Keith Wilson was born with an enthusiasm for trails. As a young boy, he dreamed of the happy trails of cowboy life. As a young man, he walked the fields around his Indiana home following spaniels in search of game birds.
The trail Wilson chose to tread in life brought him to settle in the Tri-Cities, a fortunate move both for Wilson and the region.
It's often been said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and Keith Wilson's first steps on life's trail were taken in the home of Cargil and Wilma Wilson in Princeton, Indiana. Cargil was a production director at Potter Brumfield, and Wilma was a housewife.
Already in the home when Keith arrived was older brother Gary. Another brother, Dale, would follow, along with sister Janet.
Keith wasn't one of those kids who always wanted to be in the newspaper business. His early jobs tended to get his hands dirty with anything but newsprint. He repaired roofs and painted for the local school system. He even worked on a brake press, bending metal for the sides of boxcars.
His early job on the brake press gave Keith a first-hand look at the labor movement. "This was a union shop," Wilson remembers. "I had to join or quit. So, I joined the Teamsters Union."
This was a summer job and leaving the union was not as easy as Keith thought. "When it was time to return to college, I went to get a withdrawal card." If a teamster returned to another union shop without the withdrawal card, they owed the Teamsters all their back dues. "They wanted to charge me $25 for this card. I was only making two dollars an hour."
"I looked up on the wall and there was this huge picture of Jimmy Hoffa. I just couldn't bring myself to lay down $25 for Jimmy Hoffa's defense fund, so I turned around and walked out." Thus, to this day, Keith Wilson can honestly say, "I'm a Teamster."
Wilson attended Indiana University and majored in political science with plans on pursuing a career in law. Then he found out that he really didn't like school. "I really enjoyed learning what I wanted to learn, but school itself wasn't something I thought was terrific fun."
Through a twist of fate, he ended up being the general manager of the IU student newspaper. His first job at the paper was meant for a work-study student who didn't show up for the job. Wilson just happened to be there on the right day, at the right time.
Following the stint at IU, Keith continued the newspaper trail, working next for The Daily Journal in Franklin, Indiana, and then the Tribune-Star in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Shortly after arriving in Terre Haute, Wilson learned the staff only needed to step outside for the news. "Terre Haute was headquarters of the CIO, later known as the AFL-CIO, and the most unionized city in the United States."
At the newspaper alone, there were six unions, with all but one on strike. Still Keith thought as circulation manager his job dealing with unions wouldn't be that hard. He soon learned how wrong he was.
"During the strike, the company hired replacement workers. When the strike was settled, the newspaper was required to bring the striking employees back into the plant. "In the newspaper's infinite wisdom, they decided to keep all the replacement workers too. My job was then to make an integrated staff out of two groups of people who literally had been shooting at each other."
After four years in Terre Haute, Keith was eager to leave. "I told them I wanted to go somewhere sane." The next step took him to Owensboro, Kentucky, a town that Wilson did not find particularly appealing. It soon dawned on him that there is a newspaper in every town, and he made the decision to find a place to work where he wanted to live.
His family had vacationed in Gatlinburg, and he knew that wherever he moved that he wanted to be able to fish and hunt. He then started looking for work opportunities around the Southern Appalachian Mountains. In 1986, he arrived in Kingsport as the advertising director for the Kingsport Times-News.
On the first day of his new job, Keith found one item on his desk—an application for Leadership Kingsport. Next he was invited to join the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce, where he met his future wife, Pam Cox, who was communications director for the chamber. Keith would later serve as Leadership Kingsport chair, FunFest chair and on the Board of Directors for Kingsport Tomorrow.
Wilson was named publisher of the Kingsport Times-News in 1993, when his predecessor, David Rau was named chairman of the board of Sandusky Newspapers, the newspaper's parent company.
While on the Kingsport Tomorrow Board, he and Pam worked together on several community projects. "Pam always impressed me. She was project-oriented and delivered a good product, on-time."
Pam initially spurned Keith's pursuit. "She later told me that she thought I was just a stuff-shirt with whom she would have nothing in common." Wilson's saving grace when Cox finally relented was the fact he was playing a tape of Lynyrd Skynyrd in his car. They left work one day at lunch, went to First Presbyterian Church, got married, and went back to separate homes. One month later, they moved the families in together. "It was very romantic," Keith jokes.
They have three children together, Carolyn and Doug Wilson and Jessica Cox.
After becoming publisher, Wilson set about to do good works with the desire to create a stronger market for his own business. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out you can't pick up a newspaper company and move it to another location. You either succeed here or you fail," he says.
His first community project led him down the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail. Always interested in history, Keith learned that the famous trail started in Kingsport. He was eager to take his son for a hike or bike ride on the trail. He soon determined no one knew where the trail started nor where it went.
With the help of Mary Steadman, Wilson formed a group of individuals interested in re-blazing the original trail. In 1995, they formed the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association. The association remarked the trail from the Netherland Inn to the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky.
Once that was in place, historical tourism groups started fund-raising and the association started back-filling points of interest along the trail. A replica of the John Anderson Block House was built at Natural Tunnel State Park, a restored fort was built in Lee County, and a five million dollar grant will build a Daniel Boone Visitors' Center in Duffield.
Keith's interest in the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail led he and Pam to purchase a small farm along the Clinch River in Scott County, Virginia. The Clinch River has the world's largest living legacy of fresh water mussels. They asked a representative of the Nature Conservancy to survey the portion of the river that abuts their property.
The survey was performed and Keith was told "some of these mussels are probably extinct, but just don't know it yet." After hearing the news, Keith had a Proustian moment.
"I thought this reminds me of Kingsport. We don't have any young people. They're all leaving—going away to college and never returning. There's no opportunity for higher education in Kingsport. If we are going to retain our youth, we must provide the right conditions for them to stay."
Around the same time, then-Mayor Jeanette Blazier convened an economic summit. From Wilson's mussel-born education inspiration and Blazier's summit-identified priorities, the Kingsport Academic Village concept was born.
First was Educate and Grow, a scholarship program that provided two years of free college at Northeast State to any qualifying Sullivan County high school graduate. Next was the Regional Center for Applied Technology, with a wing later being named after Wilson and Blazier.
Keith then set about putting the social and financial capital in place to make the village a reality. Today, you will find downtown Kingsport is home to the Regional Center for Health Professionals, the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing and the Kingsport Center for Higher Education. Last September, Kingsport won the coveted Innovations in American Government Award from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
So what does Keith Wilson do when he's not rebuilding the region's economy, pushing the print media into the next generation by creating an IPhone app for gotricities, and improving the workforce of tomorrow?
He's a dirt farmer.
"The farm is my retreat. It's where I go when I'm not doing what I do." Two years ago, Wilson and Mayor Dennis Phillips burned down the original farmhouse on the Clinch, while the Scott County Volunteer Fire Department stood alongside the road and watched and ate Pal's sausage biscuits. Keith and Pam rebuilt a new house—a place for family and friends to gather. Last July 4th, the entire family built a tree house for young and old kids alike.
"I still love to spend time outdoors. I just planted six apple trees, three blueberry bushes and two grape vines at the farm. I'm growing my own food."
At 60, Keith doesn't think about slowing down or retiring. He's content with his life and looks forward to traversing many happy trails with his grandchildren, nephews, and Pam.