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First female commission chairman visits past home, Franklin

Mana Jennings was the first female chairman of the Williamson County Commission. She visited Franklin last week to see old friends. Kerri Bartlett

Since Mana Jennings, first female chairman of the Williamson County Commission, left Williamson County in 1982, she has been active in politics, taught water aerobics and travelled far and wide finally settling in Colorado.
With spry wit, a sharp mind and a youthful glow at 89 years old, Jennings spoke to the Herald about her days as a Williamson County commissioner and her adventures around the country during her visit to Franklin last week.  
She entered Williamson County as a Franklin resident in 1974 when she and her husband Will, a native Tennessean and retired lawyer, relocated to be closer to his Tennessee roots.
Even back then, she witnessed the signs of the county’s present growth. “I could hear it rolling down the road,” she said.
“There was no working signal on the way to downtown when we moved here.”  By the time Jennings left in 1988, she said there were 24.
She never planned to run for a commissioner seat back in 1978, but was talked into it by a neighbor. “He got signatures on a petition to prove that people wanted me to run, so I did.”
“When I was elected as chairman, they didn’t know what to call me,” Jennings said. Not only was she the  first female chairman of the county commission she was the only female chairman in Tennessee at the time. No woman has served in that role since.
“They finally decided on Madame Chairman,” she said.
As a commissioner, Jennings brought much awareness to the county about domestic violence and breast cancer as a breast cancer survivor herself.
Childhood lessons shape future
Her “distant” family focused on wealth in the varnish business in which children “were to be seen and not heard.” Mana said that she learned a few life lessons as a child growing up in Beverly Hills, Calif.
“I learned early that happiness was more than a size three shoe and a gold key to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
“I chose the women who I wanted to look up to, and I was blessed to run into warm, loving strong important women,” she said, including in that list her grandmothers and the women of Williamson County.
A woman in politics
During her terms as a commissioner and chairman of the commission, the women of Williamson County left an impression.
“What touched my life, and I theirs, were Williamson County women who lived on farms. They had a network that kept them going. They would meet at church, share recipes and talk on the phone, if they had one.”
However, it was then that she learned about the problem of domestic violence, which prompted her to become an instrumental voice in the county about the issue.
“While on the commission, I realized that there was no way for a woman in the county being abused to get away from the abuser. She had no transportation and one pay phone on Main Street where everyone passing by could see her.”
Even more alarming, she said, was that there was no one for women to call. Jennings rallied law enforcement and community organizations to take responsibility for providing women with a safe way out of the abuse cycle.
It was from her early work that the first domestic abuse support systems in Williamson County were formed.
Although Jennings experienced great community support as a woman, she had to work to join the inner circle of the commission’s male social circle.
It took the men a while to warm up to her, she said. It was especially difficult during conversations about government matters, which contrary to the current Sunshine Law, actually took place back then at casual establishments like the coffee shops.
“Back then, the men met at the Waffle House after meetings to talk about things, and I was never asked along.”
One day, Jennings decided to follow them in her car, walked into the restaurant and asked to sit down, much to their surprise.
“They couldn’t really say no,” she said. “The first thing that Commissioner Clyde Lynch said to me was, ‘Why did you vote for that bridge? It only affects a handful of people.’”
“I said, ‘If you want me to know something you have to tell me,’” she said.
Jennings said that from that day forward she was included in talks. “We were great friends from then on,” she said.
However, Jennings believes that the political atmosphere has changed nationwide since those days.
“If you were a part of a different political party, you were friends. You ate together; you talked to each other at parties.”
She considers herself a conservative Democrat. However, she explained that the connotation of the term during her time in office held a different meaning.
“A Southern Democrat back then was more like a conservative Republican today, so it was easier to meet and negotiate.
“Back then, the heads of parties recognized each other’s differences and were still friends. Things were taken issue by issue. The fact that ‘He’s not in my party’ should have nothing to do with it.”
Before Mana entered the county political arena, serving the voting district of downtown Franklin, she served as administrator of the International Visitors Information Service (IVIS) in Washington, D.C., and worked on political campaigns for John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.
A life of diverse experiences
Her husband, who died in 2010 at the age of 93, served in the military and was commissioned to serve in World War II only a month after the couple was married.
He later served as an attorney, specializing in aviation. The couple lived in California, Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico and Colorado.
“I have a varied background. I believe that it has allowed me to experience different people and cultures and ways of living,” Jennings said.
Now she lives in Aurora, Colo. within close-proximity to her three daughters. She teaches water aerobics three days a week.
Since she’s been in town, Mana has eaten at GRAYS, attended a show at Pull-Tight Theater, danced at Celebration of Nations and visited with old friends.
“From what I have seen, Franklin seems comparable to Boulder, Colo. with the restaurants, music, clothes shops. Franklin is so much more of a younger city than when I moved here,” Jennings said.
What has kept Jennings so full of life, happy and healthy?
“The secret to a wonderful life is when a door opens, go through it. Don’t hesitate. Whether wonderful or terrible, it’s another notch in your belt,“ she said.

Posted on: 10/17/2013


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