By Jim Bridges / Signals features writer
Soon after moving to Lake Tansi Village, I discovered that being retired doesn't necessarily mean having nothing to do. When I called Mrs. O'Brien to schedule an interview, we finally found a mutually agreeable day in our busy schedules. As to the time, after remarking that I am an early morning person she suggested 8:30 a.m. on the following Saturday. After breakfast I drove the short distance to her home. If this had been several years ago I would have taken a notebook, pencil and probably a 35mm camera. Ah, what memories. Now I use a laptop and a digital camera. When the door opened, she greeted me with a big smile and said, "Good morning, Mr. Bridges." She was wearing a beautiful blue velour outfit with an American flag on one side of the top. She looked like she had just left the salon — there was not a hair out of place. She suggested we sit in the bright, cheery porch.
If you haven't guessed by now, this interview was with Miss Anna Belle (Clement O'Brien). Many articles have been written about her career in politics, so I decided to do something different — talk about her early life and some interesting and humorous experiences she has had.
She was born in Scottsville, KY, a daughter of the late Robert and Maybelle Clement. Other children were Frank, now deceased, and Emma Gene Clement Peery, a widow who lives in Franklin, TN. The family moved to Bowling Green while she was a little girl. One day she was helping her mother peel potatoes when a neighbor child came to the door. They needed another child to play and asked her to come out even though it was getting dark. She ran outside, but fell into a hedge. As a result, she lost the sight in her right eye. She still remembers her father saying, "Honey, you can't let one accident, any one incident or one person ruin your life. Things happen for a reason." Anna Belle was eight years old. Her father's words and actions had a lot to do with the close relationship they developed. He helped shape her life and prepare her for all the things she might face in the future.
In a few years Robert Clement moved his family to Dickson, TN. "We didn't have much, but our parents gave us love and insisted we get a high school diploma and go to church," Anna Belle said. Dickson was a small town, so they walked to church. Interestingly enough, Robert took Frank to the Methodist church while Maybelle took Anna Belle and Emma Gene to the Baptist church. "It wasn't a problem, we had a fine relationship with all religions." She says she remembers Sunday mornings at their house. "Daddy was a better cook, so he fixed eggs while Mama made biscuits. One Sunday he was stirring the eggs and commented, to no one in particular, that he had enjoyed the revival at the Baptist church and that the minister wasn't bad. Then he remarked that he didn't understand why they (Baptists, referring to my mama) have to elect your ministers." She said her mama just kept kneading the biscuit dough and without looking at daddy said, "That way we don't have to take just anyone they choose to send us like you Methodists."
Her father wanted to be a lawyer but didn't have the money to attend school. "Believe it or not, at that time there was a shortage of lawyers," she said with a laugh. To help alleviate the shortage, the government instituted a program where a person could attain a law degree in one year. Robert Clement borrowed $1,000 and moved his family to Lebanon where he enrolled at Cumberland Law School. After receiving his degree they moved back to Dickson where he opened a small law office. The family still had limited finances, so he asked Anna Belle to be his secretary on Saturdays. At that time, women didn't have many options when it came to a job, so her father stressed the importance of learning typing and shorthand. The family had no choice but to be frugal and still managed to have the things they really needed in life.
When Anna Belle was a freshman, her brother Frank was a senior. He told her, "I'm going to graduate and will most certainly have to go into service for awhile (during World War II). When I come home, I want to attend college, but I don't know how much Mom and Dad can afford. It could be 10 or 12 years before I finish my schooling, but whatever you are doing at that time I want you to work for me. I want to be governor." In Dickson, students were taught how to stand up in front of a class and speak. This was especially important since a scholarship in speech was about all that was available. Anna Belle received a scholarship to McMurray College in Abilene, TX. She had never been out of state, so everything was new to her. McMurray had a fine speech department and it was chosen by the government to help entertain soldiers. This, too, was quite an experience. She became a member of the show "Stars Over Texas." There was no time for dress rehearsals so they "winged it." The girls wore cowgirl costumes — boots, skirts, vests and shirts. Anna Belle had never worn boots before and didn't know she was supposed to put on hose to wear the boots. As she struggled with her costume the words of their instructor were on her mind, "It doesn't matter what happens — if your underclothes break, whatever, the show must go on." He announced to the audience of soldiers that one of the performers, a young lady from Tennessee, had trouble trying to put on her boots. "She did the best she could, but you know how it is — they don't wear shoes in Tennessee." He then asked "Miss Clement" to come to the front of the stage. She said the audience had a good laugh. Later he told her if she couldn't learn to put on her costume they wouldn't need her services anymore. That was serious, because it might have meant the loss of her scholarship.
Upon completing a year of college, Anna Belle returned to Tennessee where she worked as a clerk typist with the state rationing board, the Tennessee office of the OPA (Office of Price Administration). It was located in the Stahlman Building at the corner of Third Avenue North and Union Street. In her job, she learned all 95 counties as well as several people in each. This was yet another step in preparing her to help her brother Frank in the years to come. She lost her job when the war ended. Her supervisor recommended her to Capital Chevrolet Company in Nashville as a good secretary. When she interviewed with the two men who owned the dealership, they told her the job entailed operating the switchboard, billing out vehicles and helping their wives when needed. She was surprised when they asked about her personal life. They explained that when they trained women for jobs, they would either marry a soldier and leave or would get pregnant. Being straightforward has always been one her traits so she told them, "I need the job; I don't mind being corrected and I don't mind working on weekends. As for the things you mentioned, running off with a soldier or getting pregnant, I haven't had an offer in either field." Further, she told them about her brother Frank being in college and how, when he finished, she had promised to help him when he ran for governor. She got the job. It paid $120 a month and they let her work in Frank's campaign. She feels it was meant for her to work in public service.
Our visit was much like reading a fascinating novel, one you don't want to put down, anticipating the next event. I also learned that events in Anna Belle's life have occurred in an orderly manner. For example, in 1964 she attended a luncheon for the legislature at the Hermitage Hotel hosted by the Tennessee Association of Business. There she met State Senator Charles O'Brien, a widower from Memphis, in Shelby County. A group from Shelby County was having a reception the next Tuesday and he asked if she would like to go as his escort. He said he would pick her up at 3:30 p.m.
The next morning she was in her office bright and early. At 7:15 a.m. her secretary came in and said, "Senator O'Brien is here to see you. You must have made quite an impression on him last night."
He came in, shut the door and said, "I invited you to go the Shelby County reception, but I've been thinking about that. With my vote on lieutenant governor and your brother being governor, well, I think it would be embarrassing." That's what Charles said, but Anna Belle thought he had a cute young thing lined up and wanted out of the date.
In classic Anna Belle fashion she told him, "Senator, you don't know me well, but when information is spread about me that is not true, it doesn't worry me. I did not know you at that time and had nothing to do with your vote. Therefore, I will expect you next Tuesday at 3:30 p.m." And that was the beginning of a beautiful romance. When he proposed in 1966, it was a particularly busy time for Anna Belle, so he made all the arrangements, even what she would wear. They were married on Nov. 9, at the Union Avenue Baptist Church in Memphis.
One day in the early '60s, Anna Belle, while serving as receptionist in the governor's office, saw a senator with a beautiful tan and commented that he must have been to Florida. To her surprise, he said it was not Florida but Lake Tansi. He told her about the nice cabins, reasonable rates and beautiful scenery. So about eight single girls began vacationing at Lake Tansi. It was the third year of the development by Cosby Harrison and they were practically giving away lots since not many had been sold. She bought a lot and built a small cabin. Her daddy came up with her and remarked, "You have always saved your money and wanted to build a little house like this, and if it suits you, fine, but you couldn't give it to me." She guesses the gravel road down to the lot didn't help matters. Three other girl friends bought lots close by. After Anna Belle and Charles married, they moved to Lake Tansi Village in 1967 and enlarged the cabin. She was thrilled because she never expected to be able to move to Tansi, a place she dearly loved. Charles opened a little law office in Crossville. They joined the Homestead Baptist Church. She couldn't sit around and do nothing, so she joined the Chamber of Commerce, the Democrat women and the Mental Health Association (included Hilltopper's and Kids, Inc.). After seven years, Charles said everywhere he went parents of kids wanted Anna Belle to run for public office. She said she wanted their marriage to work. Charles said it was part of her life — she believed in helping kids and he thought she ought to consider it. He realized she would be gone a lot and he might regret it, but he thought she should run. Then he told her, "Your biggest problem is being a woman. They have never had a woman from up here in the state legislature. You will just have to work hard; be a good loser if you lose; don't let it affect you." She didn't lose. She was elected to serve a two-year term in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Later, when she ran for the senate, she had a sign made for the top of her car, "About our district she will tell, Let's elect Miss Anna Belle." One day on the campaign trail she heard some men talking, "Hear Mrs. O'Brien is a nice lady, but we don't need a woman senator." They didn't have any idea she would campaign in garages, beer joints, pool halls, etc. She worked hard and they misjudged how hard she would work. She says she was never negative but dwelled on the positive.
In 1970, Charles was encouraged to run for the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. The opening was for the Eastern Division, but it was a statewide race. "It was a very dull race," Anna Belle commented. "A judicial candidate can't promise a thing."
She recounted an interesting story that came out of the race. They were campaigning in a big city and went to the courthouse. There they found cards for all candidates — except Charles. After looking around he found his cards — in a wastebasket. Despite this minor setback, Charles won the Eastern Division seat.
