(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles focused on the history of the Tennessee Valley Corridor and its series of Summits. Twenty-five years after the inaugural event in Oak Ridge, the silver anniversary Summit will be celebrated as a series of 90-minute virtual events beginning July 16 and continuing for the next four Thursdays. More details will be forthcoming.)
I recall the first time I met Zach Wamp or, perhaps better stated, experienced his passion, inspirational message, and gravitational magic.
The year was 1995 – late May to be exact – and it occurred in the Atrium of the old Technology 2020 Building in Commerce Park in Oak Ridge. The event was a special workshop focused on technology and local governments just before the inaugural “Oak Ridge Summit” that was set to convene that afternoon.
Elected to Congress in November 1994 when then Third District Congresswoman Marilyn Lloyd chose not to seek reelection, Zach Wamp had only been in office since January, but you would have thought he was a seasoned veteran. He displayed an amazing command of facts and figures without once referring to notes. He showed an understanding of the Oak Ridge assets at a level that long-time residents of the Knoxville community would not be able to articulate. He stressed the importance of working across jurisdictions – local as well as state borders – for the common good.
To say I was impressed would be an understatement but then, as I and others came to understand, Zach Wamp was not your typical elected official. He had prepared well for this election – his second attempt to win the seat after losing two years earlier to Ms. Lloyd – and he understood the challenges that he would face in a district that included deteriorating and somewhat outdated federal facilities at one end of the Third District and a city (Chattanooga) at the other end that was assuming a new brand image after overcoming the stigma of being described by CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite as the “Dirtiest City in America.”
While many thought the “Oak Ridge Summit” might be a “one and done” event, Congressman Wamp had a much larger and more futuristic vision for what was possible. It helped that the three Co-Chairs of that inaugural gathering in the Secret City were also visionaries – Herman Postma, then Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Pete Craven, a successful businessman and influencer in all things involving Oak Ridge; and Wayne Cropp, a long-time colleague of Wamp’s in Chattanooga.
“My role was to bring in Chattanooga,” Cropp told us recently, giving much of the credit for the success of the first Summit to his friend and the other Co-Chairs – Postma and Craven who are both now deceased.
We recently caught-up with Zach Wamp – he stepped down from Congress in 2011 after 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives – to take a trip down memory lane. During that conversation in his Chattanooga office, I again saw the same passion, command of facts, and belief in collaboration that I witnessed two and one-half decades earlier.
“It’s not what you are going to do if you win, but how are you going to serve,” Wamp told us in describing the manner in which he prepared for the 1994 campaign. It was not an arrogant approach that he was describing but rather something that we have come to understand about him. Wamp has always been several steps ahead of most of us in his thinking and preparation.
During that recent interview, he recalled being greatly influenced by the ideas of George Kozmetsky, the technology innovator, businessman, educator, author and philanthropist who co-founded Teledyne Inc. and was the dean of The University of Texas College of Business Administration for 16 years. In the latter role, he launched the IC2 Institute. Kozmetsky came to Oak Ridge in 1995 and keynoted the Summit.
“Dr. Kozmetsky coined the term technopolis,” Wamp recalled, adding that the visionary who died in 2003 also said the Huntsville to Oak Ridge region could become the next Research Triangle Park because of the significance and impact of the federal investments in the two communities. Those ideas were frequent topics that then candidate Wamp articulated on the campaign trail in 1994, and they became the foundation for what has become the Tennessee Valley Corridor.
“The day after the election, I did a tour of the district to thank people for their support,” Wamp said. In Oak Ridge, Paul Sloca, a Reporter for The Oak Ridger who frequently had covered the candidate’s campaign events, posed a significant question to the now Congressman-elect: “What are you going to do now that you have been elected?” Wamp’s answer was simple: “I’m going to convene people around our regional assets.”
And, a little more than six months later, the “Oak Ridge Summit” was held in the city with hundreds in attendance. That inaugural gathering and the many others that have followed personified Zach Wamp’s frequently stated belief that the greatest power that an elected official has is the power to convene.
NEXT: From Oak Ridge to Chattanooga, Knoxville, Northeast Tennessee and Huntsville along with a new organization – the Tennessee Valley Corridor, the power to convene and its results were fully on display.