Bromma Pemberton: Making a Difference
(EDITORíS NOTE ó The following article is a reprint from a publication produced by the Office of University Relations and the Office of Agricultural Development at the University of Tennessee. It was written by SHARON LITTLEPAGE and is reprinted here by permission).
Sheís known for her trademark color pink and the butterfly pin she wears on her shoulder. To the UT Institute of Agriculture, however, BROMMA PEMBERTON is also a woman with a heart of gold who has become one of its most generous benefactors.
Although BROMMA is the epitome of the self-made woman, this is a tribute to her exemplary life as a role model for ALL human beings, for her kind and gentle spirit brings out the best in us.
BROMMA LANE PARNELL grew up in a large and loving family in which hard work, church, and community were the ties that bind.
Born November 29, 1909, in Oliver Springs, a tiny coal-mining community at the edge of Anderson County in East Tennessee, she was the second eldest of eight children. Her parents, JOHN C. PARNELL, a hard-working coal mining contractor, and his homemaker wife, VESTA RUFFNER PARNELL, gave their second daughter an unusual name.
"It came from a girlfriend of my motherís when she was growing up in Jellico," BROMMA related. "Her name was Bromman. Mama named me for her but left off the n. I like it better."
BROMMA attended elementary and high school in Oliver Springs. After school was out for the day, she cared for her six younger siblings, giving her mother time to cook supper, wash dishes, mend clothes, and other chores that required her attention. "The children all felt like I was their second mother," she says. But it was a job she enjoyed very much, since she has always loved children.
When she wasnít caring for her four younger brothers and two younger sisters, BROMMA occasionally got into mischief. "I was kind of a tomboy," she confessed. "I liked to have fun back then, as I do now. I especially enjoyed pestering my older sister."
Life in her small town was a happy one for BROMMA. "Oliver Springs was real nice," she recalled. "It was a wonderful place to grow up." At that time, church was the hub of activities. "Oliver Springs had four churches óCumberland Presbyterian, Methodist, First Baptist, and First Presbyterian óall within walking distance of each other, which was good because nobody had cars back then," she pointed out. Each church was pastored by a circuit preacher who conducted Sunday services once a month, each alternating with the others. "Everybody went to church then, wherever services were held," she said. "Also, we had Sunday night youth fellowship, a Wednesday night prayer meeting, and even play rehearsals." Singing in the choir and hosting the pastor of the day for Sunday dinner were simply extensions of Christian life in the PARNELL family.
BROMMA graduated from Oliver Springs High School in 1927. Although she had aspired to be a nurse, she changed her mind and enrolled in Knoxville Business College immediately after high school. "Going to a four-year college wasnít really an option for me," she said. "At that time, very few people we knew went to college because they couldnít afford it. With our large family, it would have been hard. So I settled on going to business college and getting a job."
Graduating from business college in 1928, BROMMA quickly landed a job at an insurance company in Knoxville. Shortly afterwards, the company merged with another, so the job lasted only a few months. BROMMA then decided to move to Oneida, in Scott County, where her aunt an uncle, ELDA and Jeff Caldwell, had purchased the Commercial Hotel. Dr. JOHNSON, a local pharmacist living at the hotel, offered her a job tending the soda fountain in his drug store until she could find a secretarial position. "The drug store was at the rear of First National Bank," she recalls. "People could go out the back door of the bank and go in the front door of the drug store. At the time, the bank didnít even have a water fountain, so the bank executives would stop in to buy a soda, and I waited on them."
One day, she learned there was a job opening at the bank. "Mr. B. L. SADLER, vice president and CEO, told me someone was leaving and offered me a position," BROMMA related. "They told me at the time that they couldnít promise me it would be a permanent job and that other girls were competing for it." As it turned out, BROMMA got the job and worked on a "trial basis" for 50 years!
"Years later, I asked why I was hired even though I hadnít applied," BROMMA said. "They told me it was because of the way I treated them when they came in to the drug store."
