John E. Lovell Remembered; Chattanooga Airport Bears His Name

Saturday, April 1, 2017 - by Bill Peterson

The headline of the Chattanooga Times article on April 24, 1929, read:
 
 NEW MUNICIPAL AIRPORT NAMED “LOVELL FIELD” 
 
In the article, City Commissioner James A.
Cash, addressing the Chattanooga City Council, said, “Mr. Lovell has been interested in aviation and has devoted his energies toward the furtherance of Chattanooga as a center for that activity for many years.”  Mr. Cash continued, “There is one man who assumed leadership of this important movement, whose unselfish devotion has given Chattanooga an example worthy of recognition.  I, therefore, move that Chattanooga’s municipal airport be christened Lovell Field.”
 
The Times reported that the motion passed unanimously, with Mayor Ed Bass saying it was an “excellent tribute to Mr. Lovell’s services.” 
 
John E. Lovell was one of Chattanooga’s most beloved citizens and greatest civic leaders for almost 40 years.  But time has seemed to diminish Mr. Lovell’s legacy and memory.  During a visit to the offices of the Chattanooga airport, no one seemed to know who he was other than being the person for whom the airport was named.  Indeed, an informal survey revealed that most Chattanoogans know nothing about Mr. Lovell.
 
Some confuse the John E. Lovell of airport fame with another remarkable Chattanoogan, John S. Lovell.  John S. Lovell (different middle initial) was a larger-than-life African-American entrepreneur who had an estate worth an estimated $50,000 at the time of his death in 1898 (over $1.2 million today).  But they were indeed two different people.  For the sake of clarity, the Mr. Lovell referenced in the rest of this article will be John E. Lovell, for whom the airport is named.
 
Mr. Lovell was born in Giles County, Tenn., on November 11, 1882.  He received a “practical business education” and took a clerical position with Southern Railway in Nashville.  In 1906, he took a position as an auditor with the Maxwell House hotel in Nashville.  At the Maxwell House, Mr. Lovell was able to meet some of the country’s most influential people, relationships that would pay “great dividends for Chattanooga,” wrote the Times.
 
In 1910, Mr. R.B. Jones, manager of Chattanooga’s Hotel Patten, travelled to Nashville and met Mr. Lovell.  Impressed, Mr. Jones encouraged Mr. Lovell to move to Chattanooga to work at the Hotel Patten.   Mr. Lovell became the Hotel Patten’s auditor and then assistant manager after a brief stint at a resort after leaving the Maxwell House.  In 1918, Mr. Lovell became manager of the Patten, which would become his family’s residence.  It was a position he would hold for the remainder of his life.
 
“I can see John Lovell now – shaking hands with people as they wandered in and out of the Hotel Patten,” a friend told the Times in a 1964 article commemorating the opening of a major addition to Lovell Field.
 
“He was a dynamic individual,” another friend said.  “He never met a stranger, and his counterpart has never shown up in these parts.” 
 
“I’ve never met a man that had as many friends as John Lovell – it didn’t matter if they were rich, poor, influential or non-entities – he knew them all and they all knew and liked him,” another said. 
 
“John Lovell was a man who never took off his coat – even in boiling hot weather,” another remarked.  “I watched him one time at a picnic on the lake where everyone was wandering around in their shirt sleeves.  There was a sort of dignity about him that we don’t see now days.” 
 
Mr. Garnett Andrews, retired president of the Patten, said of Lovell, “John was an unusual hotel manager.  Most managers in those days had little to do with the affairs of the community.”
 
Mr. Lovell’s impeccable reputation and magnetic personality put him in much demand to lead projects of all kinds in the city.  Historic City Chattanooga, 1915 edition, wrote, “Do not let him talk to you on his matters, if you are not prepared to join him, because, before you know it, he’ll have you committed to his way of thinking.”
 
The Times wrote that in the 25 years preceding his passing, Mr. Lovell assisted and guided practically every important civic project in Chattanooga and that he counted every Tennessee governor from Malcolm Patterson to Jim McCord as a personal friend.  “There was a feeling that with Mr. Lovell enlisted, no movement could fail,” the Times wrote in an editorial.
 
