By Ray Hill
In this column, I have written very little about local political figures but there are a few that would likely make some interesting reading. One is Jack Dance, who was Deputy to the County Clerk and a legitimate contender for Congress when J. Will Taylor died unexpectedly on November 14, 1939. Republicans held a wild convention and Dance was one of the top three leading aspirants seeking to be the party’s nominee for Congress. Dance held a small, but important bloc of votes from Knox County while John Jennings, Jr., a well-known attorney and former Chancellor, and Ray Jenkins, the renowned “Terror of Tellico Plains,” held the majority of the delegates to the nominating convention. In a convention described by local newspapers as “bedlam” and a state of “pandemonium” with near fist-fights breaking out on the floor, Jack Dance, seeing he could not be nominated, threw his votes from Knox County to Judge Jennings, who became the GOP nominee for Congress in a special election to determine a successor to the late “Hillbilly Bill” Taylor.
John Jennings proved he was a shrewd politician when once elected, he offered Jack Dance the post of field representative. Dance accepted the job, which was then part-time and paid somewhere between $1,500 – $2,000 annually. Jack Dance retained his full-time position with the County Clerk while working for Congressman Jennings. Jennings told Dance he had offered him the job as his field representative “because of your wide acquaintanceship in the district and long service to the republican party and your close association with Congressman Taylor.” In a letter to Dance, Jennings explained, “Being an ex-serviceman, thoroughly familiar with veterans’ problems, I feel that you would be a great aid to the party and the district in this position and I hope you will accept.” Dance did not remain in the job long, as he was appointed County Clerk by Judge (the equivalent of the County Mayor today) S. O. Houston to serve as the interim Clerk until the full County Court (today’s County Commission) elected one in October of 1941. Dance was appointed after the incumbent Clerk, W. H. Hall, died suddenly.
Hall is worth mentioning. Whitehaired and kindly, Hall was widely known as “Uncle Harvey” and lived on Highland Avenue in South Knoxville. The seventy-two year-old Hall had been ill for two months and had been unable to go to his office for ten days before he died at his home. Uncle Harvey liked to say he had personally waited on more people about to take their marriage vows than any other Clerk in the State of Tennessee. Hall noted he had issued some 12,000 marriage licenses for couples. Uncle Harvey was serving his second term as County Clerk after having been chief deputy for thirteen years. Hall traveled to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in search of medical help and a cure for his illness without success. Hall had worked in the Clerk’s office since 1920 and had been elected in 1934 and reelected in 1938. Before moving to Highland Avenue, Uncle Harvey Hall lived on Sevier Avenue and was often seen walking back and forth between his home and the Courthouse. In his obituary, it was recalled Hall likely set another record “walking the bridge” from South Knoxville to downtown “more than any living person.”
Two Squires (Commissioners today) serving on the County Court wanted the appointment as Clerk for themselves and a contemporary account noted, “Never in recent history has there been so much undercover ‘politicking’ as has gone on over the County Court clerkship.” The person appointed to fill the remainder of Uncle Harvey Hall’s term would be able to run in the 1942 election as an incumbent. Included amongst the five contenders for the appointment was a former state legislator, Ernest Britton Cross, as well as Uncle Harvey’s widow, Kathryn. Squire Ed Giffin wanted the appointment, as did his colleague S. E. Mayes. Cross was a Democrat while the others were Republicans. Mrs. Hall made no active campaign and ran on the presumption a political widow was entitled to serve out the remainder of her late husband’s term of office. One local newspaper writer noted “a rising tide of public sentiment against” the idea of appointing a member of the County Court to the Clerk’s position, which was a well-paid job. According to a Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter, there was some reason to believe a majority of the County Court members were willing to risk the possible wrath of the voters “in order to pick this one more ripe plum.” Yet Ed Giffin and S. E. Mayes had waged a bitter battle for political preferment and were “hotly opposed” to one another and “indications are that both will fail.”
Jack Dance, the Acting Clerk, was thought to be “far ahead” of those candidates not serving on the County Court. Even then the air around the Courthouse swirled with political rumors. Two very specific reports began circulating prior to the balloting, one of which involved five members of the Knox County Court having been thought to be uncommitted to any candidate as being offered to elect one of them as County Coroner if they would back Ed Giffin. The other rumor was those squires supporting Giffin had admitted there was little hope of their candidate actually being appointed County Clerk. Yet another rumor a gigantic political “trade” was in the offing. The substance of that particular hearsay was the two squires contending for the clerkship would throw their strength to another contender in exchange for one of them being appointed to a deputy clerk’s post. Both Mayes and Ed Giffin vehemently denied such a political bargain had been made. It soon became quite clear a deal had been struck.
The members of the County Court elected one of their own, S. E. Mayes. The Knoxville Journal published photos of Jack Dance and the white-haired and mustachioed S. E. Mayes saying, “Job-hungry squires yesterday gave the $5500 County Clerk’s post to one of their members.” The Journal plainly said the County Court members had ignored “the long and meritorious service of Jack Dance, chief deputy clerk, in their fervid trading for considerations…” Jack Dance promptly announced he would be a candidate in the 1942 Republican primary for County Clerk.
