Pat Brock remembers hearing the standard joke around the late 1950s about the Republican Party in Chattanooga and Hamilton County – if you wanted to have a party meeting, you could probably hold it in a telephone booth.
He also vividly recalls an early local organizing meeting for the party, when only eight or nine people showed up.
“There were no Republicans in the county, from the courthouse to the state legislature,” he said.
But despite that, he and his older brother, Bill Brock, pushed on for a stronger second political party locally.
And they did help create one that swept Bill into the unlikely position of being the first Republican in 42 years to be elected to Congress from the 3rd
District of Tennessee in 1962.
As both Pat and their much-younger brother, Frank, reminisced over the phone recently in separate interviews following Bill’s death on March 25 at age 90, they both recall a man who tried to serve his country with honor and dignity.
Bill Brock would go on to get elected to the U.S. Senate in 1970, and later head the Republican Party nationally before becoming a Cabinet member under President Ronald Reagan.
“We were very close and I’m very proud of the work he did,” said Pat.
Bill’s interest in politics all began around the mid-to-late 1950s, after both he and Pat returned to Chattanooga from military service. Bill had graduated from McCallie School in 1949 and Pat in 1950, and both ended up attending Washington and Lee, the alma mater of their father, Bill Brock Jr.
After Bill served in the Navy for three years and Pat in the Army for two years following college, they returned at the same time.
They became active in community service in Chattanooga and also became interested in Republican politics. In 1960, they were asked to serve as poll watchers, and gladly obliged.
“We were always concerned about fair elections,” Pat said. “And we both felt it was important to have two parties.”
That set the stage for the 1962 congressional election. Although Frank was just a college student at the University of North Carolina in 1962 after graduating from McCallie in 1960 and had not even reached the voting age of 21, he helped in the campaign, while Pat was Bill’s top campaign manager.
Both Pat and Frank recall that their older brother had never been interested in politics until returning to Chattanooga, but once he did, he went into it with full force.
Frank said that Bill was not naturally outgoing and had not studied law – two attributes that politicians at least for major offices often possess.
“He was really active in the Jaycees and kept trying to get someone to run for Congress, and people said, ‘If it means so much to you, why don’t you run?’ ” recalled Frank, who served as president of Covenant College from 1986-2002.
Pat, who went on to help run the family’s Brock candy company and held such political volunteer posts as serving on the Tennessee executive committee of the Republican Party, said part of the reason Bill wanted to get involved in politics came from their volunteer work.
He said that when Bill decided to run in 1962, Joe Bagwell from Monroe County was also planning to run in the Republican primary. At that time the Northern end of the 3rd District was strongly Republican, but the more populated part around Chattanooga was more Democratic.
However, Mr. Bagwell dropped out, giving Bill Brock no opposition in the Republican primary and allowing him an opportunity to build up more name recognition.
Frank Brock remembers helping during the summer of 1962 while at UNC after he was asked to register people who had never voted before.
“Everybody said first voters are not likely to vote, but we went around the district canvassing and asking who was likely to vote and registering them to vote,” he said. “This had never been done and people were surprised, and people were interested. We were well received, and this created momentum.
“It was a real grass roots campaign. I enjoyed it a lot.”
Pat said that his brother was also aided by the fact that the Democrats in the 3rd District had been somewhat split in the primary. The conservative Democratic candidate, J.B. Frazier Jr., the son of Tennessee’s only governor from Chattanooga to date and the incumbent, had lost to Wilkes Thrasher Jr., who was considered the more liberal or progressive Democrat.
Because of the split, the Brocks saw the more conservative Democratic voters as potential supporters. And those voters ended up helping Mr. Brock become the first Republican to be elected from the district since one-term Congressman Joseph Edgar Brown in 1920.
“Because of the conservative/liberal split, a lot of conservative Democrats came over and voted Republican,” said Pat Brock.
While Bill Brock was busily getting elected to Congress and serving his country in 1962, his father was more inconspicuously serving his city in an entirely different, but equally noble manner. And it was an effort that tried to transcend both political parties, too.
The head of Brock Candy Co., he was part of a committee of business and community leaders that was tasked with trying to make the desegregation of the local schools go well when it began – also in 1962. Primarily, they wanted to make sure what had taken place in other cities in terms of violently protesting integration would not happen in Chattanooga.
“It was obvious to him that desegregation was a reality,” said Frank in describing his father’s motivations. “He worked hard to make sure Chattanooga did it peacefully.
“The idea of public service, all of us shared. We got it from Mom and Dad.”
Frank did admit that his father caught some grief, even among his friends, for his stance in pushing for peaceful desegregation. “A lot of people thought he was selling out,” he said.
When I wrote a previous story following Bill Brock III’s death looking back at the two times I had interviewed the former senator, I made reference to his father’s work. John Popham, the son of the late former Chattanooga Times managing editor by the same name, sent me a copy of a column his father had written after Mr. Brock’s death in 1979 praising the work of the senator’s father with the committee.
“Bill Brock should be memorialized in the hearts of Chattanoogans for generations to come,” Mr. Popham wrote.
He went on to explain that Mr. Brock had called a meeting of about 20 civic leaders to encourage everyone to try and hold any violence in check and to focus on one goal. And that goal was, as Mr. Popham wrote, “that the face of a loving God is reflected in the faces of our children and they above all must be unmolested and unscarred psychologically as they go about their required duties of school attendance.”
Mr. Popham went on to say that the elder Mr. Brock had taken this upon himself at a time when he was suffering from heart health issues.
So, while his son was ascending the political ladder, the elder Bill Brock was standing atop a moral one. He later received a national humanitarian award from a Christian and Jewish organization for his work and was honored along with noted actor Ray Bolger.
The elder Mr. Brock was able to also follow with pride his son’s ascendency to the U.S. Senate in 1970 with a defeat of incumbent Democrat Albert Gore Sr.
After Sen. Brock lost to Jim Sasser in 1976 when Republican candidates were hurt by the Watergate scandal, he eventually was able to become chairman of the National Republican Committee and worked hard to get President Ronald Reagan elected.
Frank Brock recalled that his brother had to beat out more than a half dozen other candidates for that post. He also said former Sen. Brock had some polling done and realized the labor union members and Southern Democrats might be willing to vote for Ronald Reagan.
He brought that to the attention of Mr. Reagan’s campaign staff and that and other factors ended up helping Mr. Reagan defeat incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential race.
Frank Brock said his brother had not really known Mr. Reagan until becoming involved as chairman of the committee, but he ended up becoming U.S. trade representative and later held the Cabinet position of U.S. Labor secretary.
Frank said he was invited by his brother to the White House for an event at that time, and he still relishes the memory.
“That was something really special. I’ll never forget it,” he said.
Frank added that his brother continued to stay involved in public service even after leaving the Reagan White House, and they would talk with each other about the increasing polarization in politics, which they hated to see.
“We would talk with concern about the way things were going in the country and the civil discourse,” he said. “We would talk about what had changed and why, and it was hard to put a finger on one thing.”
But what is clear is that Bill Brock III, like his father, had fought for the betterment and wellbeing of all people through public service, his brothers agree.
“I wish we had more people who considered themselves public servants and served the way he did,” said Frank Brock.
Added Pat Brock, “I have great respect for what he was able to accomplish.”
* * * * *
To see a previous story written after Sen. Brock’s death looking back at two interviews he did later in his life, read here.
* * * * *