At nearly any Knox County political function over the last 60 years, one wouldn’t have to look far to find Richard L. Bean. I first met Bean in my days campaigning with then Mayor Tim Burchett. Bean, always found in his signature open-collar white dress shirt, is soft spoken, unassuming and very comfortable in his own skin. He always calls me “Little Tim.” I first asked Tim about Richard after meeting him at a good ole East Tennessee Bologna cutting. It was then that I learned that the kind and engaging older man was once the powerful and probably feared boss of what was famously known as “The Bean Machine.”
I sat down with Richard at S&S Cafeteria near the Juvenile Justice Center that now bears his name. He was kind enough to answer questions, tell stories and drop a few pearls of wisdom that I have recorded here.
In 1959, after leaving the navy, Richard was about as far from politics as you can get. By day, he worked at a grocery store in the Dante community near Powell. At night, he worked as a bouncer at a roughneck East Tennessee Honky Tonk. One night in the honky tonk, a friend was talking about how new Knox County sheriff Carl Ford had hired him on as a deputy. Bean recounts with a grin and a chuckle how everyone laughed when he said he was going to become a deputy too. Before long, he gave his notice at the honky tonk and set out for a local pawn shop to pick up a badge and a “slap-jack.” He had been hired on the force, and just like that, whether he know it or not his political career had begun.
Before long, he landed a gig as the officer in the juvenile court, where he’d spend the next 60 years (and counting) of his life in one capacity or another. It was here that Bean began to develop the relationships that he leveraged as a political guru, and the reputation as a brilliant and ruthless campaigner. His first role in a campaign was as the office manager for Kyle Testerman’s headquarter’s in his 1968 mayor’s race. The HQ was located in old Gateway Hardware off of Clinton Highway, behind Herman Meredith’s barber shop (Herman still cuts hair in the Powell area). Richard did a great job, and Testerman defeated incumbent mayor Leonard Rogers. After the election, Bean recalls Testerman calling in his top advisors and asking them what they wanted and where they fit in a Testerman administration. His response to the question? “Nothin’. I just thought you were the right man for the job.”
For the next ten years, Richard honed his skills on the campaign trail and in the smoke filled room, which in those days was darn near any room he entered, as he smoked five packs a day at that time. By 1979, when Lamar Alexander hired away the Knox County Circuit Court Clerk to Nashville, he was ready to run a candidate to replace her. And who better but his own wife, Lilian Bean. There was just one problem, the judges got to appoint a replacement before the election, and they were not going to pick Lilian. They named one judges’ secretary to the position, and an improper relationship was alleged to be the reason. So Bean hired lawyer Dick Crieg to fight them in court, and won! Lilian was installed as queen of the court house, a position she’d hold for over 20 years.
It was after this stunning upset and her ensuing election that a young journalist from the News Sentinel called the Beans up for a family photo for a story on them he was doing. The title on the front page of the paper that day? “THE BEAN MACHINE.” From 1979-1990 Richard’s candidates recorded countless wins and nary a loss, including: Congressman Jimmy Duncan, Sheriff Tim Hutchison, Mayor Victor Ashe, countless judges, commissioners and school board members. It was an unprecedented era of political success in Knox County.
Bean would tell you his power began to slip in 1990 when, spurred on by many wealthy individuals and powerful electeds, he managed Claude Robinson’s failed campaign against incumbent Mayor Victor Ashe, a political powerhouse in his own right. It was at this point in the story that Bean dropped his first pearl of wisdom, “You play politics long enough and sooner or later you get your ass beat. Not everyone you helped along the way remembers it.” All those rich guys and angry electeds who talked a big game about beating Victor were nowhere to be found when it counted, and many of those who owed Bean left him out to dry. Famously, the late Dr. Randy Pedigo had pledged $50,000 to this effort. He did not deliver.
He’s full of other stories, like the one about the judge who got drunk and tried to take a warrant out on his wife for pouring out his liquor, or the genius political maneuverings of John Duncan Sr. and Senator Howard Baker. He could fill a book with tales you wouldn’t believe.
Today Richard is not as active on the political front, but he can still be found managing the juvenile justice center, where he has served as superintendent for decades now. Aside from politics, he has spent decades protecting and grooming troubled young folks.
When I asked him how he did it, how an East Tennessee good ole boy went from the sawdust floor of the honkey tonk to rubbing elbows with mayors, senators and congressman, he said the secret to his success was simple, “Treat people decent.” A lesson for all of us. No matter the profession, no matter the location, nothing will carry you further in life than honesty, humility and loving people.