The editor of the Knoxville Journal was Guy Smith, a power in Tennessee Republican politics who would later serve a term as Chairman of the State Republican Executive Committee. The Journal was the voice of Republicanism in East Tennessee and Smith, like many others, had been appalled by the spectacle surrounding Mayes’ election, which required 23 ballots. Ed Giffin had withdrawn and was expecting the appointment as Chief Deputy to the Clerk. Mayes and Giffin were reported to be splitting the salaries evenly between themselves. Mayes, who had served as a member of the Knox County Quarterly Court for twenty years and quickly announced he would not be a candidate to succeed himself in the coming regular election. The Journal noted Mayes had made similar statements before, saying he would not be a candidate for Property Assessor and then promptly going back on his word and running. S. E. Mayes was “soundly defeated” by Mrs. Minnie Waters.
Jack Dance was the Republican nominee for County Clerk on a ticket that bragged it had been nominated by the GOP voters and not “hand-picked” by the politicians. Dance remained in office as County Clerk until he was elected Mayor of Knoxville. Years ago, I heard old-timers say had he lived, Jack Dance would have succeeded Howard Baker. Sr. as the congressman from Tennessee’s Second District rather than John Duncan. Duncan in fact succeeded Dance as Knoxville’s mayor.
Dance died in office and newspaperman Ralph Griffith wrote the mayor had been “one of the most popular men in Knox political history.” There was ample evidence to support that statement. Dance had been elected and reelected County Court Clerk four times before being elected Mayor of Knoxville in a landslide in 1955. At the time of his death, Dance was planning to run for reelection. Jack Dance was the only candidate for countywide office who carried every precinct in both the city and county. Dance carried all 95 of the voting precincts during his last campaign for County Clerk.
The son of a Baptist preacher, Jack Dance grew up in Island Home where his family had moved when he was five years old. Dance had been industrious and aside from his political jobs, he owned and operated a dry cleaning business, Dance Dry Cleaning, which was located on Magnolia Avenue. Jack Dance sold his business in 1957 to concentrate all his efforts on being mayor.
Like many of the best politicians, Jack Dance’s success was due to hard work and personality. Said to be “easy to meet” and friendly, Dance also happened to be an excellent organizer, a political skill never to be underestimated. Yet Jack Dance was not “boisterous” nor was he ever openly critical of those working under him.
Jack Dance had been in demand as a campaign manager for others long before running for office himself. Dance had been the campaign manager for Congressman J. Will Taylor in the Second Congressional District three times. Jack Dance also was the campaign manager in 1944 and 1948 for the presidential campaigns of Thomas E. Dewey. Dance also managed the 1948 campaign of John Jennings, Jr., when the congressman had been especially hard-pressed.
While serving as mayor, Jack Dance was a consensus-seeker and his term of office was noted for “serenity and progress.” Dance had insisted upon working out the details of proposals and programs before submitting them to the City Council. It was during Jack Dance’s administration as mayor that Knoxville built the Civic Coliseum and the city and county governments merged their respective planning commissions to form the Metropolitan Planning Commission. Mayor Dance presided over more slum clearance than any other city in Tennessee aside from Nashville.
At one time, Jack Dance had been considered an “outstanding” baseball player and he remained an enthusiastic athletic booster for most sporting activities. Mayor Dance always looked forward to those occasions when he threw out the first ball during a new season and was ever-ready to welcome sportsmen to the City of Knoxville. Jack Dance also loved fishing, especially for trout, and frequently said he wished he had more spare time for fishing. When not working, Dance could oftentimes be found in a mountain stream to see if the trout were biting.
Only sixty-one years old when he died unexpectedly, Jack Dance had gone to bed on the night of April 12 in good spirits. Outwardly, Mayor Dance appeared to be in excellent health. After sleeping for three hours, Dance awakened his wife in considerable pain. At first, Mrs. Dance thought her husband was having a nightmare but he told her he was suffering from terrible pains in his abdomen. Mrs. Dance hurriedly called the mayor’s physician. When Dr. J. E. Acker arrived, Dance was awake, but by the time an ambulance was called, the mayor was unconscious. Jack Dance died on the operating table from a rupture of the abdominal aorta. The mayor’s condition was so acute and deteriorating so quickly surgery couldn’t save his life.
Guy Smith’s editorial in the Knoxville Journal following the death of Jack Dance noted there were literally thousands of folks who “felt themselves to be on a first-name basis” with the mayor. Dance was known as “a good man and a kind one” utterly “lacking in enmities and vindictiveness, even where he had been badly used.” “As an individual,” Guy Smith wrote,” he had made a career of being kind to people – – – it was one he followed to his death…”
Irrespective of any kind of monument for any politician or public servant, is there really any greater tribute than being remembered as a good and kind man? That was the political legacy of Jack Dance.