Varina Mayo Jenkins LaNieve: A long Knoxville life

Tracy Haun OwensWest Knoxville

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the striking contemporary Cherokee Boulevard home of Harry and Varina Jenkins was often filled with people and parties, spilling out onto the river-facing lawn. The years in the home designed by Ben F. McMurry Jr., still known as the Jenkins House, were just one lively chapter in the long life of Varina Mayo Jenkins LaNieve.

Mrs. LaNieve passed away Feb. 10, just 10 days short of her 103rd birthday.

Her life was as closely entwined with Knoxville as it could be. Her maternal grandfather, P.P. Claxton, was a faculty member at the University of Tennessee and became the United States Commissioner of Education. Her paternal grandfather founded Mayo Seed Company, and her father, Dale, who grew up in North Knoxville, took it over. Her parents lived on Kingston Pike, near where Second Presbyterian Church sits today, and she attended Miss Thackston’s School before leaving for Salem Academy in North Carolina. There she became valedictorian before returning home to the University of Tennessee.

A school publication from her time at Salem describes her “the animate definition of a perfect lady.” Her nephew, Claxton Mayo Jr., reached at the Bearden Mayo store Tuesday morning, said his aunt was one of the sweetest people he ever knew.

“I never saw her unhappy,” he said, or heard her speak ill of anyone.

She wed physician Harry Jenkins the night before her 23rd birthday, at Second Presbyterian Church, and the couple settled down near Fort Sanders. Her father had died in 1934, and her brothers, Dale and Claxton, ran the family seed business until they were called up to World War II. Her husband, Dr. Jenkins, was called up, too. During that time, Mrs. LaNieve took the reins of the family business and prospered at it until her brothers returned.

In 1954, the Jenkinses approached young architect Ben F. McMurray to design their home, which became an award-winning residence.

Dr. Jenkins passed away in 1972. She and Dr. Jenkins had two children, Harry and Carol, who survive her. Daughter Carol Mayo Jenkins, a successful actor, teaches drama at UT.

In the 1970s, Mrs. LaNieve became a business woman, starting Fancy Colours. The shop at 4816 Kingston Pike specialized in designer gifts and fashions. It also carried the art of her beloved sister-in-law, Josephine Mayo, and the books of her friend Betsey Creekmore. Mrs. LaNieve was an accomplished artist herself, having studied with acclaimed painter Kermit Ewing.

Later in life, she was married to longtime friend Leslie LaNieve, who preceded her in death.

A Celebration of Life service will be held at 2:30 pm on Friday, Feb. 16, in the chapel of Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church. Memorial contributions can be made to Children’s Ministries at the church, 3700 Keowee Ave., Knoxville 37919.

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