Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with William F. Willis, March 16, 2017

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - Career overview

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Partial Transcript: Uh, the following is an oral history interview conducted as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority Retirees Association Oral History Pilot Project.

Segment Synopsis: Willis provides a summary of his career at TVA, beginning as a civil engineer. Willis also briefly talks of his career in upper management, as the General Manager of TVA in the 1980s.

Keywords: Assignments; Assistant managers; Baby; Busy; Buying; Construction work; Dick Freeman; Engineering, Design and Construction; Family life; Field engineers; General managers; Heavy construction; Highways; Hydraulic units; Interviews; Job offer; Labor relations; Lawyers; Paradise Combined Cycle Plant; Paradise Steam Plant (Kentucky); Private sector; Problems; Project managers; S. David Freeman; Service units; Swamps; TVA Chairman; Technical engineers; Temporary; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Together; Wheeler Dam (Alabama); Wilson Dam (Muscle Shoals, Ala.)

Subjects: Bear Creek (Ala. and Miss.); Bridges; Civil engineering; Dams; Education; Energy; Engineers; Equipment; Experience; Hydraulics; Jackson (Miss.); Kentucky; Knoxville (Tenn.); Lauderdale County (Ala.); Louisiana; Mississippi State University; Muscle Shoals (Ala.); Roads; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority

GPS: Muscle Shoals (Ala.)
Map Coordinates: 34.750833, -87.650278
GPS: Wilson Dam (Muscle Shoals, Ala.)
Map Coordinates: 34.800833, -87.625833
GPS: Bear Creek (Ala. and Miss.)
Map Coordinates: 34.2724, -87.703374
GPS: Paradise Combined Cycle Plant [also known as Paradise Steam (Fossil) Plant]
Map Coordinates: 37.25, -86.97
00:08:02 - History of TVA in energy

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Partial Transcript: Being General Manager of TVA--uh--obviously--uh--is a m--very responsible position.

Segment Synopsis: Willis discusses the history of TVA's involvement in the energy industry. Specifically, Willis explains what prompted the shift from TVA focusing on building coal plants to nuclear power plants.

Keywords: Bull Run Fossil Plant; Coal plants; Cumberland Fossil Plant; Effort; Expansion; Expedited; General managers; Integrated Resource Development; Low cost; Navigable rivers; Paradise Steam Plant (Kentucky); Price of coal; Projects; Size; TVA Bull Run Fossil Plant (Tennessee); TVA Chairman; TVA Cumberland Fossil Plant (Tennessee); Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Transport; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Watershed; World War II

Subjects: Anderson County (Tenn.); Change; Coal; Dams; Electricity; Employees; Energy; Growth; History; Hydraulics; Kentucky; Muhlenberg County (Ky.); Nuclear energy; Nuclear power plants; Steam plants; Stewart County (Tenn.); System; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Work; World War, 1939-1945

00:11:43 - Integrated resource development

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Partial Transcript: Well, the--uh--the history and the experience of--uh--TVA's--uh--power program--uh--is obviously quite significant and I know it's very interesting but I'd like to focus on that one thing that you mentioned...

Segment Synopsis: Willis considers what types of programs the TVA implemented in its objectives of integrated resource development, measures designed to stimulate the rural economy in the Tennessee Valley. Willis also shares his experience with the rural electrification programs that the TVA assisted in implementing in his hometown of Columbus, Mississippi.

Keywords: Agriculture program; Bedrooms; Business people; Chain; Cord; David Lilienthal; Difference; Distribution; Early days; Economy; Expansion; Family; Farming; Flooding; Forestry; Help; Integrated resource development; Newspaper editor; Off; On; Promoters; Source; Stripped forest; TVA Board; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Test farms; Tools for development

Subjects: Agriculture; Childhood; Columbus (Miss.); Crops; Decatur (Ala.); Economic development; Electricity; Equipment; Farmers; Forests; Grandmothers; History; Irrigation; Meeting; Mississippi; Muscle Shoals (Ala.); Navigation; Power; Rural electrification; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Tools

GPS: Muscle Shoals (Ala.)
Map Coordinates: 34.750833, -87.650278
00:17:20 - Resource development activities / Teacher certification program

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Partial Transcript: Let's focus on when you became General Manager in 1979, what--can you give me some--uh--thumbnail sketch of what TVA was doing when you became General Manager in--uh--resource development?

