HomeNewsHensley’s influence, impact too great to measure in Nashville, pageants

Hensley’s influence, impact too great to measure in Nashville, pageants

When Tom Hensley died on Jan. 29 at the age of 80, Jackson, Madison County and West Tennessee lost a friend and advocate, said those who knew Hensley.

“He was a larger-than-life type of guy that wasn’t shy about challenging anything he had questions about but was a great supporter of our work here,” said Lori Nunnery, the director of Visit Jackson TN, on whose board Hensley was a part for decades until the last few months. “His experience as a lobbyist and his connections in Nashville and across the state made him someone that had the ability to make positive things happen for our area – and he did that probably more than a lot of people realize.”

Hensley was born in Jackson and grew up in the area before working as a lobbyist for a career that spanned six decades.

He was best known for his work for Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee but lobbied for a number of other entities in Nashville.

Another entity he was known for working with was the Miss Tennessee Pageant. He was involved in it from the first time it came to Jackson in 1954, was the executive director from 1968-81 and stayed involved with it until recent years as the state group lost its license with the Miss America Organization and started a separate organization that’s become Miss Volunteer America, which began with the Miss Tennessee Volunteer pageant in 2019.

“He did everything behind the scenes with the pageant except producer,” said Allison Demarcus, director of Miss Volunteer America who’s known Hensley nearly all her life from being friends with his daughters growing up and being involved with the pageant since she won Miss Tennessee in 1999.

Even though Nunnery and Demarcus worked with Hensley in different capacities, they had similar experiences working with him.

“He could be intimidating, especially if you didn’t know him that well,” Demarcus said. “But once he got to know you and you knew him, he was someone you could depend on.”

Hensley was known in Nashville and in pageant circles for his trademark look that included a three-piece suit, fedora hat and cigar. As he got older, a cane became a part of his look.

“It was as if he was in charge of any room he walked into,” Demarcus said. “And when it comes to the pageant, he pretty much was.

“Mr. [Jimmy] Exum, and my mom [Jane Alderson] and I had our roles as director, but nothing happened with the pageant without it passing through Mr. Tom’s fingers first and him having a say about it because he was so knowledgeable and had a good sense for things that maybe we were doing for the first time or was trying a different way with something.”

His knowledge was a big help for Nunnery.

“He knew a lot about a lot of different subjects,” Nunnery said. “There would be times that I’d be upset about maybe a change the state had made that affected us in Jackson negatively, and I’d mention it to him looking for options of action to take to make a change.

“And there were times he’d stop me and make me think that maybe what was happening with us might not be what I would feel was best for us here in Jackson, but he could make it make sense so that I could at least see reasoning if I still disagreed. But he had that kind of knowledge about things to help you understand things from other perspectives besides your own.”

Demarcus said she plans to do something this summer at the Miss Volunteer America Pageant in June and Miss Tennessee Volunteer Pageant in July to honor Hensley’s legacy with the pageant in Tennessee.

“He and Mr. Exum worked with the pageant for nearly seven decades, and their impact on it can’t be denied,” Demarcus said. “We’ll figure out over the next few months what we want to do, but we’re definitely honoring his legacy.” Brandon Shields, brandon@jacksonpost.news

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