Former Knox commissioner Mary ‘Bee’ DeSelm dies at 95

Mary “Bee” DeSelm, well-known community leader, particularly on behalf of education while on the Knox County Commission in the 1980s and at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, died Sunday at Shannondale health care center at age 95.

DeSelm and the late Mary Lou Horner were elected to the old County Court in 1976, the first of their gender in modern history to serve on the body that evolved into County Commission in 1980. The West Knoxville library branch building bears DeSelm’s name.

Her son, Richard DeSelm, said Monday that his mother was battling dementia and Alzheimer’s for years and her body got to the point that she gave out.

“Bee DeSelm has been a role model and mentor to me,” former Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, who served on County Commission with DeSelm in the 1990s, had said in an earlier interview and reiterated her thoughts Monday.

“When I ran for Knox County Commission in 1990, she invited me to her home and shared campaign strategies and commission responsibilities.  During my eight years as a county commissioner, I watched Bee take on the status quo and ‘good ole-boys’ in her quiet but determined way. She always stood up for what was right and equitable.  She is a role model for women in politics and for all people in service to their community.”

DeSelm was honored in 2014 by the YWCA Knoxville during its annual “Tribute to Women” event when 30 women were highlighted who had impacted the community in the past 30 years.

In 2015, this writer had a column on a speech by Knoxville historian Jack Neely, who said Lalla Block Arnstein was the first woman on the old Knox County Court, although the media in 1976 said DeSelm and Horner were the first women elected. In discussing this later with DeSelm, she said to me, “Does that mean we have to give all those honors back?”

She also said she had heard another woman had been elected to County Court but never did verify it. Turns out Arnstein was elected to County Court to represent the 12th District on Aug. 7, 1924, with members called magistrates, justices of the peaces or squires.

DeSelm moved to the Shannondale retirement community of Knoxville following the death of her husband, Hal, in 2011. He was a retired professor of botany and ecology at the University of Tennessee.

DeSelm was born Mary Elizabeth Hersee but was always known in Knoxville as Bee. She and her husband grew up in Columbus, Ohio, knowing each other in junior high school. He was in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II while she went to nursing school at Ohio State University. After the war, her husband earned degrees at Ohio State.

They came to Knoxville in 1956 after two years at Middle Tennessee State University. Their two children are Diane D. Overcast, Marietta, Ga., and Richard DeSelm, Chapel Hill, N.C. There also are four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Richard DeSelm said he will always remember how loving and steady his mother was.

“She was pretty direct and sometimes that didn’t feel so good as a kid. She treated us honestly and fairly and made us do things on our own. I grew up learning with good role models from my mother and father, knowing mostly right from wrong, knowing the value of hard work. Both parents demonstrated that. She was fiercely moral, and I’d like to think I carry that attribute in my life,” he said.

He also said he was impressed with her attitude through her demise. He said he had not been able to visit since March 8 due to COVID-19 and then Shannondale staff contacted him and his sister to say the end was near and they visited on Sept. 2. She was unable to talk, he said..

On a last phone call, he said she gave out a “giant” laugh. “I don’t know if I could keep such an outlook. Maybe she was oblivious to her condition. She had a bit of uplifting spirit about her. … I was very impressed with her ability to stay more positive than not. I never heard her complain,” he said.

DeSelm was a nurse for 10 years and then was religious education director 12 years at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Among the many awards she received was the Religious Service Award from The National Conference, formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which said in 1995: “She believes that one’s purpose in life is to work to make one’s community serve the needs of its people. She has done this through her church community, not only as president but also as religious education director and as chair of the committees on caring, FISH, finance and membership.”

The work through the church showed her sense for decency and justice, said the Rev. Chris Buice, senior pastor at TVUUC, in an earlier interview. And she parlayed the leadership skills learned there into bigger and bigger issues, he said. He remembered one commission meeting at the City County Building where an issue on gay and lesbian rights was being discussed, with some in the crowd growing raucous. 

“Bee was the moral center. I was in the room. She asked (for everyone) to be respectful to each other and speak respectful to each other. Some people were playing to that energy, pandering. She was the grown up. The tone of it was terrible,” Buice said.

The first political campaign Bee DeSelm was active in was that of Victor Ashe, when he ran for the legislature in 1968. He was running for the state House, where he served before being elected to the state Senate and as Knoxville mayor.

“He referred me to Martha,” DeSelm said in 2013, referring to Ashe’s mother, who helped him with his campaigns and influenced DeSelm’s interest in eventually seeking office herself. She also credited her active work with the League of Women Voters for her interest in politics.

After being elected to Knox County Court in 1976, DeSelm served until 1998, when she decided not to seek re-election. During her years in office, she was on the Education Committee and chaired it until she got caught in the middle of some in-fighting over the election of the commission’s chairman. She was among those helping to lead the county to achieve a single school system in 1987.

After she left commission, she and her husband were among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that came out of a term-limit controversy for Knox County officials in 2006-07. A jury found the County Commission had violated the state’s “Sunshine” Law in making appointments to succeed 12 term-limited office holders; the commission was forced to re-do the appointments.

The DeSelms lived in Sequoyah Hills until they decided it was time to downsize and moved to Hamilton House. She continued to live there after her husband died and then she fell. She went to Shannondale’s assisted living unit for physical therapy and to recover from her fall and then moved into an apartment. As her health declined in recent years, she moved from the apartment back to assisted living and then the health care center.

She also was a member of the Leadership Knoxville Class of 1990, Community Leadership Class of 1995, Domestic Violence Task Force, Community Alternatives to Prison Board, Metropolitan Planning Commission, Historic Zoning Commission, American Cancer Society Public Issues Committee and chaired the Public Affairs Committee of The National Conference.

Richard DeSelm said his mother will be cremated. The plan is to place the ashes next to their father’s at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in a private service. The family is hoping for an in-person public service later.

Georgiana Vines, retired News Sentinel associate editor, may be reached at [email protected]

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