Legal Support: ETRC

Contributed by John Williams and Neil McBride, September 2015

As the members of the Student Health Coalition (SHC) and the Vanderbilt Center for Health Services (CHS) began working with health clinics, SOCM, the Tennessee Black Lung Association, and other community-based organizations in East Tennessee, it became apparent that many of these groups needed legal assistance that the students could not provide. The East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC) grew out of that need. (And of course that name was clunky and forgettable, but it was chosen so as not to deflect attention from the groups it served)

Two recent graduates of Vanderbilt Law School, John Williams and John Kennedy, were part of the Student Health Coalition in the summer and fall of 1972. With help and encouragement from Dr. Billings and Chancellor Heard, they decided to seek funds from foundations to create a more permanent structure to provide legal services to the newly formed health councils, Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) and other community groups forming in the area.

After a three-month stint in the Army in the winter of 1972-73, John Williams returned to East Tennessee in February. The Center for Health Services funded John for the next year, while the group sought foundation funding. The Ford Foundation (whose board was chaired by Vanderbilt Chancellor Alexander Heard) decided to provide a substantial grant to allow the legal services group to get set up and to hire staff. To receive and administer the foundation funds, the East Tennessee Research Corporation (a nonprofit, tax-exempt Tennessee corporation) was born.

After a thorough search to find the best possible attorney, we did – and Neil McBride, who was then working with Ralph Nader in Washington, D.C., was hired by ETRC. During the next four years, Neil and John staffed ETRC, aided at different times by Patricia Kalmans, Lark Hayes, Bill Corr, John McArthur, Bill Allen, Ellen Williams, Nancy Raybin and several others.

ETRC provided legal services to many of the health councils formed as a result of Vanderbilt’s summer health fairs. Its attorneys and paralegals set up nonprofit corporations to run the health clinics, drafted contracts, and helped explore funding options for the clinics. The East Tennessee clinics were national pioneers in community-based, physician-extender driven health care. They raised new and sometimes challenging issues for state regulators. ETRC’s attorneys helped them navigate the often byzantine laws and rules governing health care – not to mention the sometimes overtly hostile opposition of local and state medical groups. People from all over the country, from U. S. Senators to celebrities (Joan Baez comes to mind) visited the community clinics in East Tennessee to observe their use of nurse practitioners with off-site physician supervision. The leadership of the clinics and legal work of ETRC helped shape state and federal policy affecting rural, community-based health delivery for many years. ETRC lawyers litigated numerous environmental cases, usually involving damage caused by strip mining and coal trucks.

ETRC was an important partner with SOCM on several campaigns aimed at reducing the damage of the coal industry to local communities. It forced TVA to strengthen its contract obligations to minimize the environmental impact of strip mining. It forced counties and the state to enforce weight limits on coal trucks that were damaging local roads. It forced state and local government to collect fair (and legally required) property taxes on coal land. ETRC also helped lead campaigns to improve the openness of TVA decision-making.

Neil became a leading monitor and sometime critic of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a dominant force in the region. ETRC led two national efforts to defeat the appointment of unqualified members to TVA’s three-person board of directors. These efforts were ultimately successful and led to President Carter’s appointment of David Freeman to the board in 1977.

This effort resulted in collateral damage to ETRC. Its research had led to the defeat of a bankrupt dog food manufacturer whose primary qualification was having a wife who was on the Republican National Committee. He was nominated by President Ford in 1975. As a result of ETRC’s national educational campaign, he became the first person appointed to the TVA board who was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate in the history of TVA. This gentleman did not take his defeat gracefully and filed a federal libel lawsuit against ETRC. The ultimate irony of this whole episode is that one of ETRC’s chief allies in the effort to defeat Ford’s nominee (Don DePriest) later served on the TVA board, as did Neil McBride from 2010 to 2014. Ah, the twists and turns….

