During 24 years of service on the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen, 14 as vice mayor, Richard Watterson was the go-to guy for advice dealing with the pulse of the city. When a question arose as to what the people might be thinking, all faces turned to Richard. And they were rewarded with sound advice.
Young adults in Kingsport may not know of him, but from 1973 until he retired from board service in 1997, Richard Watterson was the BMA’s rudder, keeping the city on a course toward honesty and compassion and putting the needs of people first. Here’s some of what family and friends said on his passing Monday at age 94 from complications due to COVID-19, and earlier:
— Former City Manager Jeff Fleming: “Richard was the first African-American elected on a citywide basis shortly after integration, and he was re-elected every term until he chose not to run again. That speaks volumes of the job he did in consistently representing his constituents. He was a visionary who had a unique way of convincing ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
— Former Kingsport Board of Education President Paul Montgomery: He worked hard “for all of the citizens of Kingsport and especially hard for the school system in its efforts to make the city schools the best we could have. He was a friend of education. Our community has lost a pioneer in local government.”
— Son Ricky Watterson: “I think he had true passion for every citizen as a human being. He didn’t see Black or white and didn’t care about Black or white. He just cared about everybody. He believed in everybody, it didn’t matter about ethnicity or anything, and when you get past that, you’re able to touch people and relate to people.”
— Former Alderman and Vice Mayor Tom Parham: “He’s been a model, a mentor and a friend for a lot of years.”
— Former Vice Mayor Mike McIntire: “Richard Watterson is an individual who has taught our community that leadership is about action, being a true community trustee, and meeting the need placed before you.”
Watterson graduated from Douglass High School, attended Swift Memorial Jr. College and Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, and served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 through 1946, with most of his time spent on the USS Nassau.
At the age of 12, Watterson went to work for Harvey Brooks (a local businessman who built and lived at Allandale Mansion). Richard’s mother, Maggie, and his aunt Savannah also worked for the Brooks family. Richard Watterson ultimately worked for the Brooks family for 20 years, working as a chauffeur, butler and caretaker.
Watterson served on a number of state and local boards, including the State Board of Legal Services and the board of directors of the Kingsport Boys Club. He also was the State Commissioner for Human Development, the first chairman of the Riverview Branch Boys Club, the president of the Esquire Club and a member of the Kiwanis Club and Optimist Club.
In 2016 — the year Watterson turned 90 years old — the BMA proclaimed April 6 as “Richard Watterson Day.”
“I think he lasted by telling the truth, by listening to people and by truly wanting to help people,” Ricky Watterson said of his father, who often got more votes than anyone else in city elections. “The biggest thing is Dad had a compassion for people, he listened and he took it to heart.”
Richard Watterson was among few who set a model for public service. For that alone, the city should find some way to put in place a more lasting tribute to his memory. We join Richard Watterson’s family and friends in both mourning his passing and celebrating his decades of contributions to Kingsport and its residents.