The smartest person in the room has left the building

Betty BeanKnox Scene, West Knox

Reporters who covered Knox County Commission in Wanda Moody’s day didn’t have to study the agenda to know when she had something up her sleeve.

She’d look down from the dais toward the long desktop where the media sat and give us a quick wink and a wicked grin, then get down to business, which often as not involved some revelation that would bring the sheriff out of his chair, red-faced, spluttering and defensive.

Wanda Moody

Moody was tough, unflappable and relentless. And no offense to anybody else who was there, she was the smartest person in the room.

“She was highly intelligent and she was tenacious. She did not like people who abused government … I was very proud she chose me to represent her,” said attorney Herb Moncier, who is particularly proud of representing Moody in a lawsuit that ended with Sheriff Tim Hutchison being charged with criminal contempt of court for refusing to answer Moody’s questions. “We raised 19 issues and won every single one,” Moncier said. “He lied, we called his hand and he was convicted. It went all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court.”

During an era when the sheriff dominated local government much as Donald Trump bestrides today’s Republican Party, Moody challenged his right to keep confiscated “drug fund” money and spend it without oversight. She challenged his plan to build a jail smack in the middle of downtown. She frequently lost the day’s battle but was rarely on the losing side in the end.

She died in late November, so it was entirely appropriate for our current commissioners to honor her with a memorial resolution. Commissioner Randy Smith, who represents much of Moody’s district (there were 19 members back then) and knew her well, was eloquent in eulogizing her. U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett zoomed in from Washington to praise her as a lifelong friend and mentor.

Here are some of the resolution’s bullet points:

“WHEREAS, Ms. Moody held several leadership positions within the Knoxville City School System where, as the first woman to serve on the superintendent’s staff, she initiated services for special education and her efforts resulted in the Knoxville Adaptive Education Center; and

WHEREAS, in the 1980s, after leaving the Knoxville City School System, Wanda Moody served as the Assistant Commissioner of Education for the Tennessee Department of Education in Nashville under the administration of Governor Lamar Alexander; and

WHEREAS, Wanda Moody was the third woman elected to the Knox County Commission and served for twenty (20) years on the legislative body from 1986-2006; and

WHEREAS, while serving on Commission, Ms. Moody was a vocal proponent of increased government accountability and transparency and she led the charge on many reforms that continue to influence Knox County Government today…”

She was 91 when she died, and had some of the serious health issues that accompany old age, but here’s the irony that struck me as I tuned in to the January commission meeting to watch yet another discussion of dissolving the Knox County Board of Health, which is made up of health professionals who are charged with formulating the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Nobody mentioned that Wanda Moody died of Covid.

Randy Smith’s anti- health board colleagues – doubtless “pro-life” Republicans – probably didn’t know Wanda, and her suffering won’t shake their indifference to the toll this virus is taking on the elderly and their low-paid caregivers nor deter them from accepting the grim statistics as a cost of doing business.

And they also probably don’t realize that if Wanda Moody were here today, she’d still be the smartest person in the room.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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