Several of ETRC’s initiatives gained institutional lives of their own and ultimately shaped national policy in several fields. For example, after SOCM and ETRC organized a tour of a deep mine for their staff, they were told that women would not be permitted to go into the mine. The mine in question sold coal to TVA, and therefore had strong non-discrimination clauses in its sales contract. In response, ETRC got a grant to bring on a woman to study how employment practices affected women in the coal industry. They found that four women worked in the mines in the whole country.   It got a grant from the Ms. Foundation and the resulting effort became the Coal Employment Project, which, under the leadership of Betty Jean Hall, made permanent changes in women’s access to coal industry jobs throughout the nation.

After four years of banging heads, the foundation funding for ETRC ran out in 1977. John Williams took a job with the U. S. Department of the Interior, serving as the first attorney in the Southeast to enforce the newly enacted federal strip mining law. Neil founded a federally funded program to provide civil legal aid to low-income people in the Appalachian coalfields of East Tennessee. It received funding from the U.S. Legal Services Corporation. Neil directed the program for 25 years and then, after a merger with a Nashville legal aid program, became General Counsel to a program with eight offices and more than 30 attorneys in middle and East Tennessee.

Neil and John’s post-ETRC history suggests one of the most interesting legacies of the program and of the overall engagement of professionals in community issues in East Tennessee. Many of those who supported community efforts went on to be regional and national leaders in their fields, and continued to offer extraordinary service to the communities and on the issues they worked on with ETRC, SOCM and the health clinics.

After serving as a law clerk with ETRC for two summers – and an extra semester – Lark Hayes initially became a legal services attorney in North Carolina, specializing in health law, and then was a highly effective environmental advocate with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill for 25 years.

After working as a law clerk with SOCM and ETRC, law student Trip Van Noppen became the head of one of the nation’s premier environmental public interest law firms, Earthjustice (formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund).

ETRC clerk Gene Kimmelman, who assisted on early studies of TVA practices, became the leading consumer advocate in the country on issues relating to telecommunications. His advocacy with the Consumer Federal of America and Consumer Reports provided innumerable protections to consumers.

Bill Corr, who worked with ETRC and who was the director of community clinics with United Health Services, became the leading congressional staff member on health care issues in the U.S. Congress; then led the national organization, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, served as a deputy to Secretary Shalala during the Clinton Administration and then Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama Administration.

Bill Allen worked for many years with the civil legal aid organization established after the close of ETRC, and then became a leading attorney in Oak Ridge, active in many pro bono and civic activities.

After helping to shape strip mining enforcement policy with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, John Williams became a highly successful lawyer in Nashville, where he remained deeply involved in community and civic activities. Pat Kalmans also left her position as a community organizer to attend law school, and became a legal and civic leader in San Antonio, Texas. John McArthur, who led ETRC’s work on behalf of Black Lung Associations and Black Lung Clinics, also went on to law school, and similarly became a successful attorney who is deeply involved in his community’s civic life.

John Gaventa, who worked with SOCM and ETRC, won a Rhodes Scholarship and wrote a book called Power and Powerlessness in Appalachia. He is an international leader in the academic field of community research and was a recipient of a “genius” award from the McArthur Foundation.

These are remarkable accomplishments for a small, quixotic group of people based in the town of Jacksboro, Tenn. For those who are looking for lessons from the long-time engagement of students and different kinds of professionals (lawyers, doctors, nurses, etc.) in East Tennessee, there are at least two: the work attracted some of the most committed, effective people of their generation. And, in the long run, for almost all of them, the experience of working with local communities on social action issues affected their life’s work and commitments.

In any history of ETRC and SOCM and their related organizations, it is important to understand not just the impact their work had on the local communities, but also the impact the communities had on the people who were doing the work.

Supporting media

  • See this post (under Stories) for a comprehensive outline of a 2018 2+ hour interview with John Williams and Neil McBride about their role in the development of ETRC.
  • View this short clip of John Williams and Neil McBride from a 2017 ETRC panel to learn more about the organization’s top priorities.


  • Scroll through the timeline below, which puts into chronological context the people and actions that constitute ETRC’s origin story.

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