Recipient Biography

Victor Ashe


Victor Ashe (1945 - ) received the Pugsley Medal in 2004 for "his long standing commitment to the improvement of the environment, parks and greenways in the city of Knoxville, and his articulation of this commitment in the national leadership positions he has held." Ashe was born in Knoxville and attended public schools there before going to the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, from which he graduated in 1963. He graduated from Yale University in 1967 with a BA in history; served in the U.S. Marine Corps Air Reserves from 1967 to 1973; and obtained his JD degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1974.

His political involvement began in 1965 when he was a summer congressional intern. He augmented this in the summer of 1967 when he was a member of Senator Howard Baker's staff. In 1968, at the age of 23, he was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives where he remained for six years before serving another nine years in the Tennessee Senate. When he decided to run for the Senate against an entrenched incumbent, he did not meet the legally minimum age of 30 which was required for a Tennessee senator. Undaunted, he persuaded his mother to run instead. She won convincingly, resigned a few months later when Ashe reached the age of 30, and Ashe was appointed to her seat as the youngest ever state senator. In these state positions, he made notable contributions in advancing environmental legislation, including Tennessee's Natural Areas Preservation Act.

He left the state senate to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Al Gore, who subsequently became vice president of the U.S.  From 1983 to 1987 he was executive director of the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, established by President Reagan. The commission reported there was a clamor for outdoor recreational facilities closer to home. Their primary response was to articulate a vision of a system of recreational corridors, "fingers of green that reach from and around and through communities all across America." They called for a "prairie fire of local action." The fire was ignited, a ground swell of public support emerged, and greenways have since been developed in hundreds of communities across the country.

After his role with the commission, Ashe was elected mayor of Knoxville in 1987. The city has a strong mayor form of government, so as he became Knoxville's chief executive officer. He was re-elected three times to this position. In 1991 and 1995, he secured over two-thirds of the votes and in 1999 was re-elected without serious opposition. The city charter limited Ashe to four terms. A local commentator observed that if there was no such provision, it was likely that Ashe would have been mayor for life!

At the end of his 16 years as mayor, Ashe was invited to be a resident fellow in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 2004 he was nominated by President Bush to be Ambassador to Poland and was confirmed in that position by the U.S. Senate in June 2004.

When he came to office in Knoxville, relations between the mayor and the city council and between the city administration and the neighborhoods were described by a local newspaper columnist as "awful". Ashe turned that around. He brought the President's Commission's call for "a prairie fire of local action" back to Knoxville. Throughout his tenure, there were five goals framed on the wall of his office. One of them was "More parks and greenways." 

During his first year in office, a 50-member Waterfront Task Force was established to study and develop recommendations for the protection, enhancement and development of the seven-mile stretch traditionally considered the downtown riverfront. The Task Force's recommendations were as follows:

  • Establish a waterfront "Greenway" system to include landscaping and screening, regulations for implementation, maintenance and a clean-up campaign.
  • Redevelop an adjacent highway and a "Parkway" to include bicycle trails, landscaping, lighting of the bridges, historical markers and presentations and improvements to previously developed Bicentennial Park encompassed by this area.
  • Establish water quality programs to monitor and determine pollution sources and correct the problems.
  • Encourage economic development through the development of the north and south river banks adjacent to downtown.
  • Enhance and expand leisure and recreational use of the river.
  • Establish an entity, or agency to oversee future waterfront development and activity.  

"Volunteer Landing" was born from these goals. It was a three-phase project encompassing public and private developments of cultural and recreational amenities as well as commercial retail and residential developments. Obtaining the riverfront site meant persuading the state to cede right of way it had acquired along the riverfront for a major highway. After much travail, the roadway was relocated, and the city was able to proceed with the Volunteer Landing project.

In an in-depth review of his accomplishments at the end of his reign, the local newspaper concluded:

"Without a doubt, new parks and greenways have been the Ashe administration's hallmark. More than 800 acres of new parkland have been added, and where there were only three miles of greenways in 1987, they stretch for more than 30 miles today. In addition, major renovations and additions to existing parks have been completed, and more are in the works. Perhaps Ashe's biggest coup was getting the state to contribute 200 acres no longer needed by the Lakeshore Mental Health Institute. That land was worth on the order of $500,000 per acre. Thus, $100 million of property went for recreational use that might otherwise have been gobbled up by developers. Getting the property was part of a complex set of negotiations between Ashe and the government that took about a year."

Ashe made sure that the 18 new parks added to the system were distributed throughout the city. Most of the 16 greenway trails he nurtured are publicly owned, but others were the result of public/private partnerships. The excellence of the greenways system has been recognized with several awards, including the city being named The Greenway City of the year in 1997 by the National Geographic Society.

His legacy in Knoxville also embraced trees and historic preservation. Ashe expanded the tree planting program so it averaged 1,000 new trees a year. He exhibited strong leadership on a number of controversial issues that involved retaining Knoxville's architectural and historical heritage. He advocated and saw the passage of a city charter amendment on historic preservation which requires the mayor to deliver an historic preservation report to the city council each year. He led the efforts to preserve numerous historic overlay districts.

He constantly lobbied Congress to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In Tennessee, he was one of the leaders of the "Penny for Parks" campaign, an effort to shift one cent from the state gas tax to the beleaguered state parks' budget. The 1 cent of the 21.4 cent gas tax would provide approximately $30 million for state park operations, maintenance and land acquisition.

In his national leadership positions as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1994-95, and on the advisory board of the National League of Cities, he consistently advocated greater investment in parks, reminding influential audiences, "If you reduce your parks budget, you need to increase the police budget by a like amount to handle the problems of teenagers on the streets with nowhere to go. Park investments are an investment in our future...They are an investment in our youth."

Among his many awards, is the Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest honor conferred by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.  In Knoxville, the Victor Ashe Greenway and Victor Ashe Park reflect the city's recognition of his contributions to parks and greenways.

Ashe's political leadership in conservation issues reflects his personal enjoyment of hiking. Each year, for example, he climbs Mt. LeConte in Smoky Mountains National Park. His strong interest in the environment and historic preservation can be summarized by a quotation from his 2003 Budget Address: 

As I conclude this afternoon, I urge all of us to heed President Eisenhower's call to conserve our precious resources, both historical and environmental, for the next generation. These resources are finite and are a gradually disappearing commodity. They aren't making any new land so let's work together on using our land wisely in development, reserving large amounts of open space in our community and the East Tennessee region. We have done a good job during the last 16 years of preserving more open space for public use. When a truly historical structure is lost, our entire community suffers. Historical preservation provides tangible evidence of our heritage. Our heritage isn't just in the East Tennessee Museum, James White Ford and Blount Mansion.


Sullivan, Joe (2003) Victor Ashe's 16 years as mayor. Metropulse August 17.