Tom Jensen: Legislative pioneer

Victor Ashe
Government/Politics columnist

In the 1970s, Tom Jensen was an important person if you had business before the Legislature and lived in Knox County as he was the Republican leader of the House for eight of the 12 years he served (1966 to 1978).

Jensen led the effort for a truly independent Legislature. He helped change the way things were done in a Legislature where the annual salary was $1,800 a year in 1967 and there were no offices for the members.

Jensen, 82, lives in North Knox County now on Pine Harbor Lane with his wife, Carolyn. They have been married 56 years. She was field representative for Dr. Bill Frist for the 12 years he served in the U.S. Senate from Tennessee.

Tom Jensen was Gov. Winfield Dunn’s House floor leader during the four years that he served as the first Republican governor in over 40 years. Jensen represented northwest Knoxville and Knox County when Brown Ayres and Fred Berry served in the state Senate.

Jensen considers the creation of a state kindergarten system to be the most significant and lasting legislation he helped enact. At the time it passed, enrollment was voluntary for all students as it was still a novel idea for Tennessee at that time. Later, attendance became mandatory.

Jensen said, “Winfield was interested in legislation and the state’s welfare, whereas Ray Blanton just wanted to get by, exist and not for much of anything.”

Jensen became president of the National Conference of State Legislators and pushed for the Legislature to be an informed, independent branch of state government through tools such as the Fiscal Review Committee. Jensen locally insisted the Knox delegation hold regular Saturday meetings during the legislative session at the City County Building where any citizen could come to speak. This was done for 14 years; it has now been discontinued.

He recalls the late state Sen. Houston Goddard of Maryville, who later became an appellate judge, to be “memorable and a statesman.”

Tom and Carolyn have two children, Cindy, who is married to Mike Segers, the pastor of Inskip Baptist Church for 18 years, and Tom, who is city executive of Mountain Commerce Bank. They have four grandchildren. Jensen also served on the Knoxville Airport Authority and was chair part of that time.

■  Ijams: The new executive director of Ijams Nature Center is Amber Parker, 45, who starts to work Feb. 20.

Ijams is a showcase area in South Knoxville that has been part of environmental awareness, learning and enjoyment for the city and county for many years.

Parker relocates from Parsley, Va., where she was executive director of Chincoteague Bay Field Station on the eastern shore of Virginia. She was special programs coordinator and education director at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont from 2001 to 2007.

She earned a degree in zoology from North Carolina State University in Raleigh in 1994 and a master’s degree in environmental studies from Prescott College in Arizona in 2007.

“I love East Tennessee. Ijams is perfect for me as I love to grow programs and Ijams is poised for real growth and new opportunities,” Parker said. She mentioned the wilderness program in South Knoxville as an exciting development for Ijams.

She plans to keep Symphony in the Park, a sold-out event each September. “It is an incredible honor to be asked to serve and I am excited to take Ijams to the next level,” she said.

She follows Paul James as the permanent director, but Bo Townsend served for the past several months as interim director.

Bill Frist, former U.S. Senate majority leader, turns 65 on Feb. 22. Frist now lives in Nashville.

This writer just returned from 6 days on Easter Island, owned by Chile and located in the South Pacific. Will compose a report soon. It was on my bucket list.

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