Don’t expect a jolly, “aww-shucks” interview when you sit down with 77-year-old Keith McCord -- lawyer, farmer, husband for 55 years, father and grandfather. McCord is intense. He’s fun, but McCord is not an easy-going man. He’s not a beloved elder statesman who walks a political party line. He’s not going to relax, and he’s not going to soft-pedal the bad or good times in his life.
And, every other word is likely to be: “Don’t print that.”
Once the agreement on just what was “off the record” and “just for background” was reached, what you do learn about Keith McCord is that the man in the interview chair knows and respects the value of hard work and of education. Son of sharecropper parents in Crockett County, McCord still clings to his ties to the dirt under his feet. From his humble beginnings, however, have risen holdings that would now be better described as majestic. The McCord farm off Montvale Road in Blount County now encompasses 2,500-plus acres, running right up to the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Keith McCord’s path to McCord Farm started in Crockett County where his parents were sharecroppers.
“It was all flat land, and we raised strawberries on five acres, and I hoed cotton,” McCord remembers.
“His West Tennessee community was so dependent on farming that the school system shut down for six weeks in the fall for harvesting,” Peggy McCord adds.
Humboldt, in neighboring Gibson County, was the strawberry capital, and they had a Strawberry Festival in the spring. “I was named king of the Strawberry Festival twice,” Keith says with a laugh.
McCord’s parents rented land to eek out a living. “It was 22 acres, and we farmed every inch of it,” Keith says. “Five acres were strawberries - which is a huge amount - and one acre of tomatoes and the rest in cotton. This was in Alamo.”
In the early 1930s, when Keith was a youngster, times were hard for West Tennessee farmers.
“My mom and dad had to borrow $20 to buy a pair of mules to work our 22 rented acres. That’s what you did back then if you didn’t have property. I followed along behind the mules to help with the farming.
“I remember when the first light bulb was turned on, and we had electricity in our house in West Tennessee for the first time. It was in 1944 or 1945. They had electricity in small towns, but there was no electricity in the outlying areas. Before that I read by an Aladdin lamp. We also had a very convenient outhouse and got our water from a well. Before I went to school each morning, I had to get up and milk the cows, and do it again that night.”
Years later, the father of four boys, Keith McCord embraced that work ethic as an essential parenting strategy, something Peggy says her father, John Lambert, didn’t always agree with.
“One thing Keith made the boys do that my daddy didn’t agree with was work on the farm,” says Peggy. “Daddy thought it robbed them of their childhood. But we would go to West Tennessee and put in a crop, come back for them to do football, and then hire someone to harvest it because they were in school.”
Even as adults, the McCord boys were expected to put in their time on the family farms.
“Keith thought those boys could do anything,” Peggy says. “He thought they could fix anything, that they could do electrical, run a chainsaw, so they did. He set high expectations, and they worked hard.
“I got tickled one day when we were all out in the field doing hay. There was Keith, who was a lawyer; Johnny, who was a lawyer; and David, who was a lawyer; and Johnny said, ‘When do we get over-qualified for this?’ and their Daddy said, ‘Get to work.’ He worked hard and encouraged them to work, too.”
Keith McCord asserted his independence early in life.
“When I graduated from Alamo High School, everybody wanted me to go to U.T. Martin. I had been listening to the UT football games on the radio and some of my classmates and I wanted to come to University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I had never been to Knoxville. I came up here and enrolled.”
The year was 1950, and the Korean War was beginning.
“I wanted to volunteer, but my parents wouldn’t agree to sign for me, and I was only 17. So I came on to Knoxville and went to school fall quarter,” Keith says.
Memories of those radio football games led a brazen Keith to General Robert Neyland’s office stoop.
“I wanted to play football,” Keith says, “and even went to talk to Coach Neyland. He agreed to let me walk on at Spring practice.”
But the Korean War was intensifying, and McCord’s desire to serve had only grown. “On my birthday in January 1951, instead of going to English class and turning in a paper, I went to Marine Corps station in Knoxville and enlisted,” he says.
McCord enlisted in the reserves and went straight to Paris Island.
“While I was at Paris Island, Congress passed a resolution that no one could be sent to Korea unless they were 18 and half years old,” Keith says. “That eliminated me from going to Korea. When I got my orders, I was instructed to go to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I went to the Marine Detachment to guard the ammunition dump. It was the Atlantic training area for whole U.S. Navy.
“I played baseball and worked every day. I never missed a shift. There was no road into Cuba from the base. It was all fenced. You went over into Cuba by boat. We guarded the boundary line of the base with mules. We road mules and carried our guns.”
McCord stayed an active Reserve for 28 months, spending all of it in Guantanamo Bay.
After his 28 months, McCord returned his attention to his education. His time in the Marines, however, had changed his focus. When he had initially enrolled at UT, he was going to major in agriculture. When he returned, he changed his major to philosophy and psychology.
“While I was in the Marine Corps, I decided to go into counseling and the ministry, which led me to major in philosophy and psychology,” Keith says.
With plans to go to divinity school after he graduated from UT, McCord began working at an area church, where he first met Peggy Lambert.
“I was serving as a youth director at First United Methodist Church in Knoxville, and Peggy’s aunt was active there. She introduced me to Peggy, and we dated right at a year.”
Keith graduated from UT in May of 1955, and he and Peggy married in June. A week after their wedding, the McCords moved to North Carolina, where Keith had been accepted into Duke University’s three-year divinity school. He was appointed as a student pastor at two small Methodist churches.
“I was also interested in pastoral counseling and was a student assistant at Duke University Medical Center,” says Keith. McCord was also asked to fill in at a Presbyterian Church that had lost its pastor, and he served that congregation for a year.
“It was the church where Chicken George from the novel ‘Roots’ went to church, and the plantation was right across the road from the church.”
McCord finished his studies at Duke a semester early. He had decided that he really wanted to go to law school, so he enrolled at UT, moved the family back to Knoxville and started taking classes.
“He started law school before he had officially graduated from divinity school,” Peggy says. “When he graduated from Duke, he already had a quarter in at UT Law school.”
Peggy was working in the Endowment office at Duke to help pay for school, and would pick up extra hours at night running the mimeograph machine.
McCord graduated from UT Law School in 1960. At age of 27, he had served almost 2 ½ years in the Marines, graduated with a liberal arts degree from UT, graduated from Duke School of Divinity and finished his law degree at UT Law School.
“And he paid for it all himself,” says Peggy. “I was pregnant with David, our second, when he started his work as a lawyer.”
From 1960 to 1973, McCord practiced commercial business law with Edgerton, McAfee, Armstead and Davis firm in downtown Knoxville. In 1973, he and Bill Cockrill opened their own firm.
“Bill later decided to leave the legal business and go to divinity school,” says Keith. “We worked together two years before he left.”
Other attorneys who have worked with McCord include John Weaver, who is a now a judge in Knox County chancery court; and Tim Irwin, who is now a Knox County juvenile court judge.
“I have enjoyed the practice of law,” says Keith, who is still a practicing attorney with an office in downtown Knoxville. “I feel I was able to represent my clients well. It can be frustrating at times, but it can also be rewarding because you are solving problems.”
Other than “lawyering,” the farm off Montvale Road is the place Keith finds satisfaction and enjoyment. The farm originally belonged to Peggy’s family, first to her grandparents John Lee and Cornelia Belle Lambert. Her grandfather sold the farm in the 1920s. In the early 1950s, the Lambert brothers went together and bought the property back.
The Lambert brothers included Peggy’s father, John Mitchell Lambert. There were 15 Lambert siblings, and the brothers went into the quarry business in the 1930s.
“They sold stone and asphalt all over the southeast. They even furnished stone for the Saint Lawrence Seaway,” Keith says.
Lambert Brothers, Inc., merged in 1957 with what then became Vulcan Materials. According to Vulcan Material’s history, Lambert Brothers, Inc., “was an Appalachian quarrying company with a storied history. The nine Lambert brothers were low-income Smoky Mountain residents who, according to company lore, started with a mule and a wheelbarrow and built a $9 million business in one generation. During the 1930s they moved their portable rock crushing equipment throughout the Appalachian states and as far west as Oklahoma to work on road construction. The story of their success is peppered with tales of bare-knuckled fights and high stakes poker. By the mid-1950s Lambert Brothers was the largest rock-quarrying firm in the United States.”
In the 1950s, the Lambert brothers went together and bought back the property their father had sold. When they merged with Vulcan in 1957, they kept the homeplace out the deal.
In the mid-1960s, ownership of the farm went to the McCords and to Janie Lambert Hall, Peggy’s sister, and her husband, Kenneth.
“We purchased the farm from the family,” McCord said, “from Peggy’s father and several others in the Lambert family who owned parts of it.”
In 1970s, the McCords and the Halls divided the property into what they called the upper and lower farms.
“We moved out here fulltime in 1970,” Keith says. “The Halls took the lower farm that was more agricultural in nature down Six Mile.”
The McCord children, all except Joe, were living or going to school in Knoxville. “We did cattle and horses,” says Keith. “The property down at Six Mile was more agricultural. Later, we had the opportunity to buy the adjoining land that backs up to the Foothills Parkway.”
Many non-natives in Blount County know the McCord name through youngest son, Joe McCord, a Republican who has served Blount County as a state representative for the past 12 years and will finish his tenure in November, having chosen not to run for re-election. The interest in politics is also a family trait, but with father Keith beginning his political interest with “the other party,” as Peggy McCord says with a laugh.
Keith McCord’s father was Democrat, as were most in his home county in West Tennessee.
“Keith’s mother was a Republican,” Peggy says. “There were 14 Republicans in that county, and his mother was one of them.”
It was a nationally known politician in an unusual setting who spiked McCord’s interest in politics.
“I spent a week with legendary U.S. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn in mid-1961, just months before he died,” McCord explains.
Rayburn, who was born in Roane County, was in East Tennessee being honored as the bridge over Fort Loudoun Dam was being named for him. The group stayed in East Tennessee for a week of relaxation.
“Mr. Sam, who was a friend of Hugh McDade at Alcoa Inc., wanted to fish for bluegill, so they came out to the lake at the farm. Mr. Sam and Estes Keffauver came out and fished every day, usually for half-a-day,” McCord says. “I sat in the boat with Sam, and he told me all about the history he had seen and what he thought of all the presidents he had served with and under.”
McCord says Rayburn asked him to come to Washington and join his staff, “but I didn’t want to go.”
Following that tutorial from Rayburn, McCord said he became active politically, working for then Governor Buford Ellington in the mid-1960s.
“I became active and worked for Gov. Ellington in 1964-65 when he ran the last time for governor. He recruited about 10 young folks in their 30s to join his team. I spent a lot of time speaking across the state for Gov. Ellington.”
When Ellington’s term was up, McCord supported Stan Snodgrass for governor in the Democratic primary in 1970 as state campaign chairman. Snodgrass lost the primary to John J. Hooker.
“We didn’t have much money. Hooker had the money. The election was Aug. 4 and between 10:30 and 11 that night, we conceded the primary to Mr. Hooker.”
What her husband did next, says Peggy, “made the headlines.”
“The next morning at about 8 o’clock Central time, I was having breakfast at the home of a Republican candidate who had won the Republican primary,” says McCord. “There were seven or eight Republicans running in the primary, and this guy was not supposed to win. It was Dr. Winfield Dunn. I was having breakfast with him, his wife and three other people at 8 a.m. at their Memphis home. That day, I became the chairman of the Democrats for Dunn statewide campaign.
“I became what was called a ‘Mugwamp,” McCord says. “I had always been that way, in a sense. I learned that from my time fishing with Sam Rayburn”
At the end of that election, Winifield Dunn was governor of Tennessee. “He was the first Republican governor elected in Tennessee in 100 years,” McCord says.
It was another governor, Gov. Ned McWhorter, who asked McCord to serve on the Tennessee Board of Regents, a position he held for 12 years.
“When the Board of Regents was first organized in the 1960s, I thought it was a good idea because there were so many people who could not attend schools in the university system,” McCord says. “We needed community colleges. I felt the community college system was very beneficial to the public, to young folks as well older folks, because they could get a higher education without having to travel too far or take off work. It was a good addition to the higher education system.”
Locally, both Peggy and Keith are very active with Pellissippi State. Peggy and Jermone Moon are chairs of the fundraising committee for the new Blount County campus of Pellissippi State. In addition, the Keith McCord scholarship has been established for students from Blount County attending Pellissippi State.
Many of the traditions begun by the Lambert family at the farm continue to be a part of the McCord family life.
“The picnic structures were built by the Lambert brothers in 1955, and they had company picnics and family picnics out here,” says McCord.
Many UT football players, coaches and supporters have also enjoyed barbecues and beautiful scenery at the McCord farm.
“When we moved out here, the football team and others from UT were coming out as guests of the Lamberts. They would come out during spring practices or the beginning of fall season. We just continued what was already a tradition. We like for people to enjoy the farm. It’s a good location, and we don’t mind sharing it,” McCord says.
No matter where they live, “the boys and the grandkids” are ever-present at the farm and in the daily lives of the McCords, who now have a horse barn and riding area on the property. Keith McCord still practices law with sons John and David. Joe and Keith Jr. help manage the farm and the Lost Sea (which the McCords also own), and Keith Jr. and Joe are also contractors and developers.
When asked about “retirement,” Keith McCord laughs.
“I enjoy working, and I’ll do it as long as I can do different things,” he says. “A perfect day is any day when you can resolve or deal with a problem that occurs. Living life, that’s what it is about.”
Keith and Peggy have a framed hand-written note in their family kitchen from grandson Reid McCord that he wrote in 2007, when he was 11 years old. The note, perhaps, captures the spirit of the McCord family and sums up grandfather Keith McCord’s own philosophy of life:
“I’m thankful for a field that needs mowing, a trail that needs riding, a cow that needs feeding, a horse that needs grooming, a log that needs sawing, a puppy that needs loving. I am thankful for my grandparent’s farm.”