By Ray Hill
Hazen Kreis is likely a name unfamiliar to the readers of this column, but there was a time when the six foot, five inch gentleman was wildly popular in Knox County. Kreis was elected to three two-year terms consecutively as Sheriff of Knox County. Ranging in weight from 340 to 375 pounds, Kreis was a big man, who was once the pistol sharpshooting champion of the United States. Kreis’s grandson, Hazen Kreis, III, recalls stories told by his Uncle Rudy and various family members of how his grandfather could shoot individual acorns from trees.
Hazen Kreis succeeded J. Carroll Cate as Knox County’s Sheriff. Kreis, celebrating his victory on the night of the election, made a big pledge: “I stand for clean government and I’ll never let you down.”
Kreis, only thirty-four years old at the time of his election, did not have an easy path to the sheriff’s office. Kreis had been chief deputy to Sheriff J. Carroll Cate as well as a city police officer before launching his own campaign for sheriff. Hazen Kreis faced a formidable opponent in the Republican primary in the person of J. Wesley Brewer, a former Knox County sheriff who had served from 1932 – 1936. A funeral home owner, Brewer proposed to make a comeback bid in the 1940 election. Kreis was the grandson of Harmon Kreis, who had also served as Sheriff of Knox County. The elder Kreis had formed a locally renowned “Flying Squadron” during an election cycle to root out and rid public offices of corruption, which was widespread at the time.
Hazen Kreis took a gamble in running for sheriff inasmuch as he resigned his position with the City of Knoxville, losing his standing with the Civil Service Board. Kreis mailed in his letter of resignation to Knoxville City Manager W. W. Mynatt. Kreis was the president of the Tennessee and Mississippi Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association and in making his announcement he would be a candidate for Knox County’s Sheriff, stated he was in favor of “strict law enforcement and good government.” Born on a farm at the “Forks of the River”, Hazen Kreis had graduated from Central High School. Kreis had resigned as Chief Deputy to Sheriff J. Carroll Cate to keep his Civil Service status and had returned to the Knoxville Police Department.
Wesley Brewer was also a resident of the “Forks of the River” community in Thorn Grove and had been a car salesman and farmer before being elected sheriff in 1932. When Brewer attempt his political comeback, he was in the undertaking business.
Hazen Kreis was a deeply religious man and when Mount Olive Baptist Church burned, a Jewish congregation promptly offered the use of its synagogue for use by worshippers. The Baptists thanked the Jewish congregation, but they had already made arrangements to hold their services at Mount Olive Elementary School across the street. Hazen Kreis, his wife and son donated $100 for the rebuilding of Mount Olive Baptist Church.
Kreis campaigned as “The People’s Choice” for the GOP nomination and newspaper advertisements claimed the candidate was entirely willing to have his “future to be measured by his past.” Hazen Kreis also denounced “the Big Shot Racketeer operators” in Knox County. As it turned out, Hazen Kreis was certainly the people’s choice; at least in the Republican primary which was held April 11, 1940. Kreis won 6,379 votes to only 3,852 for J. Wesley Brewer. Kreis became one of the youngest men ever nominated for Knox County Sheriff by either political party.
Hazen Kreis was not only gracious, but modest in victory. “This expression of confidence in me and my platform gives me the courage to continue through August,” Kreis told a newspaperman when it became apparent he had won the GOP nomination. Kreis also thanked his supporters for all they had done for him.
While an affable young man, Hazen Kreis was dead serious about his intent to wreck “the playhouse” of the criminal element in Knox County. “It has been said that the members of the underworld are against me,” Kreis said. “They had better be against me because I have always stood against their operations. I have no personal feeling against them but I have the strongest personal feeling against the ‘businesses’ they operate.” Many voters were skeptical about candidates for sheriff who roared their opposition to crime while winking and holding out their hands at the same time. It became quite clear Hazen Kreis meant precisely what he said and his stand was uncompromising. Certainly a large man, Kreis carried his weight with a grace that reminded observers he had once been an excellent athlete. Indeed, Hazen Kreis had been a football star at Central High School where he had played tackle and fullback. Kreis pointed to his record while serving as Chief Deputy under Sheriff J. Carroll Cate. The big man had led “scores of raids against bootleggers and slot machine operators.” “As an officer of the law I have confiscated and destroyed $25,000 worth of machines (slot, pinball and the like) and illegal liquors,” Kreis stated. “This is a matter of record,” the young candidate added.
Hazen Kreis was also the teacher and founder of the “Junior Human Interest Bible Class” of Knoxville’s First Baptist Church. Beginning with six boys, it had grown to thirty by the time Kreis was running for sheriff. Nothing came before that particular group on Sundays. Kreis and his co-teacher, Ross Reeder, were sponsoring a jaunt for the boys where they would travel to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park where they would receive the class lesson “on a high slope.” Following the lesson, the boys would enjoy a picnic lunch at the Chimneys park.
