I enjoyed participating in the opening luncheon of this year’s Tennessee Valley Fair, a tradition celebrated in East Tennessee for a century.
A few years ago when I was buying a car in Nashville, the salesman pulled a picture of his 2-year-old out of his billfold, and he said, "What do you think of her?"
And I said what a politician always says. I said, "That is a beautiful baby."
And he looked up at me and said, “She won second-best baby at the Wilson County Fair."
I've always remembered that, because that's what we do at fairs. We celebrate the best among us. We celebrate the tastiest tomato and the biggest pumpkin, the prettiest girl and the strongest man, the craziest quilt, the biggest tractor and the best baby.
And my suggestion today is that we start spending more time celebrating this area that I like to call the “Oak Ridge Corridor.”
During the Great Depression, professor Harcourt Morgan, who later became the president of the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board chairman, suggested this. He said, "We ought to use the fair to try to think differently about what we have to celebrate in the Knoxville area."
We have the biggest mountains in the East, the most visited national park in the country and the birthplace of country music.
The TVA has become the largest public utility in the United States. The University of Tennessee has become a major research institution. And the Oak Ridge National Laboratory has grown from a Manhattan Project to build a bomb to win a war to become the nation's largest science and energy laboratory, the home of the world's fastest computer and the home of the best new work on 3-D printing for manufacturing.
When you add up TVA, the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge, you get about 3,000 scientists and engineers. That's as large a concentration of brainpower as in North Carolina's Research Triangle or Route 128 of Massachusetts, and it even rivals the Silicon Valley in California. So we've got a lot to celebrate.
The trouble is when it comes to Oak Ridge, many of us in this area are guilty of violating the parable that Jesus talked about in Matthew, which was don't hide your light under a bushel.
We just don't talk about what we have to offer that much.
I think it's important to stop worrying about what you're not and start celebrating what you've got.
Our new governor, Bill Lee, who is an engineer, understands why we need to do that. He told a group in Nashville recently, "What Tennessee needs is a magnet to attract jobs and capital."
Then he came up to Oak Ridge the next day and said, "We've got a magnet right here."
So my suggestion, in the spirit of the fair and Morgan’s advice, is let's change the sign at the Knoxville airport from "Welcome to Knoxville: Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains" to "Welcome to Knoxville: Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains and the Oak Ridge Corridor."
If we want to take Morgan’s advice and celebrate what's special about where we live today, that would be the best way to do it.
Lamar Alexander represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.