Segment Synopsis: Willis describes a resource development program created by the TVA during his tenure as General Manager in the 1980s to increase the number of teachers in the Tennessee Valley with teacher certification credentials to teach a specific subject. The success of this program in relation to student test scores on state tests is examined.

Keywords: Courses; Curriculum; Expansion; Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife; General managers; Higher test scores; Implementation; Local governments; Locations; Needs; Not certified; Parks; Partnerships; Problems; Resource development; Riverside; Secrets; Selection; TVA Branches; Teacher certification; Tennessee Valley; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Universities

Subjects: Certification; Computer programs; Concepts; Economic development; Education; Governors; Industries; Meetings; Recreation; Schools; State governments; Students; Summer; System; Teachers; Teaching; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Testing; Time; Training

00:22:51 - Adult literacy program

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Partial Transcript: I met Alex Haley, and we kind of hit it off together, and started doing some things together with him.

Segment Synopsis: Willis highlights a program to increase adult literacy rates in the Tennessee Valley as form of resource development during his time spent as the General Manager of TVA. The success of the program is detailed.

Keywords: Adult literacy; Alex Haley; Arms; Embarrassed; General managers; Hospitals; IBM Corporation; Injured; Life-saving; New; Partnerships; Resource development; Saw mills; Scared; Tennessee Valley; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Tupelo (Miss.); Writing to Read

Subjects: Atlanta (Ga.); Bible; Change; Children; Computer programs; Computers; Economic development; Illiterate persons; Literacy; Literacy programs--United States; Medicine; Money; Nurses; Reading; Successful; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Women; Writing

GPS: Tupelo (Miss.)
Map Coordinates: 34.259722, -88.725833
00:27:59 - Development activities and focus on tributary areas

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Partial Transcript: At the first take-off of TVA, most of the power plants were built in very remote areas.

Segment Synopsis: Willis illustrates how the TVA became involved in rural economic development, initially through outreach programs such as mobile dental care centers and libraries. TVA's increased role in assisting areas away from the Tennessee River in economic development (in Tributary Area Development) is also mentioned.

Keywords: Attracting industries; Aubrey 'Red' Wagner; Congressional appropriations; County governments; Crews; Dentists; Difficult; End; Financial base; General managers; Integrated resource development; Interested; Offices; Remote; Riverside; Rural dental care; Small; Sources; Steam plants; Switch; TVA Chairman; Tax base; Taxes; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Tributaries; Tributary Area Development (OTAD); Trucks; Undeveloped; Wildlife and Forestry

Subjects: Agriculture; Coal; Economic development; Factories; Flood control; Floods; Fontana Dam (N.C.); Industries; Job creation; Libraries; Money; Participation; Rural; Rural development; Schools; State governments; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Time

00:35:07 - TVA in the 1930s

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Partial Transcript: In the early 1930s--uh--the valley was just destroyed.

Segment Synopsis: TVA's efforts in creating fertilizers during the Great Depression are explored. The international success of the program is noted.

Keywords: Ammunition plants; Approved; Beautiful; Closed; Contour; Destruction; Expansion; FDR; Fertilizer plant; Fertilizer program; Ford; Ford plant; Forestry; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Free; Global leaders; Great Depression; International Fertilizer Development Center; Muscle Shoals (Ala.); Possibilities; Republicans; Senate; Senator George Norris; Techniques; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Tilling; United States Senate Committee on Agriculture; World War II

Subjects: Africa; Agriculture; Depressions--1929; Economic development; Fertilizers; Fisheries; Floods; Nitrogen; Patents; Ponds; Programs; Rural; Science; Successful; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Unemployment; United States. Agency for International Development; Veto; World War, 1939-1945

GPS: Muscle Shoals (Ala.)
Map Coordinates: 34.750833, -87.650278
00:39:49 - Assisting business startups

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Partial Transcript: Well let's focus on, again when you were General Manger.

Segment Synopsis: Willis describes a tech startup program that was implemented in the 1980s when Willis was General Manager of TVA. The program focused on combining TVA's monetary and technological resources to create startup companies in the technology sector to further increase economic development in the Tennessee Valley.

