John Shearer: Ava Crawley Has Worked For Unum/Provident For Nearly 50 Years

  • Tuesday, September 12, 2023
  • John Shearer
Ava T. Crawley
Ava T. Crawley
Not long after Ava T. Crawley graduated from Soddy Daisy High School in the early 1970s, she began babysitting for a cousin who worked a swing shift.

While rewarding, the babysitting hours were long and somewhat solitary.

Little did she know, however, that this work would just be a blip on the screen of her career. She would soon change to another line of work at Provident Life, now Unum, and would work with countless adults, not a single child.
But it would also be helping those needing the assistance of others in terms of insurance help. And she would work among one of Chattanooga’s largest workforces instead of in the small environment.

Today, she has another distinction that did not seem likely when she started: she is now the longest-serving employee at the Chattanooga office of Unum, which had merged with Provident in 1999. This coming March will mark 50 years for her at the employer, offering the insurance provider its own insurance in terms of her long-term dependability.

And as she emphasized, she is not planning to retire anytime soon.

“I feel like it’s good for me, and I enjoy what I do,” she said of still enjoying the work into her late 60s.
As Ms. Crawley recently looked back at her career at Unum in connection with the company’s 175thanniversary, she said she had some friends who worked there, and they thought she might enjoy the work.

“They highly recommended me and offered to let me ride with them. And there were big benefits,” she said during a recent interview at a table in the first-floor commons area.

She has also not forgotten her initial job interview with Provident personnel official Al Angel, who was also a preacher in Red Bank. She was admittedly “scared to death” about a possible new job in the sleek Provident building by Fountain Square in downtown Chattanooga, she said, but also excited.
She said she started in 1974 in the life department of Provident taking in payments for premiums. “I mostly collected money and checks and cash,” she said. “People walked in the building and wanted to pay face to face. I counted the money and got it prepared for the bank.”

She later worked with collecting the premiums that would come in from the military in one big lump sum, and she would help do the paperwork regarding which individuals the money would cover.

That was followed with work in information technology (IT), as the insurer that was already computerized in some areas was quickly becoming more updated. This ranged from testing how to get the money from each agent via the technology all the way through printing a policy.

This has evolved into working primarily with the employees in helping solve any technology-related issues in doing their work, she added.

“What I do not only helps the internal customers (Unum employees) but the external ones (those who buy and have the policies),” she said. “The faster we can get it solved, the more it helps everyone.”

In nearly 50 years with Provident, then UnumProvident, and now Unum, Ms. Crawley has admittedly seen quite a few changes in the industry and in the world in general as reflected inside the marble-faced building built in the late 1950s and expanded across Walnut Street in the 1980s. What was formerly a company primarily focused on life insurance when she began now also deals with disability and critical illness insurance and even pet insurance, among other areas of coverage.

Fashion coverings have changed along with coverage simply in what people wear. She remembers her early Provident days in the 1970s when women employees were required to wear dresses or matching pant suits in that era when women’s equality and more personal freedoms were in the infant stages throughout America.

And as it was about everywhere, work was also supposed to be a focused endeavor at all times. The nice coffee bar, the table-top game and recreation area, and even the quiet rooms now available and proven to aid productivity would have likely been more frowned upon during work hours everywhere. Assigned desks were also part of the workforce requirements, with two employees sharing a desk between their computers in the early decades, she said.

A cafeteria that was also used sometimes for community functions was on the top floor of the original Fountain Square area building before one was constructed in the addition across Walnut Street. At the latter, Ms. Crawley remembers seeing jurors from the nearby County Courthouse eating regularly.

“I’ve seen a lot,” she said with a laugh.

But despite the changes in technology and office function and even the change following the corporate merger, Ms. Crawley said she always found the company an inviting place to work.

“It’s a good company,” she said. “I’ve always thought they were fair in their pay. It’s been very rewarding, including being part of all their growth and being good to their customers. I believe in that. And I enjoy the fact they encourage us to do community service.”

Along this realm of good employee relations, Ms. Crawley said she remembers during her early years that former Provident president Hugh Maclellan was friendly and interested in his employees, and that the company would have an annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner at the office. And when they would get back to their desks, the employees would find a bonus check, which would help around the Christmas and holiday season. Similar positive employee support and relations have continued in different ways to this day, she added.

While many of the employees have been working remotely since the pandemic, Ms. Crawley said she had actually started working from home a little before that due to a special arrangement. But she will return to working two days a week on site starting next month as part of a company plan for all employees.

And just as her place of employment has not changed, Ms. Crawley has also continued living in Soddy Daisy and still enjoys looking at the nature and wildlife from her home, despite the fact this community north of Chattanooga has become more suburban since the early 1970s.

She also enjoys spending time with her two grown sons, Dee Powell of Texas and Matthew Powell of Cleveland, and their families that now include six grandchildren.

“We are really close,” she said.

And in what is unusual for any nearly 50-year employee anywhere, both her parents, Ottis and Emalene Smartt, are still living, she said.

Besides family, Ms. Crawley also enjoys her church and teaching Sunday school.

But despite all these pulls that make some people in their late 60s want to change focus, Ms. Crawley hopes to continue at Unum for the foreseeable future.

“One of the things I like is that it keeps my mind active and going,” she said. “I enjoy solving a problem.”

Needless to say, she is glad she switched careers nearly a half century ago.

“I’m proud to say I have worked at Unum,” she said. “It’s been rewarding. They have made it fun and interesting.”

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Landmark Unum headquarters
Landmark Unum headquarters
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