A tribute to the late Buzz Elkins
The late James E. “Buzz” Elkins, a longtime Tennessee legislator, Clinton attorney and Oak Ridge banker, was recently inducted posthumously into the Clinton High School Hall of Fame.
Twenty-three years after his death, thousands travel daily along the James E. “Buzz” Elkins Highway between Clinton and Oak Ridge. A good many of those travelers and others who have either moved into Anderson County or have come of age have no idea of the Buzz Elkins story.
Buzz served in the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1968-74 before serving in the Tennessee Senate from 1974-86.
Over those 18 years, he was one of the most respected members of the Tennessee General Assembly.
That was true of his fellow Republicans and his Democratic friends on the other side of the aisle in Nashville. Two of many accomplishments was working with a bipartisan group of legislators on education reform and in creating the public defender office statewide.
Buzz worked hard providing service to his constituents, which in the case of his Senate years included four counties.
“I am a member of the Republican caucus, but I pride myself on serving all of my constituents regardless of their party affiliation and whether or not they voted for me,” Buzz told me in 1984 when I was interviewing him for a story in The Oak Ridger. “It makes me a better legislator.”
I knew a number of his constituents who were strong Democrats and may not have always agreed with him on the issues, but they had nothing but nice things to say about Buzz.
After he was first elected to the House in 1968, these staunch Democrats helped re-elect him each time he ran because he was always willing to help a constituent as a representative of the people. In some cases, Buzz was the only Republican they ever voted for and they were proud to say so.
As a reporter, Buzz was always available to discuss state issues and he was a firm believer in keeping the public abreast of what was happening in Nashville. This was especially the case when it came to education reform during the early 1980s.
When President Reagan visited Farragut High School in June 1983 to discuss education issues, Buzz was a panelist on the stage and made a strong presentation to the president about Tennessee’s efforts toward improving education and increasing teachers’ pay.
Buzz considered that moment one of the highlights of his long and distinguished career.
Buzz was a strong proponent of high ethical standards in Nashville in the wake of political scandals rocking Nashville and Washington during the early 1970s. He practiced what he preached.
As a senator and afterwards, Buzz was a mentor to Lt. Gov. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge when he was elected to the House in 1978 before replacing Buzz in the Senate in 1986. Former state Rep. David Coffey of Oak Ridge, who replaced McNally in the House in 1986, also was mentored by Buzz. Coffey will tell you Buzz’ counsel came in handy during his 10 years in the House.
After Buzz left the Senate in 1987, he went into banking and was helpful to me in 1991 when our family returned to Tennessee from our 15-month stay in Michigan as we went through the process of purchasing a new home.
When I became the news editor of the Courier News in 1993, private citizen Buzz helpful in my becoming reacquainted with the Anderson County news beat.
During the early 1990s, many Anderson Countians wanted Buzz to return to politics.
However, Buzz would say 18 years was enough. He preferred his new career as a banker, civic leader and the ability to be close to wife Sue and daughter Laura.
His death of a heart attack in August 1994 at age 55 came much too soon.
The last time I saw Buzz was a week before he died and I am glad to say he was in great spirits that day – laughing and joking with others waiting in line -- as was preparing to do his civic duty and cast his ballot in the Anderson County Courthouse during the first year of early voting. Buzz enjoyed life, people and making Anderson County better until the end.
During an era when we read and hear about political discourse, there is a need for more of the Buzz Elkins philosophy.
The next time you drive Highway 61 between Clinton and Oak Ridge – a project he initiated when he was in the Senate -- please remember James E. “Buzz” Elkins is much more than just the name of that highway.
(Fred Strohl is a former reporter and editor with The Oak Ridger and Clinton Courier News. He has worked for 22 years in communications at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.)