Keywords: Arrangement; Behind the scenes; Board; Buying; Chamber of Commerce; Clients; Decisions; Enjoyed; Financing; General managers; Hiring; Investing; Laboratories; Land transfer; Local; Local governments; New; Organizing; Partnerships; Power companies; Products; Resources; Security programs; Sites; Startups (Business enterprises); Talent; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); The dot-com bubble

Subjects: Alabama; Economic development; Electricity; Employees; Engineering (Firm); Engineers; Industries; Knoxville (Tenn.); Money; New Orleans (La.); Nuclear engineering; Oak Ridge (Tenn.); People; State governments; Technology; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Tools; Tulane University; Vietnam; Washington (D.C.)

00:46:02 - Startup center at Oak Ridge, Tennessee

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Partial Transcript: I got involved with one of the guys that worked up there in--on economic development.

Segment Synopsis: Willis discusses development of a startup center at Oak Ridge to foster entrepreneurship and new business enterprises.

Keywords: Active; General managers; Local governments; Resources; Startup center; Startups (Business enterprises); Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Tom Hunter; Tom Rogers

Subjects: Cities; Economic development; Entrepreneurship; Oak Ridge (Tenn.); Salt Lake City (Ut.); State governments; Successful; Technology; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority

00:47:45 - Unsuccessful efforts

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Partial Transcript: Obviously, you were in a position as General Manager to receive--uh--ideas from people that wanted new programs maybe or activities.

Segment Synopsis: Willis details some of the less successful projects and programs that he oversaw as General Manager of the TVA.

Keywords: Access; Angry; Bad deal; Big; Chip mill; Concepts; Congress; Construction; Damage; Disagree; Failures; Forestry; General managers; Ideas; License; Lighting systems; New methods; Pine farms; Ports; Rivers; TVA Board; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Tom Hunter; Unsuccessful; Wood stripping

Subjects: Alabama; Amphitheater; Barges; Budget; Change; Christmas; Cost; Criticism; Economic development; Engineering; Erosion; Georgia; Harvest; Invest; Lumber; Maryville College; Mississippi; Money; Paper; Planning; Septic tanks; System; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Timber

00:54:36 - Strange ideas of politicians

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Partial Transcript: Sometimes we'd get weird type projects brought to us from--uh--some of our--uh--political people or state people and so forth.

Segment Synopsis: Willis briefly talks of an incident with a congressman who wanted to use TVA money to build a miniature version of the White House with a white picket fence in the city square in the small town of Iuka, Mississippi.

Keywords: Bad ideas; Careful; City squares; Congressional appropriations; Congressman; Delicate; Fences; General managers; Governors; Highways; Houses; Miniature of White House; Pigs; Projects; Requests; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)

Subjects: Budget; Economic development; Iuka (Miss.); Mississippi; Money; Politicians; Talk; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority

GPS: Iuka (Miss.)
Map Coordinates: 34.810556, -88.195833
00:57:37 - Relationship with TVA board

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Partial Transcript: And, uh, how many different board members were there through your General Manager tenure?

Segment Synopsis: Willis characterizes his working relationship with the TVA Board as the general manager. Some of the challenges of the position, as well as how he came to be the general manager are detailed.

Keywords: Adjustments; Big; Bob Clement; Changes; Chili Dean; Congress; Convincing; Craven Crowell; Cutbacks; Departure; Dick Freeman; Efficiency; Fine; Fired; Functioning; General managers; Ideas; Interested; Interests; Interviews; John Waters; Marvin Runyon; Nuclear programs; Odd; Opposed; Perspectives; Policy; Predecessors; Priorities; S. David Freeman; Selected; Self-sufficient; Senators; Solar programs; Solutions; TVA Board; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); William Kennoy; Working; Youngest

Subjects: Arguments; Concepts; Decision making; Economic development; Employees; Energy; Energy conservation; Hearings; Management; Managers; Middle Tennessee State University; People; Programs; Structure; Talk; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Washington (D.C.)

01:07:55 - TVA regional development outside of the Tennessee Valley

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Partial Transcript: --Uh--do you have any examples of the replicability of T--any TVA programs in regional development that occurred--uh--outside the Tennessee Valley?

Segment Synopsis: Willis assesses how TVA's regional development programs have been exported around the world and applied to many different international situations and contexts.

