Each Valentine's Day I'm reminded of the oddest thing

J. H. Osborne • Feb 14, 2019 at 3:28 PM

Valentine’s Day is almost here. And that’s triggered the memories for me again. It’s happened for years. I don’t suppose Valentine’s memories are unusual. I wager a lot of folks have one or two, either “the best” or “the worst.” Thanks, perhaps, to an ongoing relationship that blossomed long ago. Or regrets and sad thoughts over love gone wrong.

It’s neither for me. In fact, Valentine’s Day doesn’t trigger any significant memories of romance.

What then, remains a crisp memory in my mind each Valentine’s Day? Well, Jake Butcher. And his and his brother C.H.’s failed banks. And the 1982 World’s Fair. And Knoxville during the early to mid-1980s.

Why? Well, it goes like this: Early on Feb. 14, 1983, state banking officials declared Jake’s United American Bank — headquartered in what is to this day Knoxville’s tallest building — insolvent and closed its doors. I heard the news on the radio that morning, which was one of my busier Valentine’s Days. At the time, my family owned and operated Balloonacy, a sort of singing balloon-a-gram business. My sister, Pamela Fagans, had originally purchased and run the business, but she turned the reins over to my parents when her husband Larry’s job transferred them out of town.

The balloon-a-gram fad was at its peak. And Valentine’s Day was one of our busiest days of the year. I spent most of the day in a Cupid costume. At the time, Trish Simpson, a friend from my Parks-Belk modeling days (that’s another column) was helping out with Balloonacy. We were both filling latex balloons from helium tanks, tying them off, then tying ribbons to each before arranging them into “bouquets.” I’m not sure why it’s such a clear memory to me that in the midst of that chaos we heard UAB had been closed, becoming the fourth largest bank failure in U.S. history at the time.

It hadn’t been a secret something was going to happen. Federal agents had swooped into all the Butcher brothers’ banks, simultaneously, three and a half months earlier — on Nov. 1, 1982.

That date is significant in local history, and I believe in the strategy of the investigation into the Butchers, because it was the day after. The Knoxville International Energy Exposition, more well-known as the 1982 World’s Fair, had closed its six-month run on Oct. 31. Jake Butcher is credited by many as being the “driving force” that brought the fair to Knoxville, which the Wall Street Journal had described as a “scruffy little town.”

My parents gifted me with a pass to the fair and I trekked to Knoxville countless times with family and friends to take in all the fair had to offer. I was there on opening day when Butcher shared the stage with President Ronald Reagan. I watched the nightly closing-time fireworks many times. In all, the fair drew more than 11 million visitors. The fair’s theme: “Energy Turns the World.” Its advertising tagline: “The 1982 World’s Fair, You’ve GOT to be there!”

I have many good memories of the ’82 World’s Fair and of the Knoxville of that time. Some of my adventures even included rubbing elbows with Butcher insiders, one of whom committed suicide in the wake of the bank fraud scandal. Knoxville today has World’s Fair Park and the Sunsphere. And its two tallest buildings remain those built by Jake and C.H. Butcher before the fall of their banks. The balloon-a-gram fad finally faded. Parks-Belk was sold to Proffitt’s, which in turn was sold to Belk. I lost track of Trish. It’s been a long time since I’ve been asked to model. I’m not waiting by the phone for a call.

Both Butcher brothers went to prison, were released and have since died.

On a hill outside town, a once opulent mansion, built in the 1970s by Jake Butcher (complete with a pad for his helicopter), is vacant and crumbling. It’s name: Whirlwind. If I could have asked Jake just one question before he died, I’ve decided it would have been, “Do you wish you’d named it something else?” But first I’d have thanked him for bringing the 1982 World’s Fair to a “scruffy little town.”

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at josborne@timesnews.net.