Every parent wants to instill important values in their child. For Ken Burnett’s mother and father, that meant two things.
“My parents instilled in me the value of hard work and honesty, a lesson that has stuck with me and been a guidance for many years through all kinds of circumstances,” Burnett said about his late parents, Herman and Fannie.
The Crossville native embraced those values early on in his life, even though it seemed he did not have much of a choice. Born during the Great Depression in 1927 to a farmer/state employee and a housewife, Burnett spent his early childhood living in an era of hard times.
“We were poor, but I didn’t know it at the time because everyone else was, too,” he said. “I delivered papers, sold rosebud salve, anything to make just one nickel.”
Burnett started out delivering issues of the Knoxville Journal for two cents a copy. At the time, he had 20 customers to deliver to every morning before he went to school at Dorton Elementary, a two-room schoolhouse that once stood on Chestnut Hill Rd. There he received more than an education, Burnett noted.
“I went to school and did the janitorial work… I would sweep the rooms and build fires,” he said. “The teachers had to pay for it, and the students had to do the work. They had no formal janitorial service back then in those days.”
He continued, “Of course, there was no money back in those days. So anything that could be cleaned for 25 cents was a big amount of money.”
During this time, Burnett found himself working every available hour and taking on new tasks such as delivering laundry and working as an apprentice to a master plumber and electrician.
After graduating from Cumberland County High School in 1945, Burnett immediately entered the Navy.
“I was in the Naval Reserve and was called to active duty at the end of World War II,” he said. “It would have been time for me to go soon anyhow. So I volunteered.”
Burnett became a Shipfitter 2nd Class and began serving aboard a destroyer escort dubbed USS William C. Cole. As a shipfitter, Burnett was “in charge of damage control,” helping to repair holes in the side of the ship caused by enemy attacks as it sailed across the Pacific Ocean. According to Burnett, the Cole’s main objective was to patrol the Yangtze River in inner China.
“It was a great experience as I look back on it,” he said. “I would very much like to go back to China for the culture and study it today. I wasn’t that interested in it back in those days.”
Later on, Burnett and the Cole’s crew headed to Busan, South Korea, to help train Korean naval personnel on how to operate ships furnished to them by the United States. Once the training was complete, Burnett was released from active duty and returned home.
Once back in Crossville, he established a plumbing and electrical business. This lasted until the Korean War began. Thirty days before his Reserve enlistment was set to expire in 1951, Burnett received orders to report for active duty again. This time, Burnett served abroad the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-la CV-38. He stayed there until the war was over and he was discharged from the Navy.
While abroad the aircraft carrier, Burnett befriended the ship’s legal officer, Jim Cope, who was president of a small Midwestern manufacturing company. The encounter unexpectedly changed Burnett’s life.
“He always told me he wanted me to come work for him when I got out… About a year after I got out, I got a telephone call. He was in Chattanooga and wanted to come up and visit with me and talk about the job. At the time, I was working for TVA at the Kingston Steam Plant. We talked about the job and he made me an offer and I wanted to get out of the construction business anyhow so I went to work for him and spent the next 30 years there,” he explained.
Burnett helped Cope develop the company from a small construction equipment manufacturer to an international powerhouse known as the Morgan Manufacturing Company.
“I worked in sales first as district manager for the southeastern part of the USA then to the northeast and on to Canada to establish our products in the Toronto, Montreal and Quebec areas,” he said. “When a territory was established I would turn it over to a district manager to service and move on to another."
In 1959, Burnett became a licensed pilot and began flying his own plane to many of the places he visited for work. This was a dream come true, Burnett stated.
“I’ve always enjoyed flying,” he said. “I can remember when I was little and I would have an opportunity to go to the airport out here, I would go every opportunity just to be near a plane, just to touch one. The magic of flying was very great to me.”
Though he continued to work in sales during his time at the company, he spent 10 years of his tenure as vice president of Morgan Manufacturing. He retired from that post in 1984 and returned to Crossville to start building another life.
“I was 56 years old and too young to quit,” Burnett said.
He quickly became involved with Highland Federal Savings and Loan on Main St., serving on its board of directors for more than 25 years. He was also a member of the bank’s loan committee. At the same time, Burnett became interested in real estate and started buying and selling land and putting together rental properties, which he still does today. He also found time to serve on the board of directors at Cumberland Medical Center, represent the Crossville Airport Committee as chairman for which he received a Distinguished Service Award from the city and work with the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s been a privilege to serve on a board with fine people such as at Highland Federal and the hospital,” Burnett stated. “It has been a very satisfying experience… I’ve made somewhat a contribution to the community by doing that.”
Presently, Burnett is chairman of the Cumberland County Regional Planning Commission and has been an active member of the Crossville Noon Rotary Club for more than 25 years and the Alhambra Shriners Club in Chattanooga for the last 55 years. He is also a “full-fledged member” of the Mitchell Drug Store Liar’s Club, he noted.
“This life… has been a great trip,” Burnett said. “I’ve done a lot of things, and I’m still very active.”
Burnett is married to his high school sweetheart, Wilma, and has two children, Jeffrey Burnett and Jan Hixson, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.