 1979, and she stayed with the Department of the Interior’s Knoxville office until her retirement in 2015.
“We were just beginning on regulating the environmental effects of coal mines,” she said. “I was a staff attorney and worked on a federal program to make sure strip mines and underground mines were reclaimed. When I first got here I spent most of my time in eastern Kentucky. I met mine inspectors and coal miners. I learned engineering so I could explain the issues. Reclaiming coal mines was very important to me and important to the community. That’s what I loved about it. It’s the best law job I could have ever had.”
But while she was working, she “just fell in love with Tennessee.” Her first apartment was in Old North Knoxville. She and her husband found three acres on Beverly Place in Fountain City. Between them, they have four children (two are Shea’s stepchildren), and three of them attended Central High School, the youngest of which graduated in 2008.
“(The kids) were sort of staggered, and I just never left in that gap year. That’s when I got recruited to the foundation,” Shea said.
She’s been volunteering with CHS Foundation since 2001 and is a current board member. She considered rotating off the board when the youngest graduated, but something happened to keep her there.
“I was looking for somebody to turn the foundation over to, find someone to pick up the reins. Then, the shooting (at Central High School) happened in 2009, and I thought, ‘Central needs all the help it can get from the community.’ There wasn’t a really strong move by the parents to support the foundation. We’re really excited that we’ve got parents involved again, and it’s going to be more closely tied to the school. The parents who did the Gresham Foundation, some of them are now at Central. They’re interested in focusing on academics and supporting the school,” she said.
Shea added that the foundation will move toward supporting projects at the school while the Central High School Alumni Association will pick up the CHS Wall of Fame, a favorite project of Shea’s. Each year, she helps write bios of that year’s inductees.
“I love working on the Wall of Fame because I love (Fountain City historian) Dr. Jim Tumblin,” she said. “I fall in love with all the alumni we add to the Wall of Fame. It’s a lot of work to do those bios, but it’s really rewarding to learn how these people have contributed to the community.
“Getting to know the Fountain City historian has been one of the joys of my life, and that’s one of the things that has really enhanced my feel for Fountain City. I keep getting these insights into what life was like in Fountain City because I’ve heard all these alumni stories.”
But CHS isn’t Shea’s only volunteer focus. She has a passion for environmentalism and a love of nature that have inspired her to become active in Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light and a board member for Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center.
“I think it’s because I’ve always been an outdoors person, and I’m old enough that I remember the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1973. I started college in 1969, and we were hearing about the toxic pollutions from Love Canal. There was still lead in gasoline. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, you had scientists and health people saying industrialization and pollution were causing all these health effects. We knew about greenhouse gasses, but we didn’t know what they were causing,” she said.
“I like to keep busy, but now I have time to feed the birds and work in my yard and build some house renovations and spend time with our grandchildren,” she said. “We’re just taking things as they come, and we love it here in Fountain City.”