Success of the 1982 World’s Fair was bipartisanship at its best


The 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville was America’s most successful, authorized international exposition since Chicago’s 1933 “Century of Progress.”

Facts: Knoxville’s World’s Fair had more participating nations (23) and higher attendance (11.4 million visitors) than the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, San Antonio’s 1968 HemisFair, Spokane’s 1974 fair or New Orleans’ 1984 fair. There have been no US expositions in 38 years.

Opinion: East Tennessee’s 184-day extravaganza could not have happened without the extraordinary level of support received from both Republicans and Democrats at every governmental level.

President Ronald Reagan speaks at the opening ceremony of the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville.

Full disclosure: My view may be biased as I was the president/CEO of the nonprofit corporation that organized and produced the event. I am proud to have been associated with the office-holders and business and labor leaders who stood together to answer the incredulous question: “You’re doing a what… where?”

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Bo Roberts

Local: When the idea was presented in 1975, ambitious Republican mayor Kyle Testerman accepted the challenge. He wisely appointed two banking/political leaders to lead the exploratory committee: Jake Butcher, owner of East Tennessee’s largest bank and a major Democratic player/fundraiser, and well-known Republican fundraiser/kingmaker Jim Haslam, who was also associated with East Tennessee’s second -biggest bank While the proposal was being evaluated, upstart Randy Tyree was elected Democrat in a tightly run-off. Tyree happily appropriated the fair’s leadership mantle. Without both of these mayors, the event would not have transpired.

Bo Roberts, president and CEO of the 1982 World's Fair, , chats with attendees at the “You Should Have Been There” exhibit at the Museum of East Tennessee History on March 18 celebrating the 40th anniversary of the fair.

State: With no love lost between Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton and the fair’s leadership, Blanton’s administration provided enough assistance to keep us alive. The governor’s race to determine scandal-plagued Blanton’s successor boiled down to Lamar Alexander, a young Republican from Maryville, or Butcher, the fair’s board chairman, who resigned that position for the race. Haslam took the role of chairman until Alexander won, and they switched roles seamlessly. Despite the complexities, Alexander demonstrated an exceptional leadership, working with the Democratic-controlled legislature. Without that support, there would not have been a fair.

AC Cusick with Capitol Roofing Co.  keeps his mind on his job and his secure footing as he paints the top of the Sunsphere, 266 feet above the site of the 1982 World's Fair.  The rubber roof of the sphere got two coats of gold paint to match the gold glass in the sphere.

National: The application for the fair was initiated under Republican President Gerald Ford and continued under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who invited the world to participate following the approval of Knoxville’s bid. Newly elected Republican President Ronald Reagan, with the urging of Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. and Knoxville Congressman John Duncan, endorsed the effort, and he personally opened the exposition on May 1, 1982.

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