BROMMA started at the bank as a secretary and bookkeeper on March 14, 1930. Along the way to the top, she held positions such as assistant cashier, cashier, public relations officer, and personnel director. Eventually, she worked her way up to senior vice president and director, becoming the first woman officer and director and the first senior vice president ó man or woman. She has been a member of the board of directors since 1979.
It is well known by friends, family and business associates that BROMMA always put everyone elseís needs before her own. While working full-time at the bank, she also had loved ones to care for at home. When her father became ill and unable to work, BROMMA became the breadwinner. Yet she considered it a privilege ó not just a responsibilityó to help in caring for her aging and ailing parents as well as several nieces and nephews who, along with their parents, lived in the PARNELL home for several years. Not surprisingly, the extended family found her to be a second mother, counselor and source of financial support ó all rolled into one.
After all of BROMMAís brothers and sisters married and left home, she stayed on to care for her parents. She met the love of her life, ROY JOHNSON, in 1935 when both were cast in lead roles in a play presented by the First Methodist Church. It was the beginning of a 20-year courtship.
In 1955 after both her parents had passed away, BROMMA married ROY and moved into the JOHNSON home, where she still lives today. The JOHNSONs were a happy and successful couple. He had worked his way up through the ranks of Tibbals Flooring Company, the largest industry in Scott County, eventually becoming superintendent of the plant. They continued to be involved in church and civic activities and enjoyed a busy social life.
ROY and BROMMA had married late (both were 45), so it was with great regret that they never had children. "We both loved children and would have loved one of our own, but we thought it was too late," she said. "I had been around children all my life, having helped to rear and educate all my brothers and sisters," said BROMMA. But because I had experienced first-hand the joys and challenges of helping to raise children, I didnít feel as if I were unfulfilled in that aspect of my life."
When BROMMA moved into the JOHNSON home after her marriage, she helped care for ROYís parents until the death of her father-in-law in 1965. Then,
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in September 1974, her beloved ROY died of complications from Alzheimerís disease. Two years later, her mother-in-law, whom BROMMA had continued to care for, passed away. Even throughout all the family illnesses, BROMMA liked to say that ROYís parents "were like a second mother and father to me.íí
BROMMA thoroughly enjoyed her work at the bank. She had a strong work ethic and was highly committed to her chosen career. She knew the business inside and out. "I could do anything there was to do in the bank. I did secretarial work, bookkeeping, made loans. I understood what went on throughout the bank instead of in only one department. And Iím real thankful for having had that experience." In the early days, of course, the bank was small, with only three employees. Now, she says, banking has become more specialized as the industry has expanded its services.
A strong believer in staying current with changes in the industry, she attended the Tennessee Bankers Association School at UT for about 10 years as well as the American Bankers Association personnel school in Atlanta. In honor of her accomplishments in banking, she served as chairman and secretary of the East Tennessee branch of the National Association of Bank Women. She also took advantage of numerous training opportunities to improve her technical and management skills, often at her own expense. And even though she already had excellent "people skills," she completed the Dale Carnegie courses on personal development.
In the words of fellow workers, "BROMMAís warm personality is not seasonal, for she spreads good cheer to all those with whom she comes in contact daily. Her favorite greeting to a long face is, ĎWe need a smile around here today!"
But it was more than being cheerful that endeared BROMMA to her coworkers, friends, and family, wrote ESTHER SHARP SANDERSON in Scott County: Gem of the Cumberlands (1974). In the book SANDERSON devotes a chapter to ĎWomen of Achievement." BROMMA PEMBERTON is at the top of her list. "Probably one of BROMMAís greatest talents is that of identifying with people, their problems and their hopes and then being able to supply the right answers and help," SANDERSON observed. "She is able to inspire those working with her to reach their highest potential; she has made the insecure to feel secure, the competent to strive for a higher perfection, and the lonely to feel a sense of friendship."
BROMMAís commitment to professionalism in her work led her to become a charter member of the Oneida Business and Professional Womenís Club (BPW) in 1951. She served in nearly every office and on all committees and became the clubís second president. In 1965, she was nominated by the Oneida club as Woman of the Year. Subsequently, she held all the top offices of the Tennessee Federation of Business and Professional Womenís Clubs, Inc., including serving as president in 1969-70. In 1972 the Oneida BPW nominated her as its Woman of Achievement, and she was named first runner-up at the state level.