Mr. Lovell was president of the Kiwanis Club, was one of the founders of the Chattanooga Community Advertising Association, and was president of the Chattanooga chapter of the American Red Cross. 
 
He had an interest in the growing automobile travel industry and would analyze the roads in the Chattanooga area, knowing that the city would need good access from new roads.  This interest led to him becoming president of the Dixie Highway Association, which promoted hard surface road construction connecting Miami and Chicago.  Mr. Lovell was also president of the Chattanooga Automobile Association for five terms. 
 
He helped to build the Brainerd municipal golf course, as a member of a four-man committee that selected and developed the site. 
 
He was involved with the Chattanooga Community Chest for years and in 1925 chaired the effort which raised $250,000 for various charities. 
 
Mr. Lovell was charitable himself.  “There is no telling how much money John gave to poor people,” a friend said in the Times.  “Not too many people knew this because he kept it quiet.” 
 
He was also a member of the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club, the Mountain City Club, and the Elks Club.
 
Mr. Lovell was named president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce in 1933 after having headed the Chamber’s Aeronautics Committee from 1917 through 1933 and was also a member of the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission.  It was perhaps in aviation that Mr. Lovell would achieve his greatest renown.
 
His interest in aviation was sparked when he took one of the first flights ever in Chattanooga on a fragile aircraft built and flown by Johnny Green.  The flight originated at the old airport on Rossville Boulevard around 1912.  Green, tabbed “Chattanooga’s first pilot” in the magazine commemorating the opening of the new Lovell Field terminal in 1964, was a “garageman” and built the plane from a kit he obtained from airplane manufacturer Glenn Curtiss.  From that time on, Mr. Lovell maintained an ardent interest in aviation.
 
Chattanooga’s first commercial airport, Marr Field, located off Amnicola Highway, turned out to be situated in a poor location.  During one ten-day period, there were three plane accidents at Marr Field.  “The field was condemned because of adverse air currents and only two directions for landing and taking off,” according to the magazine. 
 
To keep Chattanooga included on national transportation and air mail routes, a new airport was needed, and Mr. Lovell campaigned for a $250,000 bond issue.  In 1927, he brought Charles Lindbergh to Chattanooga to generate interest, a major public relations coup.  He later brought in World War I fighter pilot ace and Eastern Air Lines executive, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker.
 
The bond issue “went over with a greater majority than any ever voted in Chattanooga,” according to the magazine. 
 
After consulting with engineers and pilots, the current location was decided upon.  It was the site of a farm owned by Dr. J. B. Haskins.  The purchase price was $29,000.  The “nominal” fee for the land allowed Mr. Lovell and his team the budget to build an outstanding airport.  Airport engineer Benjamin King of Washington, D.C., was contracted to build the facility.  
 
With much credit to the influence of Mr. Lovell, one of the finest airports in the South was built.  Mr. Dick Brown, editor of Dixie Air News, lauded Lovell Field as “one of the finest I have ever seen in the South.”  He continued, “The field from afoot and in the air is unusually attractive, and I have been on just about every airport in the South.” 
 
Mr. Brown noted that Chattanoogans were very aviation savvy and were well aware of the airport and of Mr. Lovell.  To demonstrate this, he asked a local shoe shine man if he knew how to get to Lovell Field.  He did.  When Mr. Brown asked if he knew of Mr. Lovell, the shoe shine man replied, “Next to birds, he was the first to fly around here.” 
 
Mr. Ed Sharpe of American Airlines said, in a comprehensive review of Lovell Field written by Mr. R. W. Youngsteadt in the October 1930 edition of Southern Aviation magazine, “Lovell Field is as fine a location for an airport as any I’ve seen adjacent to towns of much larger population.”  Mr. Sharpe added, “If they had this in California, you would hear about it all over the world.  I have been surprised to see what you have.” 
 
