The passing of John Wesley Testerman on Aug. 13, 2020, at age 89 closed a chapter in Knoxville history. He was the last remaining of five Testerman brothers: soldiers, lawyers, builders, political and civic leaders; sons of Benjamin Harrison and Lucille Hanley Testerman.
Yet laughter more than legacy was the topic when Leslie Hammer Testerman, John’s wife of 68 years, sat with sister-in-law Janet Testerman Crossley and niece Janet Testerman, now a member of the Knoxville City Council, at lunch at Aubrey’s in Bearden.
“Mrs. Testerman was a teetotaler. She stopped the boys at the door and did a breath check to see if they had been drinking.”
“Yes, they caused a run on Tic Tacs.”
“Mrs. Testerman would go drag John away from the pool hall.”
“And Bryan was a rebel. She was always dragging him away from someplace.”
“And she took Kyle to play tennis every day.”
Kyle, who went on to serve two terms as Knoxville’s mayor, had polio and wore leg braces. His mother pushed him through tennis to overcome. (The Tyson Park tennis complex is named in his honor.)
“Yes, Kyle had great looking legs,” said the senior Janet with a wink.
“Bryan was so mischievous that a teacher at Staub’s said if she had to teach Bryan Testerman again, she would just go sell ribbons at Kress’s.”
“Dad got in trouble one Halloween,” said the junior Janet. “A bunch of boys played a trick on a neighbor. He came out to chase them away and heard Dad’s braces squeaking as he ran.” Kyle was caught.
Were these women intimidated by their mother-in-law or by the Testerman name?
Not at all. “We were just crazy kids in love.”
“Mrs. Testerman never had a girl. She absolutely loved her daughters-in-law, and she let us do our own thing.”
But she never stopped pushing her boys.
“She would phone on weekends. Kyle might be eating breakfast or even still in bed. ‘Tell her I’m out mowing the grass,’ he would say.”
The boys grew up in construction. “John loved to drive a truck.”
And Kyle was photographed operating a front loader as mayor when his garbage workers went on strike.
Young Janet was just 3 when her dad was sworn in for his first term. During the garbage strike, the city police increased the patrol at the Testerman home. “We were at Holiday on Ice when dad took a call. There was a police emergency at our house. We raced home to find blue lights and a police car.” Turns out two officers had left their car to walk the grounds and were startled by the Testerman dog. They dashed back to the car, jumped into the backseat and were trapped. Police cars don’t have door handles in the backseat.
Although others got credit, the 1982 World’s Fair was conceived on Kyle’s watch. He appointed Stewart Evans to head a committee to bring a world’s Expo to Knoxville. An obstacle was the railroad.
“We couldn’t have a fair with trains running through the site. So, Kyle and (attorney) Bob Worthington went to New York.” When negotiations stalled, “Kyle said, ‘We’ll stop every train (through that site) to search for contraband.’” The railroad adjusted its schedule.
Ben Testerman Jr., much like Joe Kennedy Jr., was the oldest son, perhaps the brightest and the best. Ben Jr. died April 6, 1945, at age 20. Young Kennedy died Aug. 12, 1944, at age 29. Both killed during World War II, both leaving younger brothers to advance the family legacy.
John and Bryan Testerman developed many of Knoxville’s most beautiful subdivisions and built Willow Creek Golf Course. In all, John was involved in building more than 5,000 residential units in subdivisions and apartments.
Kyle Testerman and partners changed the face of Knoxville with construction of the office towers at Northshore Drive and Papermill Road and the TVA Towers downtown.
“Mr. and Mrs. Testerman instilled civic responsibility in the boys. And they absolutely loved Knoxville. They were driven by a sense of fairness and always treated employees with respect. They really did love each other. When push came to shove, they were right there supporting each other,” said Leslie.
Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today.