“No failed experiments”: An Evening with Mayor Karl Dean

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The CLASS Scholars pose with Mayor Dean in the atrium of the Wedgewood Academic Center.

From sitting in the World’s Largest Chair to working on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center to managing a major metropolitan area during a “thousand year flood,” Karl Dean’s life has been marked by unexpected events. In his talk with the CLASS Scholars last Thursday, the former mayor of Nashville spoke about the value of being open to what life presents you.

Mayor Dean, who is now a professor of political science and history at Belmont University, told the scholars that he knew he wanted to be a lawyer at 16, but didn’t know what kind of work he was most interested in. A native of Gardner, Massachusetts, a small town famous for furniture manufacturing (and the world’s largest chair), he ended up attending college at Columbia University in the largest city in the U.S. Studying there confirmed his love of history and political science. His next step was attending law school at Vanderbilt–he thought he would spend the rest of his life in New England, and wanted to experience living in another part of the country first. He fell in love with Nashville (and his wife) and has lived here since 1983.

Though he had experiences in international business and corporate law, he found his passion in public service, becoming the Assistant Public Defender and working in that office for sixteen years, being elected as the city’s Public Defender three times. He became Mayor Bill Purcell’s Law Director from 1999 until 2007, when he was first elected mayor.

“As you go through life and make choices,” he told the Scholars, “be open to things–try things to see what they’re like. There are no failed experiments, because then you have more information.” For example, he decided to run for mayor as Purcell’s second term was winding down because it would have been worse to regret not running than to be embarrassed by losing an election. He knew he would learn something about himself, even if he failed at getting elected.

During his two terms of office, his emphases were education, public transportation, and managing growth. This all seems well enough and the city was making good progress, but then 3 unexpected things hit: the national economic recession, the 2010 flood, and the English Only initiative. Mayor Dean explained how all of these things were potentially disastrous for a boom town with an ever-growing foreign-born population, and required responses that kept the long view and what was good for the city in mind.

As he left office, the main issues facing Nashville remained education, public safety, and economic development and all the ancillary issues arising from it, including the fact that 80-90 people move to Nashville every day. He summed up the main qualifications of public service by saying you have to like people and be optimistic.

The Scholars asked many questions about protecting historic buildings, encouraging civic participation, being involved when you’re too young to vote, and the ethics of being in public office, and they left with a lot better knowledge of what it takes to run a city.