The unforgettable Jesse Barr

Betty BeanAnderson, Knox Scene

East Tennessee lost a legend with the Feb. 26 death of Jesse Barr, 84.


Here’s his abridged version of his personal history: “Started broke, made a million. Went broke, made a million. Now I’m starting on my third million. I don’t think I’ll make it.”

Jesse Barr

The above is an excerpt from a story I wrote about Jesse Barr for Metro Pulse in 2002. We were doing a “Where are they now” feature, and Barr was the one everybody wanted to write about. Somehow, I muscled my way past the guys and claimed him for myself. I don’t recall quite how.

Known as the architect of the Butcher brothers’ banking empire, or simply as “Jake’s brain,” he was brilliant and funny and a bit of a rogue. I’d gotten into journalism too late to get in on Knoxville’s biggest story of the early ’80s when the banks failed, but when I got hired by the Journal in 1988, I soaked up all the tales I heard from colleagues who had done the most substantive reporting on the United American and the City and County banks.

Even though the story was long since resolved (my mother was one of those who lost her savings in C.H. Butcher’s Southern Industrial Bank, which wasn’t actually a bank, but an uninsured savings and loan), I was still curious about Jesse Barr. It was one of the most interesting and substantive interviews I’ve ever done.

Our paths never crossed again, but I’ve thought of him often and am happy that he got his third act. Jesse Barr was an extraordinary man.

Here is that 2002 story:

Don’t Barr another comeback

It’s lunch time at Dean Stallings Ford. The boys out back in the service department have fired up an oil drum barbecue grill, and they’re throwing down the ribeyes. In the conference room some of them have already started eating their way through a lunch of steak, baked beans and baked potatoes slathered with butter and sour cream. They are watching the latest Martha Stewart update on the big screen TV, and somebody jokes that she’ll probably be redecorating cells in a federal facility soon.

Just then the commercial accounts manager takes a seat at the head of the table. He has a shock of white hair, a pugilist’s nose and a glint in his blue eyes. He looks at the television and takes in the gathering storm over Stewart’s seemingly shady financial dealings and her failure to cooperate with a Congressional investigation.

He smiles just a little before he speaks: “People love to see the mighty fall.”

The lunch crowd nods. After all, who has more knowledge of such matters than the behind-the-scenes architect of the 1982 World’s Fair, the mastermind who transferred millions from one end of the Butcher financial empire to the other with a telephone call, the guy who went from the penthouse to the penitentiary and came back again stronger than an onion sandwich? Who could know more about what happens when the mighty fall than Jesse Barr?

At 65, Barr is maybe a step slower and a few shirt sizes bigger than he was on the fall night in 1982 when he and the once-and-future Knoxville Mayor Kyle Testerman shared a drink of whiskey and watched the fireworks marking the closing of the Fair.

They commiserated about how neither of them had gotten the credit they deserved for making Knoxville’s big party happen, and they figured they never would. But they sure didn’t figure on what happened the next day, when the bank examiners marched into one Butcher bank after another while the brothers Butcher (Jake and C.H.) slept. Typically, Barr was in his office on the 23rd floor of the former United American Bank tower when the phone calls started coming in. He knew very quickly that no sleight of hand could save them this time, because the examiners were an invading hoard, not one or two at a time as had always been the case before.

Less than a year later, Barr reported to prison after a much-publicized seven-day party that included a Monday Easter egg hunt, Fourth of July fireworks on Tuesday, a Labor Day picnic on Wednesday, trick-or-treating on Thursday, Thanksgiving dinner on Friday, Christmas on Saturday, and a New Year’s Eve bash on Sunday night. Then he lowered the flag and went off to spend the next six years in 12 federal prisons and nine county jails. There, he roomed with a Mafia chieftain, read more than 2,000 books, “fought more fights than Mike Tyson,” and commanded a level of respect because, in the prison pecking order, “the bigger the scam, the higher you are on the list.”

Barr came out on the other side unbowed; the knack for telling a story undiminished, and that earthy Southern charm still stout as the scent of a Mississippi magnolia.

Here’s his abridged version of his personal history: “Started broke, made a million. Went broke, made a million. Now I’m starting on my third million. I don’t think I’ll make it.”

Getting rich again doesn’t seem to be high on Barr’s personal agenda, which features raising money for charities like the March of Dimes and the Boy Scouts, being the “M&M granddad” to his two granddaughters, talking to high school students about ethics in business, and spending time with his wife, Dianne, at their home overlooking the Clinch River.

“There were days when the bank would need $200 million just to keep alive, and the only way to go to sleep at night would be to get half drunk, and then I’d wake up the next morning at 3 a.m. worrying,” Barr says. “Now, I get off work in the afternoon and go home and sit out on the patio and look at the birds and the river and try to be a human being again.”

Barr still has plenty of friends, and although he stays clear of political and business entanglements, he is a keen observer of current events. He is watching the most recent reincarnation of his old nemesis, Lamar Alexander, with some amusement.

“He’s a brilliant man. … I just don’t like his politics.”

And the wrangling between Mayor Victor Ashe and Chattanooga financier Franklin Haney over Ashe’s desire to boot the Haney-owned Holiday Inn Select (which dates back to World’s Fair days) out of the new convention center’s neighborhood causes a smile to cross his face. “They deserve each other,” Barr says.

Barr had been planning on writing a book about his experiences, tentatively titled “Sex and Southern Power,” but he didn’t get around to putting it on paper. So, when a woman named Sandra Lea came to him for help with a book she proposed to write about the Butcher empire, he gave her the boxes of documents he’d been saving. They became the basis for “Whirlwind,” a book that “left out the sex,” Barr says, “because she wanted it to be able to be put in schools.”

The picture of Barr painted in the book isn’t uniformly flattering, but it’s clear that Lea developed great affection for the man who says he “could have carried 200 people with me when I went to prison,” but has crafted a personal philosophy that allows him to keep moving ahead.

“I tried never to hurt anybody.” Barr says. “I never stepped on anybody going up and I always carried my friends with me. Yesterday’s over and done and you can’t change it. … Hate scars the soul, and I’ve never wanted to fool with my soul in any way. I hope people will remember that I’ve tried to do some good.”

The family will receive friends for Jesse Barr from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, March 7, 2021, at Berry Highland Memorial, 5315 Kingston Pike, Knoxville. The funeral service will follow.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *