HomeGrown: Jake Butcher

9:13 PM, May 22, 2012   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

With political clout and a banking empire, the world was at Jake Butcher's feet in the Spring of 1982- a stark contrast from his humble beginnings.

"We raised tobacco and corn in a little place called Dawson's Creek. I went to a two room school up there."

His father ran a general store.

"I had the greatest mother and dad. We had a great childhood."

After graduating Maynardville High, Jake went right to work.

"Actually driving a truck, hauling coal out of Kentucky in Butcher Holler."

After a year, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee, but left early for the Marine Corps.

After four years of service, he came back and finished college at Tennessee.  Jake and his brother, C.H. Junior, opened an insurance business.

"He died about 10 years ago. I miss him everyday."

Jake also owned a gasoline distributor with Amoco.

"I was an oil jobber, that's really how I got started and made most of my money in those early days and how I paid for most of my bank stock."

In 1968, the Butcher brothers followed their dad's lead...

"He and a bunch of guys started a real small bank in Maynardville in 1960."

He and his brother bought their first bank in Lake City and then expanded.

Jake also began dabbling in politics as chairman of Union County's Democratic Party.

"That's how I met Bill Clinton."

He ran for state treasurer.

"I got beat by one vote."

Jake tried to win the Democratic nomination for governor four years later.

"I should've quit then."

At the same time, Jake began buying shares of Knoxville's largest bank. He took control a year later and renamed it United American.

In 1978, Jake landed on the ballot, but lost Tennessee's Governor race to Republican Lamar Alexander.

But Jake didn't have time to dwell on his loss; he was busy banking and trying to bring the world to Knoxville as chairman of the 1982 World's Fair board of directors.

"I had put my heart and soul into whatever I could, whatever political influence I had, whatever financial strength I had, to help start the World's Fair. We had to raise $30 million ourselves to get started."

Finally, they got the International Bureau of Expositions approval to host the World's Fair in Knoxville.

"We were in Paris. I believe it was Jim Sasser that called us and said, 'I've just gotten approval from the president that they're going to fund the World's Fair.' And, we jumped up in the air."

Jake spent much of his time in Europe, convincing countries to bring exhibits to Knoxville's World's Fair.

"I guess I just stayed gone too long. I didn't monitor what was happening here."

And May 1 1982, the World's Fair opened without a hitch. Jake introduced President Ronald Reagan.

"He's a bigger guy than I thought he was and he had on that bullet proof vest underneath this coat. He says, 'How's my uniform look, Jake?' And, I said, 'You look like a movie star Mr. President,' and he laughed."

That kicked off a magical six months in Knoxville. Jake Butcher was on top of the world, entertaining guests from President Jimmy Carter and Bob Hope to professional boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard. But the day after the world's fair ended, it all came crashing down.

FDIC investigators hit all 28 banks owned by the Butcher brothers. On Valentine's Day, 1983, Jake's flagship bank, UAB-Knoxville, collapsed.

"I was just kind of shocked. I'd never been in a swamp I couldn't get out of."

Two years later, he pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud.

"I'm not trying to say I didn't make mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes. I made some I wouldn't make again if I had to do over."

Jake went to federal prison.

"Well, it was hell."

He served nearly seven years, mainly in Atlanta.

"I never gave up."

Jake's family visited on weekends.

"I taught my youngest son, Jason, how to play baseball while I there. I was in what they call camp- we weren't behind bars or locked down. We could pass a baseball out there with him. He was about eight or nine years old."

He was paroled in April of '92.

"And I said, 'I want a barbecue sandwich and a Budweiser.'"

Today, Jake primarily lives north of Atlanta.

"Well, if I hadn't fouled up so bad 30 years ago, I wouldn't be working so hard today. I'm a consultant in finance and business."

Through the ups and downs, there's been one constant in his life, Sonya.

"We've enjoyed over 50 years together. We have four children, two girls and two boys. They all have a boy and a girl a piece, so we're very fortunate."

But there are a lot of "what ifs"

"What if this didn't happen? I might have been Bill Clinton's vice president. Who knows... I'd just like for the people to know how bad I feel about what happened here. I wish I could've stayed around to enjoy it and made this World's Fair Park a lot of bigger and better than it is today."

Jake Butcher, born in Union County.

"One of the worst things I ever felt was having to leave Knoxville, leave East Tennessee. I love Tennessee."

HomeGrown in Tennessee.



Most Watched Videos