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The Subtle Fighter

Hardworking, dedicated, and well-informed, Chairman Gordon Clapp broadened TVA’s postwar power base to ensure an unfailing supply of electricity for the people of the Tennessee Valley.

Only two employees in TVA’s history have worked their way up from the rank and file to the post of Chairman. One started out as little more than an office boy. His name was Gordon Clapp, and he became one of the most effective leaders TVA has ever had.

Clapp was just 27 and TVA was in its very first months when he joined the agency’s personnel department. A Wisconsin native, he’d earned a master’s degree at the University of Chicago.

Even as a young man, Clapp looked like a tough customer. Serious, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, his dark hair slicked down, he resembled a heroic leading man from an old silent movie.

It was precisely the right time and place for an ambitious young fellow. Especially in those early days, the personnel department was the nerve center of the whole agency. Clapp eventually rose to the position of Director of Personnel, and became well known for his aversion to nepotism and his insistence that TVA remain free of political appointments.

photo of gallatin fossil plant

Construction of Gallatin Fossil Plant started under Chairman Clapp in 1953. The plant won a Design Award from the journal Progressive Architecture in 1954.

In 1939 he was appointed General Manager of TVA. When David Lilienthal began his tenure as Chairman in 1941, Clapp served as his can-do man. In his private journals, Lilienthal spoke of his admiration for his younger colleague: Clapp was “the perfect example of the persistent progressive,” he wrote. “We grow that kind in TVA, and it gives me heart that we do.”

Clapp developed his own management style, which was characterized by decentralized decision-making. His method was to surround himself with competent people and trust them to do their jobs. “The role of general management,” he wrote, “is certainly not to attempt to keep a close check on everything that is going on in TVA. That sort of concept would so hamstring TVA as to deprive it of the drive, imagination, and experience of its staff.”

When Lilienthal left the agency in 1946, the U.S. Senate reviewed candidates for the top job and came up with a clear choice. On his 41st birthday, Gordon Clapp was named TVA’s fourth Chairman.

It was a pivotal time for TVA. The agency’s role in providing energy for the secret Manhattan Project, which had developed the atomic bomb and ended World War II, was now well known. During the early days of the Cold War, it was clear that TVA’s role in sustaining the electricity-ravenous defense laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was just beginning.

What’s more, rural electrification was lighting up the countryside, and GIs returning home from overseas were finding electrical appliances they’d never seen before. The demand for residential electricity alone shot up by 60 percent from 1945 to 1947. But TVA’s power, based almost entirely on turbine-fueled hydroelectricity, was finite. During those two years of burgeoning demand, hydroelectric capacity grew by only 2 percent.

It was a different sort of crisis than the one Clapp’s predecessors had faced in dealing with the floods, erosion, and abject poverty of the 1930s. But the approach was similar: organization and cooperation.

Clapp believed that only TVA had the wherewithal to organize the Valley’s resources, and that it would need to stay one step ahead of the inevitable growth in the region. Supply, he reasoned, had to precede demand. The solution wouldn’t be more dams but, for the first time, fossil-fueled steam plants.

It was an uphill battle. TVA proposed a steam plant at New Johnsonville, Tennessee, but opponents in Congress didn’t like the idea of the agency’s competing with private interests in a new arena. The first proposal was rejected. Clapp wasn’t one to shrink from a fight, though. “If TVA ever ceases to be controversial,” he once said, “it will cease to exist.”

photo of john sevier fossil plant

John Sevier was the sixth of seven fossil plant projects initiated under Chairman Clapp.

He returned to Washington again and again. Famously well informed about all levels of TVA’s operations, he impressed lawmakers with his command of the facts while conveying to them the urgency of the Valley’s need for power.

Almost three-quarters of the electricity TVA sold to industrial and commercial customers, he noted, supported national defense. In that era, when the Soviet Union was developing its own nuclear capability, it was a compelling argument. Congress approved the plant at New Johnsonville, the first of 11 that TVA would eventually build.

In the early 1950s the presidency passed to the opposition party for the first time in TVA’s history, and Clapp wasn’t appointed to a second term as Chairman. He returned to private life. In 1963 the hardworking Clapp died suddenly and prematurely at age 57.

TVA’s then-Chairman, Aubrey Wagner (the other employee who worked his way up through the agency’s ranks to the top job) was a frank admirer of Clapp’s “subtle leadership.” Historians believe that Wagner’s effort to lead TVA into the nuclear power age was inspired in part by Clapp’s effective introduction of fossil power some two decades before.

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