Keywords: David E. Lilienthal; Development Country (company); Fertilizer development; General managers; Ideas; Laboratories; Overseas; Projects; Regional development; River project; Shah; TVA Development Program; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Valley; Well-known

Subjects: Africa; Agriculture; China; Colombia; Dams; Economic development; Farmers; Ghana; Iran; Meeting; People; Philippines; Rivers; South America; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; United States. Department of Energy

GPS: China
Map Coordinates: 39.916667, 116.383333
GPS: Colombia
Map Coordinates: 4, -72
GPS: Iran
Map Coordinates: 32, 53
GPS: Philippines
Map Coordinates: 13, 122
01:11:14 - TVA practices today / Importance of working together

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Partial Transcript: Well--uh-well, today it's--um--obviously, uh, 2017 and we're--uh--President Trump has just been elected.

Segment Synopsis: Willis shares his opinions on the political conditions in the U.S. (as of 2017). Willis explains that TVA policies of cooperation and compromise with others are applicable to the U.S. in a time that he views as very divisive.

Keywords: Activities; Aggressive; Businesses; Concerned; Divisions; Donald Trump; Flexible; Government functioning; House; Ideas; Local governments; National; Office of the President of the United States; Senate; Tennessee Valley; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Together; Work together

Subjects: Budget; Compromise; Cooperation; Federal government; Good; History; Learning; Partners; Problem solving; Programs; State governments; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Tools; Work

01:16:45 - Most memorable experience at TVA / Being a change agent

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Partial Transcript: I just wondered if you could just give a summary comment abo--you know, think about one of your, uh--what you felt is your--your most memorable experience.

Segment Synopsis: Willis contemplates what his most memorable experiences were during his career at the TVA.

Keywords: Accomplished; Animosity; Best times; Change agent; Comfortable; Concepts; Convincing; Crews; David Freeman; Dick Freeman; Field managers; Fun; General managers; Hard times; Ideas; Improved; Majority; Modernized; Muscle Shoals (Ala.); New units; Opposed; Oversight; Prepared; Problems; Projects; Rebuild; Rehabilitated; Replace; Solidified; TVA Board; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Test period; Unions; Wilson Dam (Muscle Shoals, Ala.)

Subjects: Change; Civil engineering; Dams; Employees; Energy; Engineering; Engineers; Hydraulics; Management; Managers; Memories; Muscle Shoals (Ala.); Nuclear energy; Opportunity; People; Structure; Sustainability; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Washington (D.C.)

GPS: Muscle Shoals (Ala.)
Map Coordinates: 34.750833, -87.650278
GPS: Wilson Dam (Muscle Shoals, Ala.)
Map Coordinates: 34.800833, -87.625833
01:22:05 - Danger of the job

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Partial Transcript: I've had a lot of death threats.

Segment Synopsis: Willis talks of the dangers of his job and shares a few stories about when his family was threatened as a result of his work.

Keywords: Angry; Bags; City police; Congress; Contracts; Counterclaim; Crowds; Employees; Family; Fertilizer Development Center; Fired; Fixing; General managers; Jimmy Carter; Lawsuits; Offices; Passed; Phone call; Price; Reception; Scary; Secretary; Security; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Westinghouse & Co.; Wife

Subjects: Canada; Death threats; Economic development; Lauderdale County (Ala.); Lawyers; Marshals; Mother; Muscle Shoals (Ala.); Safety; Subpoena; Tellico Dam (Tenn.); Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority; Uranium; Washington (D.C.); Woman

GPS: Muscle Shoals (Ala.)
Map Coordinates: 34.750833, -87.650278
01:29:18 - Importance of building community and governmental relationships

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Partial Transcript: One thing we didn't approach was our relationships with the counties and states that we operated in.

Segment Synopsis: Willis explains how he worked as General Manager to allow for harmonious and efficient working relationships with state and local governments.

Keywords: Angry; Animosity; Board of Directors; Business people; Chamber of Commerce; Counties; Crucial; Friends; General managers; Get along; Government; Interface; Local governments; Messages; New offices; Plants; Public; Questions; Relationships; Rural electric cooperatives; Service; Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); Visits

Subjects: City managers; Cooperation; Distributors (Commerce); Managers; Notes; Rural electrification; Tennessee; Tennessee Valley Authority