During her long tenure with the Oneida BPW Club, BROMMA was extremely active in organizing and chatering new clubs across the state, recruiting new members, and promoting the club through speaking engagements and numerous other activities. On a national level, she represented Tennessee at five national conventions and served on the national board in 1969-70.
Although BROMMAís business, social, civic, and family activities kept her busy, she always had time to devote to improving her community. Her leadership in the Oneida Business and Professional Womenís Club caught the attention of Governor BUFORD ELLINGTON, and he appointed her to serve on a task force for
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the Commission on the Status of Women, as did his successor, Governor WINFIELD DUNN. Though soft-spoken and polite, BROMMA strongly supported the advancement of women in all areas of life.
At the invitation of President RICHARD NIXON, BROMMA attended the Conference on Consumer Affairs in New Orleans in 1971, representing Scott County.
Agriculture, of course, was important to the economy of this rural area. And the Scott County Fair was a major event each summer. An assistant secretary of the fair association, BROMMA helped with all the bookkeeping and record-keeping activities for the organization from 1930 to 1966.
She also served on numerous local boards and worked tirelessly for myriad charities and other organizations that needed her help. She was, for example, a co-organizer of the first Girl Scout troop in Oneida. And when the Scott County Committee for Retarded Children and Adults called on her for help, she quickly volunteered.
"BROMMA loves people, old or young, rich or poor, educated or the opposite and always finds time and a listening ear for people with problems," wrote ESTHER SHARP SANDERSON. "She serves on any board or committee which will enable her to help the people in the area in any capacity."
"Iíve made my living here all these years," says BROMMA, "and I feel like I owe all I can give back to my community to help make it a better place for other folks to live."
Indeed, the list of those who have benefited from BROMMAís generosity over the years is long, but she has a big heart and a desire to help as many people as she can. These were early signs of just how generous with her time and financial resources she was; her days as a major donor to a number of key institutions, including UT, were yet to come.
A New Life
In most small towns like Oneida (pop. 3,502), everybody knows everyone else. ROY and BROMMA JOHNSON were acquaintances of GROVER and LILLIS PEMBERTON, both couples having attended the First United Methodist Church. Mr. PEMBERTON, owner of Pemberton Oil and Lumber Company, was also a regular customer at First National Bank, where BROMMA was employed for years.
GROVER CLEVELAND PEMBERTON was a powerful businessman and farmer in Scott County. He was born in 1897 in the Glenmary community to farmer and lumberyard owner GATEWOOD PEMBERTON and his wife., ANNA. One of eight children, GROVER followed in his fatherís footsteps and entered the lumber business in 1920, running it until 1962. Oil was in the younger PEMBERTONís business portfolio as well. In 1917, at the age of 20, he helped unload the first oil rig to come into Scott County. The rig was set up on his fatherís farm, and the men who put it in hit oil on their first drilling. Later, GATEWOOD PEMBERTON sold the oil rights to Russell Producing Company of Lima, Ohio. In 1943, however, GROVER PEMBERTON and Howard Baker, Sr. bought out Russell. In the same year he also established a registered Angus herd
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on the family farm, one of three farms he eventually owned.
GROVER PEMBERTON was also a pioneer in the natural gas business in Scott County. He helped lay the first gas lines into Oneida in the 1940s and ran the gas company before selling it to the local utility district. Among his other business ventures were the Pemberton General Store, which opened in 1938, and coal mining. The empire he built was based on business savvy and hard work.
Not bad for an eighth-grade dropout, he liked to say.
In 1977 LILLIS PEMBERTON died of a sudden heart attack. After more than 40 years of marriage, GROVER PEMBERTON didnít especially like the prospects of spending the rest of his life alone. He knew BROMMA JOHNSON from church and the bank, so he decided to ask her out. She was, he told her later, the only woman who ever crossed his mind.
