Serving as the Knoxville City Council member for District 1 feels like a natural progression to Tommy Smith. His parents taught him by example to help people.
“It was kind of built into me,” he says. “I have served in more than 20 nonprofits in town over the years. Sometimes that’s as volunteer coach. Sometimes that’s a board president. Sometimes it’s a committee, and sometimes it’s showing up and handing out hand sanitizer when a pandemic hits.
“I view it more as a tying together of what my life’s trying to be about.”
When his predecessor, Stephanie Welch, announced that she was stepping down to serve as the city’s chief Economic & Community Development officer and deputy to Mayor Indya Kincannon, Smith thought he might be a good fit on City Council. (Actually, at 6-foot-3, he towers over most of the other council members.) He was appointed to fill out Welch’s term and was sworn in on Feb. 20, 2020.
He has always paid attention to local government “because that’s 90 percent of the reality of the quality of life in the town in which we live,” he says.
“I’ve always believed that the city government is full of people who are working hard every day to try to serve people. I wish more people got to see behind the walls of them doing that.”
Smith was born at (the now-defunct) Baptist Hospital and grew up on Flamingo Street across from where Dogwood Elementary School now stands. He went through elementary school at Giffin before his family moved to Seymour, where he attended middle and high school. Like many South Knoxvillians, he had his first wreck as a teenager on Chapman Highway.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Emory & Henry College in Virginia, then acquired an MBA from the University of Tennessee. At various times he lived in Fort Sanders and South Knoxville.
Smith did bookkeeping for several nonprofit groups before and during graduate school.
He and wife Jamie moved to Austin, Texas, where he worked for Dell Inc. in consumer marketing, brand management and business development. Jamie, a graduate of East Tennessee State University, worked as a CT tech for an outpatient radiology practice.
Dell sent them to Ireland, which aligned perfectly with their dreams.
“We wanted to live abroad before we had kids,” says Smith. “It was funny to hear my East Tennessee accent fade a bit.”
They were able to travel throughout Europe. Jamie had hoped to work in Ireland, but by the time she got through all the red tape, she was pregnant with their son, Carter. A few months after his birth, at the urging of the grandparents, the trio headed back to Knoxville. They lived in a downtown apartment until they found out they were having twins, Caroline and Avery, and they moved to Island Home Park.
“I don’t know how people raise kids without grandparents,” Smith says. Carter is now 8 and a second-grader at South Knoxville Elementary School. The twins are 5 and will start kindergarten in the fall.
Smith was chief marketing officer for ORNL Federal Credit Union until five years ago, when he joined Ackermann Marketing & PR, where he is vice president of marketing strategy.
His work on City Council is and isn’t what he thought it would be.
“Working with the administration to get things done based on hundreds of neighborhood meetings – to give people what they desire in the city at large but also at the end of their driveway – that has been the most joyful, fulfilling part, and that’s what I expected. The pandemic provided unique challenges.”
Some things have gone smoothly.
“Take Vestal,” he says. “We were able to work with a neighbor to get an easement to build a trail connector between Vestal and Fort Dickerson. … Some of those things that are not health related we’ve been able to keep going.”
Other efforts have even been made less difficult because of the pandemic.
“We’ve been able to do more to help the most marginalized because the need is greater,” he says. “We have more homeless outreach, social workers through VMC (Volunteer Ministry Center) because federal funding allowed for us to do that. We’ve always needed more outreach workers who could work with those who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. We also have had more money for additional homeless shelter.”
Knoxvillians have adjusted to social distancing and virtual meetings, both at the neighborhood and city level. Smith himself is focused on staying connected.
“I’m highly accessible,” he says. “Anybody in the First District or citywide that calls me and that has an issue, I’ll either answer or call ‘em back. Our phones work.
“I don’t take that lightly. Sometimes it’s a long list of folks to call. People deserve to be heard. People who want to have their voice heard, can.”
Smith sees himself as a practical person who has the ability to get things done. He has decided to run for his council seat this year. At that point “other people get to decide” if he’s serving them well.
Smith knows that there are things in Knoxville that need improvement, but he’s enthusiastic about “the overall quality of life.”
“We’re living in a great time to be in Knoxville.”
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.