Remembering Ben Atchley
By Ray Hill
The passing of Ben Atchley brought back many memories to me. I’ve known Ben and Sue Atchley since I was a teen-ager and I’m now almost a senior citizen. Ben Atchley was serving his second term in the Tennessee State House of Representatives when I volunteered to work in his campaign for the State Senate. Atchley was facing a long-time incumbent, Fred Berry, in the general election. It was a hard fought campaign, but that sort of campaigning doesn’t really occur anymore. It was not a campaign of charges and counter-charges; it was a campaign of ideas and what each man would accomplish. There was no name-calling and no accusations. It was almost a sedate and gentlemanly race. Ben Atchley won that campaign easily and remained in the Tennessee State Senate until his retirement in 2003.
Tennessee wasn’t as “red” back then as it is today. In fact, when Ben Atchley was first elected to the State Senate in 1976, it was a presidential election year. Former California governor Ronald Reagan had just mounted a challenge to sitting President Gerald Ford in the Republican primaries. It was a hard fight, one that went all the way to the GOP National Convention. Ford just barely won renomination and there were many like me who had worked hard for Reagan. Tennessee’s junior United States Senator, Bill Brock, was seeking a second term that same year. Two years previously, former Congressman Ray Blanton had been elected governor over Lamar Alexander. The Democrats proved just how viable they were in 1976; Tennessee was Jimmy Carter’s second best state in the country after his native Georgia. Bill Brock, despite meeting his goal of getting 100,000 more votes in 1976 than he had received in 1970, lost to Jim Sasser.
Ben Atchley navigated difficult political rapids in Nashville and served much of the time when his party was the minority in the State Capitol. Whether in the minority or the majority, Ben Atchley always mattered. Perhaps one of the primary reasons Ben Atchley could never be ignored is precisely because of the kind of man he was; Ben was quite simply a very fine man. There was nothing artificial about Ben Atchley. Bennie Atchley really was a man whose word was always good, who believed in God, country, family, and community. Throughout his entire life, Ben Atchley embodied what his generation saw as the “American Dream.”
Although an extremely modest man, it was readily apparent just how shrewd Ben really was when one considers just how well he married. Bennie’s choice of Sue King as his bride helped shaped his life and future well beyond any other single thing he did. Miss Sue came from one of the most prominent families in South Knoxville and she was at least as good a politician (I think slightly better) than Ben ever was. One simply couldn’t have had a better help mate than Sue Atchley.
Together Ben and Sue formed a duo that served South Knoxville and Ben’s Senate district for decades. Sue was eventually appointed to serve a brief term in the State Senate, a recognition of her own ability and service to the community.
It is impossible to calculate the impact Ben and Sue had upon my own life, nor is it possible to measure their warm friendship. The older I’ve become, the more I’ve realized the greatest gift life has to offer are those friendships that bring us love and comfort. I have loved Sue and Ben for a very long time and like so many others, will keep Ben Atchley alive in my heart and memories for the rest of my own life.