KINGSPORT - Bill Taft arrived in Kingsport in 1961 - a 40-year-old man with no education and no money.
But through hard work and the help of friends along the way, Taft defied the odds and eventually made his way in real estate investments in the region. Now Taft is giving back to the community he calls home.
Mayor Dennis Phillips announced at Tuesday's Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting that Taft is contributing $400,000 to establish a golf program at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kingsport. The new program, named in memory of Bobby "Popcorn" Lane, will be designed for boys and girls who might not otherwise be exposed to the game of golf.
"I am convinced that the love of golf will help many of these youngsters make good decisions in their lives," Taft said.
Taft, 85, was born and raised in rural Georgia during the Great Depression. He spent time in orphanages as a boy and never experienced the privileges that many other kids enjoyed.
He eventually made his way to Tennessee and moved into the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home "from a broken home, with a broken heart."
Taft landed a job at a golf driving range in Kingsport, where the owner, Lee Davis, allowed him to live rent-free in a 10-foot-by-14-foot room. The space included a single bed, chair and dresser, along with toilet and shower stall. He cooked his meals on a hot plate.
"I lived in that room for five years," he said.
Then he was offered an opportunity to buy a duplex on Sherwood Road. The owner said he would sell Taft the duplex at a reasonable price if Taft worked to fix up the place first. Taft took the deal and had planned to live in the duplex until a couple ventured by one day, asking if they could rent it.
"So I rented it, and they called me â€˜Landlord.' I liked the sound of that," Taft said.
Then an older gentleman who owned 20 duplexes on Sherwood approached Taft about buying those units as well. He did, ultimately serving as owner and maintenance supervisor for all the properties.
"I did all the work myself and hauled my tools around in my car," he said.
Eventually, Taft started developing subdivisions, including Willowbrook near Bays Mountain.
His first commercial venture came with the development of Stonegate Shopping Center. There he landed the city's first Wal-Mart, along with a Revco Drug store and Food Lion.
Taft recalled having to acquire nine houses and a gas station to complete the Stonegate project.
"There was one holdout right in the middle, and I had to have it. This older gentleman, he just didn't want to sell. One day he said, â€˜If he'll advance me $300 today so I can buy a waterbed, I'll sign.' So if it wasn't for that waterbed, that shopping center wouldn't have been there," Taft said.
He also developed White's grocery stores - two on John B. Dennis Highway and one in Indian Springs. And he built another shopping center in Church Hill, bought a Piggly Wiggly store in Big Stone Gap, acquired a 62-unit apartment complex on Union Street in Kingsport, developed Tanglewood subdivision in Mount Carmel, and owned the Professional Car Wash on Stone Drive.
"Never a dull moment at that car wash," Taft recalled.
He lived in a small room for 10 years at the car wash.
"I built me a living-sleeping room there. I had been used to living in little rat hole places," he laughed.
Through the years, Taft delved in various real estate investments around the region. In Sullivan County alone, Taft recorded more than 1,600 property transfers, according to the Sullivan County Register of Deeds Office.
And through the years, Taft managed to live virtually rent-free, "like a vagabond," he joked.
At age 80, he constructed his "first real house" on 100 acres atop the Willowbrook subdivision.
"I went from those little places to that house - 15 rooms, four garages, nine baths," he said.
The house also included a small apartment. And instead of living in the main residence, Taft moved into the smaller space. He spent just one night in the main house.
"I was just used to living in little places," Taft said.
He lived there about three years and recently sold the property for $1.57 million.
Now, Taft lives comfortably in an apartment at the Baysmont retirement community in Kingsport.
He said he's been so busy through the years with his real estate investments, he hasn't been able to contribute much to area civic organizations.
"I have always felt guilty of not being very active in civic affairs," Taft said.
So he and longtime friend Alex Looney came up with the plan to start a golf program at the Boys and Girls Club. With the $400,000, Taft established the Bill Taft Trust in memory of Bobby Lane. The funds are held in an irrevocable trust with First Tennessee.
"Perhaps this contribution to the youth of Kingsport will get me some forgiveness to the lack of civic work," Taft said.