Right off the bat, Anne Crais wants to deflect attention away from herself. Not that the 2020 recipient of the Diana Conn Neighbor of the Year Award isn’t proud of the honor from the Knoxville Office of Neighborhoods. She just likes to point out the others involved in her neighborly endeavors.
“This is a really big award for me,” Crais (pronounced Cray) said. “But there are so many people in my neighborhood who made this happen. It really did mean a lot to me.”
Recently turned 70, the retired Knox County school teacher has lived in West Hills since 2009. She is the secretary of her smaller immediate neighborhood association, Wesley Hills, and a member of the larger West Hills association. She is also very active in her church, Westminster Presbyterian. She started a little free library in her neighborhood, advocated for an additional sidewalk, voiced concerns over proposed developments, and got her neighbors involved in former Gov. Bill Haslam’s now defunct Healthier Tennessee initiative by organizing Healthy West Hills. She’s disappointed that program no longer exists.
“You know, our group achieved bronze status the first year and silver status the second year,” she said. “I really wanted us to go for the gold. I don’t like starting things I can’t finish.” The program focused on healthy eating, exercise and tobacco cessation.
Crais said being active in her neighborhood stems from what she calls her three core pillars, home, school and church. She specifically credits being a school teacher as the driver behind building community.
“I’ve always wanted to create, enjoy, participate,” she said. “I want to know my neighbors. That’s how you build trust, that’s how you build a reciprocal relationship, to be involved with them, with activities and events that bring people together. It’s especially important when people don’t have family around.”
Crais (then Cannon) was a “farm girl” growing up in the small town of Brighton in Tipton County just north of Memphis. Her mother was a school teacher. At one point her family moved to Sewanee. But she headed back west to attend Rhodes College in Memphis, where she met her husband, Tim, a native of Louisiana. The Craises made their first move to Knoxville in the early ’70s when he attended graduate school at the University of Tennessee.
Crais began her teaching career at Fort Sanders Elementary in the old Knoxville City School System. Moves to other cities and taking time off to raise her three children put a 14-year hiatus on teaching. After moving back to Knoxville in the early ’90s, she first taught at Rocky Hill Elementary then Ball Camp Elementary, from which she retired in 2014.
“I love Knoxville, I love East Tennessee, the beauty of the mountains with all the streams,” she said.
Though she was already involved in her neighborhood associations before retirement, the extra time just left Crais looking for more ways to remain active. She became a volunteer at nearby West Hills Elementary School. She and her husband just did a float on the Holston River and hope to visit Shaker Village in Kentucky in the fall. She normally walks two miles every day, always taking a trash bag with her to pick up litter along the way.
“I want to stay involved and stay healthy and in good shape,” Crais said. “I want to be around to enjoy my grandchildren.”
Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent.