Former Sullivan County Commissioner Dennis Houser dies

J. H. Osborne • Jul 10, 2019 at 9:13 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — It is certain Dennis Houser’s name will live on. There already are at least two sites named for him within the Blountville Historic District. But Houser wouldn’t be forgotten even without those honors. His determination, community spirit, art of persuasion, ability to help opposing sides find common ground, and humble attitude over years of public service are embedded in the hearts and minds of just about anyone who crossed his path — whether it was through his career as an educator and administrator with Sullivan County Schools, his many terms as a Sullivan County commissioner, his work in historic preservation, or his involvement in other community activities such a coaching.

All those things, Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said Tuesday, especially Houser’s longtime commitment to restoration, preservation and promotion of the Blountville Historic District inspired many to refer to him as “the mayor of Blountville.” That’s a purely honorary title.

Venable is scheduled to deliver Houser’s eulogy Wednesday evening. Houser, 74, died Sunday.

Houser’s family will receive friends from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Blountville Christian Church, where he was a deacon and an elder and longtime member. He also taught the Willing Workers Sunday School Class for over 30 years.

He was a helicopter mechanic while serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era and worked as an educator in the Sullivan County Schools system for 27 years — including serving as principal of Lynn View Middle School. Houser served as a member of the Sullivan County Commission for 20 years, beginning in 1998. He chose not to seek re-election to what would have been a sixth four-year term last August. An avid farmer, Houser was instrumental in the construction of a permanent, covered facility for the Blountville Farmers Market.

Last year local and state officials gathered to dedicate The Park at the Deery Inn in Houser’s honor. The park is planned as a featured element to ongoing development of the historic district. At the dedication ceremony, as others heaped praise on him and his accomplishments, Houser attempted to deflect attention away from himself and direct it to one of his favorite topics: historic Blountville.

“This is the start of something important,” Houser said of the park and other plans.

Houser is a former president of the Sullivan County Historical Preservation Association. Among those who sang his praises at the park dedication were Venable, state Rep. Timothy Hill, state Rep. John Crawford and SCHPA member Pam Hebert. CanJoe John performed a musical tribute. And the Rev. Dwight Shaffer of Blountville Christian Church offered a prayer of dedication.

Each of those who spoke touched on Houser’s unwavering passion for preserving the Deery Inn and Blountville’s overall history. All cited him as having inspired them in their own efforts to serve the community. Hebert made a point to stress that the plans to honor Houser by dedicating the park, a part of his vision for the Derry Inn property, well pre-dated his cancer diagnosis.

Some of their comments are summarized below, as well as Houser’s own reaction to the surprise (he knew there was a sign, but not that the park was to be dedicated in his honor).

• “I look on his passion, his fervor, for this area right here as inspiration for me for what I was supposed to be doing, which was fighting at the state level,” Hill said of his early encounters with Houser after Hill was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly. “More than anything he loves the community. As a lawmaker coming on, this was very instructive. He has given so much. This gentleman has given of his time, his energy, his money and his resources. Not because he wanted anything in return, but just to make the community better. He loves us. And I can say by your presence here today, we love him, too. He is a shining example of what you are supposed to be when you are in office.”

• Crawford said Houser’s picture should be in the dictionary as the definition of “Southern gentleman.” Crawford said when he was first elected to the Sullivan County Commission, Houser gave him guidance. “I’d never have gotten to where I am today without him, without his leadership, without his inspiration,” Crawford said.

• Venable recalled the very first vote by the county commission after he was first elected mayor. It was about the Deery Inn. And sponsored by Houser. It was considered controversial at the time. Venable asked Houser to defer it, please. Houser said no, he’d bring it to a vote — and he did. And it was a tie, throwing the deciding vote to Venable as commission chairman. Venable voted no. “And he forgave me,” Venable said.

• Houser confirmed that account, but added what he most remembered from that day is that later he had apologized to Venable for perhaps being too aggressive in pushing for the vote. “He told me, ‘Don’t ever apologize for a passion,’ ” Houser said. “I wish I could be half the man these gentlemen have talked about.”

Houser said he was humbled and “not deserving” of the honor because it was a group effort he has been a part of all these years, but he was “grateful and appreciative” for it.

As for battling cancer, Houser said “My faith has never wavered.”

Houser said the Park at the Deery Inn is another step in continued improvement to the historic district, noting the nearly completed visitors center in the old sheriff’s home and progressing plans for the Blountville Military Park.

“Blountville can become a showplace,” Houser said.

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