Kreis swept past Democrat Chester Hackney in the general election. The Knoxville Journal published a photograph of the Sheriff-elect contently sitting with his father, H. Fritz Kreis, who had his arm around the shoulder of his grandson, 11-year old Hazen, Jr. The photograph of the Kreis men was taken at a baseball game the day before it was published. Both of the elder Kreis men wore summer straw hats, starched white shirts and ties. Hazen was wearing a necktie, while Fritz Kreis preferred a bowtie. The most comfortable-looking of the three was young Hazen, Jr., although he was neatly attired. The Journal noted, “A total of 700 pounds weight is distributed among these three members of the Kreis family – – – Hazen Kreis with 340 pounds, his father with 235, and Hazen Jr. with 125.”
Sheriff Kreis was seriously challenged inside the GOP primary when he ran for reelection for another two-year term in 1942. Kreis’s opponent was yet another former sheriff, Walter Anderson, who had also been Safety Director for the City of Knoxville. With 77 out of 87 precincts reporting their vote totals, Sheriff Kreis had 6,092 votes to 3,129 for Anderson. The general election was a rout of the Democrats and a landslide victory for the Republicans. Sheriff Hazen Kreis led the GOP ticket. Democrats had apparently despaired of beating Hazen Kreis and fielded no candidate in the general election. W. M. “Bill” Oliver ran as an Independent. All 21 candidates on the GOP ticket were elected by the people of Knox County.
Sheriffs were allowed to seek three two-year consecutive terms and few had managed to win a third term. Hazen Kreis was an exception. Recognizing the Sheriff’s personal popularity, no one filed to run against Kreis inside the Republican primary. Once again, Republicans swept Knox County in the 1944 election. Evidently one Democrat thought Sheriff Kreis might be vulnerable in the general election, but Vick H. McLean was disappointed. Kreis piled up more than 13,000 ballots cast for him while McLean trailed far behind with less than 4,000.
Considering the apathy of many voters today, the case of Mrs. Katherine Gardner would be downright astonishing to some. Mrs. Gardner, a rather pretty young woman, was confined to St. Mary’s Hospital as she was recovering from an appendectomy, a serious operation at the time. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. W. R. Brakebill had an ambulance bring her home, but not before stopping at Mount Olive Elementary School so she could vote for her cousin, Sheriff Hazen Kreis. Mrs. Gardner was still a newlywed, having married William Gardner three weeks earlier. Gardner was an aviation machinist’s mate in the Naval Air Corp.
Barred from seeking a fourth consecutive term as sheriff, Hazen Kreis congratulated his chief deputy, Bruce Newman, who offered his resignation to pursue the GOP nomination to succeed his boss. Newman faced Austin Cate in the Republican primary. Cate was the grandson of former sheriff W. T. Cate and the cousin of former sheriff J. Carroll Cate. Newman did not have the boyish enthusiasm of Hazen Kreis, nor the incumbent sheriff’s personal popularity. Austin Cate won the nomination and went on to win the general election to become Knox County’s longest serving sheriff until the advent of Joe Fowler many years later.
Following his three terms as Knox County’s sheriff, Hazen Kreis went into business with Karl Martin to form Martin Machinery & Supply Company. For sometime, Kreis had also kept an apartment on Taliwa Court in South Knoxville as well as “an extensive farm” at Neubert Springs in South Knox County. The farm was not only a retreat for the former sheriff, it was also the site of numerous picnics for youngsters, barbecues for friends and a place to entertain his fellow Republicans.
Although young, Hazen Kreis was apparently a shrewd businessman. At one time, Kreis had made a living in real estate and he maintained a lively interest in “trading” properties until the end of his life. Hazen Kreis “liked to buy and sell houses” and during his lifetime, he had owned at least eight and had built one as well. While serving as sheriff, Kreis had built an apartment in the jail and lived there with his family.
Just a couple of years after leaving office, Hazen Kreis began ailing. Hazen Kreis, III, the sheriff’s grandson, recalled at one point doctors were astonished to discover it appeared Kreis had three kidneys. “When they opened him up,” Hazen Kreis, III remembered, “it was too far gone and there was nothing they could do.” The “third” kidney was cancer which made itself felt “relentlessly” just before the Christmas season of 1948. Less than a year later, Hazen Kreis went to St. Mary’s Hospital. Friends and admirers of the former sheriff were legion and they kept Kreis’ hospital room filled with fragrant flowers, a gesture which he profoundly appreciated. Yet Hazen Kreis held no illusions and knew he was going to die. Kreis made a final request of his friends; please don’t spend money on more flowers, but rather donate it to the Sunday School class that had meant so much to him during his lifetime. The former sheriff hoped there would be enough to create a memorial room for the class he and Ross Reeder had started a decade before. The final illness afflicting Hazen Kreis hit with a vengeance the previous year while he was filling 144 Christmas baskets for the boys in his Sunday class. Kreis ignored the pain and continued until he had finished each and every basket, although he had suffered a hemorrhage while doing it.
Toward the end, Hazen Kreis drifted in and out of consciousness. His one and only sweetheart, his wife Martha Jett Kreis, remained with him and his brother, Rudolph hurried from his home in Miami to see his sibling one final time. The telephone switchboard at the hospital was frequently flooded with calls inquiring about Kreis’s condition. As he drifted away, the giant of a man had loved children, who in turn, loved him. Hazen Kreis “knew hundreds of youngsters by name,” one friend whispered, “and remembered scores at Christmas.”
The forty-three year old former sheriff slept away. The biggest thing about Hazen Kreis was his heart.