Mr. Youngsteadt’s article included a lengthy interview with Mr. Lovell and paid particular attention to the airport’s modern lighting system in the field and around the hangar and terminal.  Mr. Youngsteadt described the terminal building design as "beautiful, fire-proof, modernistic, set-back, aeronautic."  He further stated that the terminal building had “all the features of a modern air terminal.”
 
With Mr. Lovell’s stature in the world of aviation, Chattanooga was always assured of good air service.  As the Times noted, “Our fight for good air lines has been an uphill one.  Through his connection with the State Aeronautical Commission he has been able to get help for Lovell Field when otherwise our runways might have bogged down.”
 
Despite Mr. Lovell’s many contributions to the city of Chattanooga and to aviation and the airport, the name Lovell Field appears to be disappearing from the local lexicon.  It seems that fewer and fewer people still refer to the airport as Lovell Field.  At the airport itself, there is no hint of the name or legacy of Mr. Lovell -- no statue, no historical plaque, no portrait.  There used to be a display in the baggage claim area describing the background of Mr. Lovell and the airport, but it is no longer there.
 
On the airport’s website, you will not find the Lovell name anywhere.  Apparently, marketing and branding efforts have led authorities away from the Lovell name in favor of Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport and now simply Chattanooga Airport. 
 
Interestingly, the Lovell Field name does live on over the Internet.  Several aviation and airline websites still have the name of Lovell Field in their databases.  The popular FlightAware website still refers to the airport as Lovell Field when the IATA (International Air Transport Association) code of CHA is entered.  And if you try to book a trip from Chattanooga to Paris, the Delta Air Lines website will show the respective airports as Lovell Field and Charles de Gaulle.  The Lovell Field name can be found on several other airline websites, as well.
 
Mr. Lovell passed away on December 13, 1947 at the age of 65 in Nashville.  He had been operated on earlier and appeared to be recovering when he had a heart attack at Vanderbilt Hospital.  Mr. Lovell’s wife, Ora Murray Lovell, daughter of prominent Chattanooga judge Bancroft Murray; son, John Murray Lovell, state director of the Treasury Department’s Saving Bond division; and his sister, Mrs. Sam Wiley of McCains, Tenn., were present at his bedside at the time of his passing. He was also survived by three grandchildren, including Bob and Karen Lovell.
 
The city of Chattanooga grieved his passing.  Mr. J. B. Pound, proprietor of the Patten Hotel and a chain of other Southern hotels, wrote in his memoirs, “It was largely through his influence that Lovell Field was built.  His death was a great personal loss to me and to the City of Chattanooga.”  Mayor Ed Bass said in the News-Free Press, “His contribution to the airport development has been outstanding.  No one can take John Lovell’s place.  Personally, I have lost one of the best friends I ever had.”  An editorial in the Times read, “The most modest and unassuming of persons, he would be the first to deprecate superlatives, and yet, a mighty tree has indeed fallen in the forests.”  His personal doctor, Dr. Edward E. Reisman, Sr., commented, “I’ve known him over 40 years; we grew up together.  To me his outstanding attributes were his extreme modesty, simplicity and a fierce and unswerving loyalty to his close friends.”  An editorial in the News-Free Press wrote, “He, more than any other man, was responsible for the establishment of a modern airport by the city of Chattanooga.  That airport, Lovell Field, stands as a fitting memorial.”   
 
Funeral services for Mr. Lovell were held on December 15, 1947, at 10:30 a.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga with the Rev. Battle McLester officiating.  Active pallbearers were the sons of several of Mr. Lovell’s close friends:  Mark K. Wilson, Jr., Dr. Douglas Chamberlain, Alex Guerry, Jr., Charles Wheland, Mercer Reynolds, Jr., James L. Moore, Dr. Ed Reisman, Jr., and Von Oehmig.  Honorary pallbearers included those still living whose portraits appeared on the walls of the office of Mr. Lovell at the Hotel Patten. They included 67 friends of Mr. Lovell, many of whom were prominent locally and nationally.  Mr. Lovell is buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Chattanooga.

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