John Williams

Contributed by John Williams, January 2023.

My Vanderbilt Law School classmate John Kennedy told me about the Student Health Coalition in the Spring of 1972, during our third year of law school. I worked for the SHC that summer, as John and I drove to Knoxville four nights a week to take a course to prepare for the bar exam in late July. We both passed!

Because I was facing a 3-month hitch in the Army beginning in October, I did not look for a job. I enjoyed my SHC work so much that I decided to come back to the area in January of 1973. Vanderbilt funded me for a year to organize and obtain funding for a public interest law firm that would tackle the legal issues facing the communities served by the SHC.

We had an “ace in the hole” to get foundation funding – Vanderbilt Chancellor Alexander Heard was serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Ford Foundation. He was impressed with the work of the SHC and helped us get a grant from that foundation, which funded our efforts for 4 years.

The grant enabled our newly formed group, the East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC), to hire a second attorney, Neil McBride, and an invaluable community organizer, Pat Kalmans, who provided assistance to the many health councils which were being formed after the SHC health fairs.

ETRC was based in Jacksboro, but we provided legal assistance to community organizations in Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne, Morgan, and Scott Counties. We did a lot of driving! During the years that ETRC was active (1974-1977), several other lawyers/law students worked in the ETRC office, including Bill Corr, Bill Allen, John McArthur, and Lark Hayes.

The issues we tackled included environmental issues like strip mining, legal issues faced by the health clinics, and various other issues such as black lung and the elimination of 8-party telephone lines.

The experience I gained during my East Tennessee years paved the way for many of my future endeavors. From 1978 to 1981, I was an attorney with the U. S. Interior Department, helping the federal government rein in the abuses of the coal industry.

After I moved back to Nashville in late 1981, I became involved with an environmental lobbying group, the Environmental Action Fund, which was successful in passing environmental legislation at the Tennessee legislature. After joining a Nashville law firm in 1996, I represented eight different statewide health care professional associations and lobbied the Tennessee legislature for changes in their practice acts that would enable them to serve their patients more effectively.

My fondest memories of my days in East Tennessee revolve around the extraordinary people I had the privilege of working with. The list is too long to mention everyone, but I would be remiss if I did not single out the two that made the deepest impression on me.

Bill Dow was simply amazing! His gentle but firm manner and his charm brought so many of us under his spell and made the SHC into the productive organization that it has been for so many years and counting.

Heleny Cook was a 21-year-old woman (not by coincidence the step-daughter of William Vanderbilt) who moved to Tennessee in 1971 and helped organize Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) to enable local residents to combat the powerful coal industry that had brought misery to Appalachian communities for so many years. Heleny stayed for 5 years and was a beloved person when she moved with her husband to Washington, D. C., where she taught school for many years. SOCM is still a viable organization, more than 50 years after it was created.

In my 75 years, I have known very few people that can be termed legendary, but Bill and Heleny earned that description. I am so fortunate to have known and worked with them.


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