"GROVER had one of the keenest minds I have ever known," she added. "In math he could calculate in his head faster than you could on a machine. Plus, he had excellent judgment and was a master at sizing people up.
"His hobby was making money," she said with her shy smile. "It was a game to him. He didnít care about having the money he just enjoyed the challenge of making it."
And so, on December 23, 1978, BROMMA PARNELL JOHNSON, age 69, and GROVER CLEVELAND PEMBERTON, age 81, were married in a small ceremony at the First United Methodist Church in Oneida, with a host of family and friends joining in the celebration.
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Shortly before Christmas in 1980, the couple announced they would make a gift of GROVERís 400-acre boyhood farm at Glenmary to establish the Grover Pemberton Agricultural Endowment Fund at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. The farm, with its equipment, prize Angus herd, and oil well, had an estimated value of $500,000 at the time. Initial income from the endowment was used to construct a multi-purpose training and recreational building at the Crossville 4-H Center, which is operated by the UT Agricultural Extension Service. Each summer the camp hosts hundreds of 4-Híers from East Tennessee, including Scott County.
According to BROMMA, the decision to make the gift was based on their interest in doing something that would help young folks. "Whatís the use of accumulating if you canít share?" BROMMA has said. "The most pleasure I get out of it is being able to help somebody else."
At the dedication of the facility, UT President ED BOLING noted that GROVER PEMBERTON had a strong interest in 4-H work and found a sense of excitement in the summer programs there. "GROVER saw the need for an all-weather facility and just to make sure that a little rain on the plateau did not dampen the enthusiasm of 4-Híers, he did not hesitate to make arrangements to provide the funds to plan and construct the facility. It is for these reasons the Board of Trustees had named this facility in Mr. PEMBERTONís honor."
UT has not been the only beneficiary of the PEMBERTONís largesse, for the people also made substantial gifts to the Shiners Crippled Childrenís Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky (GROVER was a 32nd degree Mason), to Fort Sanders Hospital in Knoxville, and to the First United Methodist Church in Oneida.
Sadly, in February 1983, GROVER passed away after a short illness. BROMMA carried on the business, succeeding him as president of Pemberton Oil and Lumber Company. She also became more involved in supporting UT. She is a member of the UT Development Council, a group of outstanding volunteer leaders who advise the university on its private fund-raising programs, and is a charter member of UTís Founders Society, which recognizes donors whose gifts exceed $1 million. She and her close nephew, JIM PEMBERTON, have each served two three-year terms on UTís Agricultural Development Board. BROMMA was also active in the Institute of Agricultureís first capital campaign in 1986-88, serving on its Council for Agriculture.
Since 1989, BROMMA has welcomed thousands of Scott Countians and other special guests into her home for her annual Christmas open house, "Winter Wonderland." The event, which was initially held to celebrate her 80th birthday, had even attracted national publicity, as ABC once televised footage taken by its local affiliate. "I heard from people from Seattle to New Orleans after that broadcast," BROMMA said.
BROMMA and her staff of about a half-dozen family and close friends begin decorating in September for the open house, which includes around 20 rooms, each with a different theme and tree. The event runs throughout December and always includes "UT Night" for faculty and staff of the university.
Now 88, BROMMA maintains her sunny disposition. "Iím happy just about all of the time. It has to be something real bad to make me unhappy," she says. And, despite the loss of many loved ones in recent years, she has much to be thankful for."
She attributes her long life partly to genetics but also to remaining active. "Iíve stayed so busy all my life," she says. "But along with the heartaches, Iíve had more love and happiness than I feel like any one personís entitled to. And I think that helps you to live."
The butterfly pin on her shoulder might just give her an edge from time to time. "I always heard if a butterfly lands on your shoulder, you have good luck. So I donít take any chances. I just put one on my shoulder every morning."
Her niece, ANN ADKINS, once said, "Aunt BROMMA, you would give away anything in the world if you thought somebody wanted it."
"And thatís how I want to be remembered: Thereís just nobody in the world that I could say I donít like. I tried to give all the love I could to everybody."
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 10, No. 1 Ė Fall 1998
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
page 1, 4-5, 8, 10
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