Chattanoogan: Bill Knowles Moved From Barber To County's Longest-Serving Official

Thursday, August 14, 2014
Bill and Marlene Knowles have three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren
Bill and Marlene Knowles have three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren

William Finley "Bill" Knowles moved from barbering to a career as the longest-serving Hamilton County official. And he is still going strong.

The Knowles family was living in St. Elmo when he was born in a rental house on Tennessee Avenue. Claude and Rose Campbell Knowles had five boys and a girl.

The Knowles clan had come from Virginia to the Carolinas and on to the Sparta, Tn., area. Bill's great-grandfather, Pettway Knowles, took six months for a wagon trip that brought him to Chattanooga, where he set up a store on Dodds Avenue.

Joe Knowles, father of Claude Knowles, died in his 40s.

Claude Knowles served both in the city police and fire departments at a time when they were one unit. He had gotten his city job with the help of St. Elmo Mayor Finley Seagle. That is how Bill Knowles got a middle name of Finley. Claude Knowles first worked at Mr. Seagle's Chattanooga Lumber Company.

Young Bill Knowles attended East Side Junior High School, and his sweetheart in the seventh and eighth grades was Marlene Coulter. Later, he would walk or bicycle to Central High School on Dodds Avenue from where the family was then living on E. 14th Street.

He said, "I knew my father only made $170 a month with the city so I always worked to pay for all my books and lunches."

One way he made money was by going into Loveman's and buying gift bags for a nickel apiece, then he would sell them for a quarter to people on the streets.

Bill also worked at a soda fountain inside Hamilton National Bank during the week and at Fountain Square Drugs on the weekends.

Claude Knowles was with the fire department when one of the city's biggest blazes broke out at Scholze Tannery. He was a detective when some robbers were holed up in Lookout Valley. He went to the back door and his partner, Clyde Shipley, to the front. Detective Shipley was shot and killed. Bill remembers that Detective Shipley had just been by their house bringing some items for the children.

Claude Knowles was also active in politics, running twice for sheriff.

After high school, Bill took a position as clerk for Judge Riley Graham. Then he was in the accounting office at Railway Express.

Bill renewed his courtship of Marlene Coulter and they were married in 1955. Her father, Buford Coulter, was a prominent barber, and he decided to follow that line of work in his shop at 701 Dodds.

Several of his regular customers were on the jury for the Jimmy Hoffa trial, and they requested their favorite barber. The marshals would bring them by at night under heavy security. "We made sure there were no newspapers lying around and the TV was not on," Bill recalls.

 Bill decided to again take a government job, and he joined the Full Employment Committee - a job training program started by Mayor Ralph Kelley. It had offices at the Warner Park Field House.

In 1974, when Dave Ramsey retired as county clerk, Bill decided to make his first political race. One of his staunchest backers was the prominent businessman Ray Evans.

He won and will soon be starting his 41st year in office. He again was the top vote-getter in the recent election.

Bill and Marlene started out living at 1508 Adair Ave. in East Ridge. He remembers they had one car at the time and he would leave it for Marlene while taking the bus to the barber shop. Later, they lived at Tyner, then built their present home on Concord Road in East Brainerd.

Bill was the church historian for the First Nazarene Church on Main Street for many years, and now they are members of Woodland Park Baptist Church.

One of their sons carries on the Finley name, and there is a William Finley Knowles IV now. Other children are Reba, who married Don Kunselman, and Alan. The three Knowles children went to Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville.

Bill Knowles has a real heart for serving the people, and he works many hours at home on the computer after the office closes. "I don't like people to have to be anxious about their tags or some other issue," he says.

He notes, "People are surprised when they get an email from me at midnight or 1 a.m. "They wonder, 'Is this really from the clerk?' "



Bill and Marlene Knowles
Bill and Marlene Knowles

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