By Connie Denney
Likely, Doris Hensley needs no introduction. As you read this, she sees the end of two terms as Erwin’s mayor in the rearview mirror. Running the Town of Erwin was bound to have presented challenges as well as rewards. Recently she reflected on and agreed to share thoughts on an important community tragedy and on dealing with personal losses.
But first, understand that the period of service in the elected office followed a career as an employee of the town, beginning in 1974 as administrative assistant to the late Joe Frazier, city recorder. Leadership responsibilities increased as she later became city recorder herself. As for how she became interested in public service, after graduating from Unicoi County High School and attending East Tennessee State University she worked for a finance company, then was one of the first employees of First Security Bank in its loan and bookkeeping departments.
It was in 1974 that the late Jim Peterson, mayor at the time, asked if she would be interested in working for the town. The monthly pay was $200 more than she was earning.
“So, naturally I said I would be very interested. I immediately fell in love with the job and the town. Every day was a new experience and I looked forward to seeing what the next day held for me,” she said. “I enjoyed being in the ‘political atmosphere,’ but I have never considered myself to be a politician. I rather think of myself as a public servant, hoping to make the lives of others a little brighter.”
Her workplace was the Municipal Building, which was located in what is now a parking lot behind the Unicoi County Courthouse at the corner of Gay Street and Church Avenue. She recalled the many purposes the old building had served. Over the years it had housed the police department, fire department, highway patrol office, Judge Walter Garland’s office, library, mayor’s office and meeting room, as well as senior citizens’ center. A second floor auditorium had years before been used for school graduations, plays, dance recitals, boxing matches and concerts. An earlier fire (before 1970) damaged the second floor with the auditorium never being repaired. It was used to store old records, Christmas decorations, surplus lighting, etc.
The building burned April 8, 2009, after Doris retired as city recorder and prior to her service as mayor. She was doing some work for the Municipal Technical Advisory Service.
“I did not find out about the fire until the next day when I saw the news report on WJHL,” she recalled, adding that she immediately came to town and saw remains of the burned-out building. “So many memories had gone up in smoke, it was like losing an old friend. I remember sitting at my desk and watching people pass by the big window. I remember the eerie feeling I would get when I had to go in the old rock vault for records. I remember being excited when Mr. Frazier left to go to Georgia to get new carpeting for our offices. On Monday morning when I arrived at work, excited to see the new carpet, I opened the door to the office and said ‘OMG.’ The carpet was hideous, vivid green, gold and brown. I grew to tolerate the carpet, but still thought it belonged in the dining room of a Victorian home. I remember the open area of the reception area, and the many friendships that I made while working in the building.”
Of course, in more recent years, going to work meant going to the newer building on Main Street.
“City Hall has always been a haven for me. I have had many heartbreaks while working for the town, but the most recent ones were the losses of my daughter in 2016 and my mother in 2019,” Doris said. It’s really stressful to recall those days, but one thing I could always rely on was the support, encouragement, kindness and the willingness to help from the staff and employees of the town. During my daughter’s battle with cancer, I kept in touch with City Hall by phone or email on a regular basis.”
Specifically, she remembers then-recorder Glenn Rosenoff handling most day-to-day duties and regional meetings. She was in the office two or three times a week, but missed only one meeting as mayor in the four-year period.
Her thoughts on challenges to local governments operating during a worldwide pandemic: “One issue that concerns everyone is the possibility of job losses and company closures, resulting in a decline in personal income. While government spending is continuing to rise, consumer spending is decreasing, mainly due to social distancing or in some cases, shelter-in-place. Paid sick leave is a challenge to all business. The pandemic has played havoc with our budgets. It’s difficult to predict revenues and expenditures during times of crises.”
Be safe. Stay safe.