Ten Governors, One Jerry Adams

Our friend Bill Bradley has sent word this weekend that Jerry Adams has died.

This is a profound loss, not only to Jerry’s family and his many friends and colleagues, but to uncountable thousands who served in Tennessee state government over ten administrations that relied on his vast institutional memory.

For more than 50 years, Jerry worked on state government budgets and served for most of that time as the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Finance & Administration. Governors and Cabinets change, as do members and leaders of the General Assembly, but Jerry did not change. He was a rock.

Year in and year out, Jerry knew the state budgets inside and out, knew the agencies and their managers, and understood the big picture, too. That is always complicated work – some years moreso than others depending on the shifting winds of politics at the Capitol – but Jerry was always the unflappable, calm, professional near the center of any storm. From 1962 until his retirement, in 2008, Jerry had 46 years of active service. Then he worked part-time in the Budget Office for another eleven years, applying his knowledge and memory to revenue estimates, budget overviews, bond finance and debt issues, and the drafting of new legislation. All tolled, he was a central figure in state administration for 57 years.

As Deputy Commissioner, he was the foremost example to me of stability in state government. This was true in many departments, where the Deputy Commissioner is like a chief operating officer. They are the non-political professionals who are almost never in the news but provide the essential element of continuity as administrations change. New governors will often appoint political friends they know to the top jobs as Commissioners. The Commissioner then is typically the public face of the department, with the Deputy less visible but always helping smooth the periodic transitions from one administration to the next. These largely unseen leaders provide the necessary institutional knowledge to keep the agency rolling forward.

Over parts of six decades of Jerry Adam’s long career, there were many storms, and behind the scenes Jerry helped to navigate most of them. He worked in the central budget office during the terms of ten different governors: Frank Clement, Buford Ellington, Winfield Dunn, Ray Blanton, Lamar Alexander, Ned McWherter, Don Sundquist, Phil Bredesen, Bill Haslam, and Bill Lee. In 1974, during the last few months of Dunn’s term, Jerry also served as Commissioner (the top official) over the F&A department. 

It was my good fortune to know Jerry Adams and to work with him as a colleague from 1979 to the middle of 1986, and as a friend for long after that. If you’re a Tennessean, it was your good fortune too that he was on the job whether you knew Jerry or not.

From time to time, maybe only once a decade, you read of some low official who seems intent on giving state government a bad name. (It was the legislature’s turn in the footlights this year.) But that rare bad actor is only a tiny fraction of all the conscientious men and women who have served.

Jerry Adams was an exemplar, a professional, and a role model for all the rest. He gave government and its bureaucracy their good name.