Jerry Summers: P.R. “Rudy” Olgiati - Mayor Or Boss?

Saturday, December 5, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Chattanooga’s 55th mayor, Peter Rudolph “Rudy” Olgiati, served the citizens of the city of Chattanooga as chief public official from 1951-1963.

Disgruntled former Chattanooga police officer Bob Martin in his publication, Both Sides of the Fence: Corruption and Redemption in Chattanooga, Tennessee (2007) from the 1940s through the 1980s, accused Olgiati of being one of the city’s last political bosses.

Other criticism came from historians and traditionalists who opposed the removal of the top 100 feet of Cameron Hill and the displacement of 1,400 families in order that the earth could be used as part of Olgiati’s Golden Gateway Renewal Project.

More favorable comments include praise for his massive infrastructure and development of the Westside and the Golden Gateway and receipt of $100 million in federal grants in support of said projects through his “Program of Progress”.  Other successful projects under Mayor Olgiati included construction of a second tunnel through Missionary Ridge and modernization of the city’s sewer system that were completed during his three terms in office.

The removal of the top of Cameron Hill also allowed for the erection of a third bridge across the Tennessee River which was originally called the “Cedar Street Bridge.” After its completion in 1959, it was named the P.R. Olgiati Bridge.

Olgiati was born on August 24, 1901 in Gruetli in Grundy County, Tennessee.  His father was of Spanish descent and his mother was part of a family that had migrated from Switzerland in the 1850s.

Upon his father’s death his mother moved the family to the Alton Park and St. Elmo areas of Chattanooga.

Olgiati worked at the Chattanooga Glass Company before he started a career in the construction industry as a brick layer and ultimately would become superintendent of a large construction company.  His son Charles would become the head of his own successful company prior to his untimely death in 1984.

Rudy Olgiati moved into the public sector in the 1930s and, after working in the City Utilities Department, later became the superintendent of the city’s largest recreational venue at Warner Park.

In World War II, Olgiati served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and rose to the rank of major as a result of his knowledge and expertise in the construction industry.

After being discharged at the end of WWII he returned to work at the city of Chattanooga and in 1946 was appointed to a vacancy on the City Commission.  He ran for and won a full term in 1947 and then ran against the incumbent Mayor Hugh Wasson in 1951.  Having won that race he began a three-term, 12-year run as mayor.  Some described him as Chattanooga’s “boss”.

Retired Chattanooga News-Free Press reporter J.B. Collins called Olgiati “the last of a breed, the last of Chattanooga’s political kings.”

Olgiati controlled all of the various departments of the city and used the power to get state and federal funds for the “Dynamo of Dixie”.

In addition to the Golden Gateway project, Olgiati pushed for expansion of Lovell Field and a completed interstate system, which was the first of any of Tennessee’s four major cities to be completed.  The development of railroad overpasses, which alleviated the problem of backed up traffic jams, was part of Olgiati’s administration.

In the area of civil rights, the February 19, 1960 sit-in by 30 students from Howard High School in protest of a local segregated lunch counter during his administration, Olgiati called in the Chattanooga Fire Department to use fire hoses against both the Black and White students who were engaged in the tense situation.

Olgiati had always had strong support in the Black communities but the use of the hoses had a negative effect on their support in 1963.

Olgiati unsuccessfully claimed to have ordered the fire department to use the hose indiscriminately on both the Black and White students.

His response was that “everybody got wet.  I got wet too.” However, the confrontation and its handling cost him votes from both races in his gubernatorial race in 1962 and his effort to be elected as Mayor of Chattanooga for a fourth term in 1963.

Olgiati also oversaw the desegregation of local schools by creating a bi-racial Citizens Committee “whose responsibility was to mobilize community wide support for the maintenance of law and order.”

When he was at the height of his political power Rudy decided to run for governor of Tennessee but lost out to the “Boy Wonder”, Frank G. Clement, in the Democratic Primary in 1962.

He then was beaten in the 1963 mayoral race by 34-year-old attorney Ralph Kelley, which would end his political career at the age of 61.  An unsuccessful attempt to be elected as commissioner of the Public Works Department in 1975 would be his final political attempt.

He spent much of his retirement years on his farm in northwest Georgia raising Black Angus cattle.

J.B. Collins recalled that the death of his only son, Charles, to a heart attack had a tremendous negative effect on Rudy and he eventually moved to Charleston, South Carolina in the 1980s to be with his daughter Virginia following the death of his beloved wife, Mae.

He died in 1989 as he approached his 88th birthday and was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Chattanooga.

Whether you recall Rudy Olgiati, as “Mayor” or “Boss” it is undeniable that he had a significant part in transforming much of Chattanooga from what it had been after the Civil War as a railroad hub and industrial giant into much of what it has become today.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)  

 

Rudy Olgiati
Rudy Olgiati

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