When the entire court, consisting of eight or nine members, met, it was in Jackson for the Western Division, Nashville for the Middle Division and Knoxville for the Eastern Division. Anna Belle remembers this interesting story associated with one meeting. Charles had been on the court for only a short while when a friend in Jackson invited the entire court and their families to a reception honoring Charles. After the reception, a judge from East Tennessee went home and told his wife he believed he would like the O'Briens. He told her a friend of the O'Briens had the reception in her home and he had such a good time. "How nice it was to use the O'Briens' anniversary as the reason to have a dinner and invite the whole court," he said. His wife, however, didn't seem too interested, according to Anna Belle. This prompted the man to ask, "Did you hear what I said?" The wife said, curtly, "Yes, I heard what you said. It was your anniversary, too." Anna Belle says more than likely he never forgot it again.
After winning the Eastern Division seat in 1970, Charles served for 17 years. In 1987 he was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court and was later named chief justice.
As you have read, Anna Belle has lots of humorous accounts from her storied life. She says this story is one she will never forget. "There is never a dull moment working in the governor's office. As receptionist, I dealt with all types of situations. One of the busiest times is the day of highway bid letting and it always comes on a Friday. All those associated with the process come to Nashville on the Monday preceding and stay all week. This involves paving, gravel and road contractors. The governor is directly involved and always arrives early along with the office staff. On this particular Friday morning, a man called, obviously upset. He said he was Mr. X‚ and he wanted to speak to Anna Belle." He told her he didn't know her and she didn't know him, but he was a big road contractor from West Tennessee. He said he had a real problem and he understood that she could do anything and he wanted her to listen to his problem. "I jumped at conclusions in thinking that he was mad at the highway commissioner and the governor." Anna Belle told him she had to see the next delegation and would get right back to him. When she did, he started again. "Lady, this is my problem. I have been married to the same woman for 37 years. She knows when I come up for bid letting I bring five people with me. She knows we work hard day and night in order to have the bid ready by Thursday afternoon. My wife knows when we go out to eat Thursday night there will be drinking and some women will go along. I did some of both last night, and lost my (false) teeth." Anna Belle said she broke up. After composing herself, she said, "And what is it you want me to do about it?" His answer was, "I hear you can do anything." To this Anna Belle replied, "In order to help you, tell me where you went and who you were with. I know a man who is retired from law enforcement and based on his experience, he will know where to look." The man must have thought she had left the phone because she heard him say, "Oh hell. I didn't know we would get into this!" Then he replied, "We went to the Alley (Printer's Alley, a notoriously popular area of bars and strip clubs in downtown Nashville) and drank heavily. I don't remember much that happened." Anna Belle told him to call back at noon and if she could find the man and if he could go look for the teeth, she hoped he would have good luck. "Well, it only took 15 minutes to find the man's teeth. They were on a shelf above a sink in the men's room at the Black Poodle." Accordingly, the man came to her office and retrieved his teeth. As he left the room still full of delegations he said loudly, "Miss Anna Belle, if you ever need my help for anything, just let me know." (I guess you can say he put the bite on the governor's office.)
As mentioned early in the article, I chose to focus on events in Anna Belle's life that were "out of the limelight," so to speak. But her very fulfilling career in state government can't be ignored since it played such a large part in her life. She was known to work with legislators on both sides of the aisle. She summed it all up very well by saying, "Politics is a beautiful word to me. It's the people you meet — down-to-earth, good people."
Anna Belle lost her beloved husband Charles in January. She said he wasn't reared in a church atmosphere, so she was pleased that he became involved in church work with her. In fact, he was the one who chose Homestead Baptist as the church they would join after moving to Lake Tansi. One of her saddest experiences related to a church was when she had to stand up in front of the congregation and tell them they were leaving. She loved the church but had prayed for over 20 years that there would someday be a church in Tansi. When the Community Church was established, they moved their membership. At one time Charles filled in as choir director. His service was held at the church.
In closing the interview she remarked, "I love this area we moved to over 40 years ago. No thought was given by either of us to run for public office before we moved here. It wasn't planned this way, but it has been a most exciting life. I am grateful to the people in this community for allowing me to serve for all those years."
As for me, I am grateful for the opportunity to have had such a wonderful visit with such a lovely lady. During my stay she received several phone calls, our good friend Bob Mitchell delivered a prescription and a friend and her daughter stopped by to say "Hi." As the two women were leaving, Anna Belle showed them one of her favorite toys — an AFLAC duck. She squeezed it several times and we heard different cries of "AFLAC, AFLAC, AFLAC." The duck was a gift from a friend. After that I made several pictures of her then packed my laptop and digital camera and went home to begin writing my article.
By the way, did I say her favorite commercial is. . . AFLAC?