Colonel Sanders and a Colored Drinking Fountain

It was in November, 1948 and I was set to get my BS in January, the end of the semester. Professor Nierenberg stopped me in the hall of the Engineering Building and asked me to come to his office. He had a letter from the headquarters of the Electrical Engineering Honorary Society, Eta Kappa Nu. They were asking for UK members to assist in the installation of the first chapter in Tennessee the next month.

Since I was the elected president of the UK chapter, Professor Nierenberg, our faculty advisor, and I were requested to participate in the ceremony at UT/Knoxville in December. The professor planned to drive and suggested we choose two more to go since we had room in his car. He was to make other arrangements to fill a weekend. The installation ceremony was to be held on Saturday night and conducted by the “big wigs” from the national office in Pennsylvania with us locals having small “sword carrier” roles.

We met very early on Saturday morning at the engineering building and left on what was a long and slow drive on US 25, a two lane highway into Knoxville. We stopped at the Harlan Sanders restaurant in Corbin for a large and very good breakfast. I remember some highlights; pans of hot biscuits, kept coming fresh from the oven, and were passed around the tables almost before you needed more, there was lots of honey on all tables, and the owner was busy talking with and watching after the needs of all customers. We, of course, had no idea then that this was to be the famous Colonel Sanders of KFC fame.

The drive through the mountainous area after the Tennessee border was particularly slow. What an amazing improvement I 75 made in that area when it opened many years later.

Professor Nierenberg had made arrangements to visit Norris Dam, the first TVA hydroelectric dam completed in the thirties and one of the main reasons that the Oak Ridge Nuclear Facilities, then called the Clinton Engineering Works, were established for the Manhattan Project because they used the large amounts of electric power available from Norris. Our tour was quite intensive and focused mostly on the electrical equipment. But during the tour I saw a surprising thing, a drinking fountain labeled “Colored”, a first for me. I had of course seen the “Colored” waiting room at the Greyhound Station in Mt. Sterling, but a drinking fountain – why on earth, and on US Government property and put there by the US Government! Two identical fountains, only a few feet apart on the same wall, one “White” and one “Colored”!

Afterwards we made our way into Knoxville and the UT campus where we found the guest dormitory where we had rooms, ate at the cafeteria, changed into our “Sunday-go-to-meetin’-clothes” and went to the building where the installation took place. We had little to do in the proceedings, mostly filled space and had a small ritual role, and afterwards the Eta Kappa Nu Chapter, Beta Phi was officially established at UT, a new sister to our Beta Upsilon chapter at UK.

The next day we had an all morning tour of the aluminum plant of Alcoa in Alcoa, TN. This also was an outstanding tour. I learned a lot including don’t touch the sheets leaving the rolling mill! It was just a small blister!

Thirty years later we lived for twelve years in Oak Ridge and often took visitors to Norris Dam. I never got back to the Alcoa plant but I flew in and out of the Knoxville airport hundreds of times. It is in Alcoa. I always remember the question and answer often heard at the airport. “Do we go through Atlanta? Yes, even if you were going to hell you’d have to go through Atlanta!”

We had a long tiring ride back to Lexington, mostly after dark, but all felt it had been a great visit and we were pleased to help install a sister chapter of Eta Kappa Nu. I had been impressed by Harlan Sanders and disturbed by the “Colored” drinking fountain.

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