Tom Underwood: A life in education, with jokes

Beth KinnaneFountain City, Our Town Stories

Bill Pittman put it rather succinctly: “Without Tom Underwood, there likely wouldn’t have been a Pittman Properties.” That’s a lot of praise from a man who had a 32-year career with DeRoyal Industries, which he left to run the business begun by his father back in 1977.

Pittman Properties now owns around 150 restored homes for lease in the North Knoxville area, concentrated in Oakwood/Lincoln Park (see story here). It started with the purchase of one house for $13,000, partially paid for with a loan from the Knoxville Teachers Federal Credit Union, which Underwood helmed for several decades. Pittman’s mother was a nurse for Knoxville City Schools and a member. The credit union provided the loan for part of the purchase of that first property when the Pittman’s regular bank wouldn’t consider it.

“Tom and the credit union stepped in and over the years provided several loans to us to grow our portfolio and become self-funding,” Pittman said. “It is often said that ‘people will remember how you made them feel more than what you said.’ This is how I think of Tom Underwood.”

The Big Kahuna

Pittman described Underwood’s “stoic” demeanor, which he most certainly does have. At times. On the other hand, he had business cards made up with his title as “The Big Kahuna” and was the brainchild of some ephemera sporting “the official seal” of the KTFCU: a rendering of a seal balancing a beach ball on its nose. Many members probably have a credit union cast iron skillet in their kitchens.

International Man of Mystery? No, just Tom Underwood on a family trip to England in March of 2020 just before the world shut down (Photo by his granddaughter Wendy U. Settle).

If you could put stoic and goofy into one person, that would most certainly be Tom. Forgive me for stepping away from journalistic norms and referring to him by his first name. Full disclosure, this man with an elevated intellect and a wry and dry sense of humor is my stepfather, and I cannot call him “Underwood.” He’s Tom.

These days Tom is the Big Kahuna Emeritus, officially retired from the credit union since 2011. His head still pops in the doors regularly and he sits on the board of directors. He recently started his tenth decade here on earth, and has worn many hats over the course of his life: school teacher, principal, school system administrator, finance guy. At his heart, he’s a frustrated columnist who found an outlet providing material for the informative but highly entertaining KTFCU newsletter.

Career in education

A career in education was pretty much a birthright for Tom as well as his late brother, Bob. His father, Burl, and mother, Emma Huffaker, were Sevier County natives who both became school teachers.

Though his father lived in Sevier County, he attended Carter High School instead of Sevier due to being born on the wrong side of the French Broad River near Kodak. Tom explained there were four ferries at the time whose hours of operation (or operation at all) weren’t dependable enough for Burl to reliably attend Sevier County High School. Incidentally two of the four (Underwood and Hodges) were in Burl’s extended family and one (Huffaker) was in Emma’s.

Both graduated in 1925 at a time when teachers weren’t required to have degrees and certifications. Emma was hired for being one of the top six students in her class.

“My mother started teaching school in September after she graduated in June,” Tom said. “My father went to UT and actually got about a year and a half’s worth of credits before dropping out because he had to get a job.”

Hired by Sevier County Schools, Burl would eventually start teaching where Emma was, the old Underwood School in Kodak. The school sat on land that had been donated by some of Burl’s family, the Underwoods having a long history in the area especially around Dumpling Creek. Emma’s ancestors mostly settled in the Seven Islands area.

Burl and Emma were the only teachers at the Underwood School, and eventually a courtship began. They were married in October of 1929 at First Presbyterian on State Street in Knoxville. They exited the church to hear the cries of “Extra! Extra!” The stock market had crashed. It was the original Black Friday.

Jump ahead a little more than a decade, and Tom recalls his family having to find a new place to live as the country had entered World War II. The development of Oak Ridge and projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority created a housing crunch in Knoxville, he said. They eventually settled in a house on Gaston Avenue, where his parents lived for the rest of their lives. Tom moved to Fountain City in the early 1960s, just before the community was annexed into the city.

A reclaimed bookcase from the old Bell House School found new life as a china cabinet in Tom Underwood’s home (Photo: Beth Kinnane)

Tom remembers taking the street car downtown where a quarter could get you a movie ticket and a popcorn with a little bit of change left over. There are more stories he has than can reasonably fit in this space (he suggested using a smaller font).

He graduated from Central High School in 1951, completed his military service and then graduated from UT. His teaching career began at South Knoxville Elementary, then on to Brownlow. His first assignment as a principal was at Locket Elementary, at the time a three-room schoolhouse, then old Bell House School downtown before returning to South Knoxville as principal. By the mid-1960s he moved to the central office of Knoxville City Schools as supervisor of elementary education.

“I spent my last 20 years in education as a petty bureaucrat,” he said, laughing. That tenure ran alongside his work with the KTFCU, when both the city schools’ administration and the credit union’s only office were housed in the old Knoxville High School building.

Fire at Knoxville High

He was there for a school board meeting in 1978 when a fire somehow started in its beautiful auditorium. Night school classes were going on elsewhere in the building as the meeting was ended due to the conflagration. Tom ran down to the credit union office to make sure things that needed to be saved made it into the fire-proof safe. He ended up having to let the firefighters in. Though right next door, they were having trouble gaining entrance.

Tom retired from the school system in 1983, just a few years before Knoxville voters chose to leave the responsibility of education to the county. He continued with the credit union, and though retired, is still very much a part of its landscape and drove its expansion out of that little office in the back of Knoxville High.

Looking back over 90 years, he says, simply, and with a smile, “I have been blessed.”

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

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