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The Big Picture

TVA regional planner Flash Gray possessed a feisty temperament and the ability to take the long view. His contributions to the agency have enriched the whole TVA region.

This summer the Tennessee Valley region lost a broad mind and a strong voice with the passing of Aelred J. “Flash” Gray.

The 90-year-old former Chief of TVA’s Regional Planning Office was one of the last survivors from the heady early days of the agency, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and TVA was making international headlines. He died in Knoxville, Tenn., where he had continued to live after his retirement.

Land-use planning was a new concept in the mid-’30s and to some a radical one. Most people, Gray was fond of joking, thought “planning” was deciding what to wear tomorrow. But for him in his work at TVA, it involved everything in the region: the farms and the cities, the hills and the shores, the water, the land and the people themselves.

“What TVA did was new and different,” he recalled later. “We worked with all kinds of agencies, the agricultural people, the foresters, to decide what locations along the reservoirs would be suitable for a wildlife preserve, a state park, a municipal park.

“We had to develop the river. We had to relate the river to the region.” Gray saw few limits to TVA’s mission. He worked at the agency for 38 years, retiring in the early 1970s. He didn’t originate the idea of regional planning, nor did TVA become as deeply involved in planning as he would have liked.

But insofar as TVA continues to approach power production, regional economic development and management of the Tennessee River system as a unified whole, Flash Gray’s legacy lives on.

He arrived in 1935, before the first TVA dam was completed. A star footballer in his hometown of Warren, Pa., he earned his nickname as an athlete at Notre Dame in 1929 and ’30, late in the Knute Rockne era. Though he wasn’t a big man, Gray was swift enough to play football for perhaps the greatest team in the nation.

It’s not surprising that when he came to the Tennessee Valley region, his old Notre Dame nickname stuck. At TVA, Flash Gray hit the ground running, conducting a land-use survey of the shoreline of Pickwick Landing Reservoir as his first project.

He apparently impressed his bosses. In 1936 he was assigned to the far-reaching Rural Land Classification Survey, for which he compiled information about the physical, social and economic conditions of the region and the ways they affected one another.

To Gray, says Professor David Johnson, who worked with him later in life at the University of Tennessee’s Graduate School of Planning, TVA wasn’t just a string of power-producing dams. He saw TVA as “a regional development agency to uplift the whole region. Dams were incidental to that. Electricity was an important part, but it wasn’t the only part.”

Gray’s work on land use convinced TVA that planning should be carried out before dam and reservoir construction began, so that land use and transportation needs across the region could be considered.

Gray arrived when Norris Dam was under way, and worked closely with the early head of Regional Planning, Earle S. Draper, in planning the town of Norris, Tenn.. The two men believed that Norris should be just the first of many TVA-founded model towns throughout the region. Even late in his career, Gray was urging a continuation of that goal.

His style of comprehensive planning took a hit in 1939, when farming interests succeeded in removing agricultural planning from the sphere of Gray and his land-use colleagues.

And after the departure of Arthur Morgan, TVA’s first Chairman and an important champion of projects like Norris, Gray found the agency’s leadership less interested in the all-inclusive planning that was his specialty.

photo of norris, tennessee

Norris, Tenn., Flash Gray’s ideal community

Some, including Draper, gave up on TVA; Flash Gray did not. One colleague says the best single word to describe him was “feisty.” The agricultural-planning tussle was the earliest of many such fights for Gray, most of them along roughly the same lines. But he stayed with TVA, helping to remind his colleagues of their original mission.

Although Gray had his differences with TVA directors, he considered the agency’s first 20 years a grand success of a scope unparalleled in American government, perhaps the most successful of all Roosevelt’s ambitious New Deal programs.

He was especially proud of TVA’s accomplishments in regional industrial development and of the role it played in helping to found the best state parks in the South; he led many of these efforts himself.

photo of chatanooga, tennesseeHe had a strong interest in the region’s cities, and believed that TVA’s influence should reach into the complicated realm of urban planning. Much of the agency’s work in Chattanooga and elsewhere, says Johnson, came about as a result of Gray’s influence.

In the 1950s he developed TVA’s landmark Flood Damage Prevention Program, which became a national model. He also led the planning for Melton Hill Reservoir, working with state and local governments to create a complete plan even before Congress had approved the project.

After nearly 40 years as a staff planner for TVA, including a decade as Chief of the Regional Planning Office, Gray became a professor with an unusual wealth of experience and founder of the University of Tennessee’s Graduate School of Planning. In 1989 he won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Tennessee chapter of the American Planning Association. A few years later he was cited as a “planning pioneer” by the American Institute of Certified Planners.

He never gave up on his original vision. By the end of his long career, some people were calling him “the grandfather of planning.” Professor Johnson believes Flash Gray’s ability to take the long view of things was his greatest gift. Johnson says simply, “He saw the big picture.”


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