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VIProfile: Ernest Burgess




By Lee Rennick

In this age of youth obsession, former County Mayor Ernest Burgess is not afraid to tell you his age. He is eighty, although he doesn’t look it. He has a quiet demeanor, but you know that he doesn’t miss much. He has done a lot and seen a lot. While proud of what he has accomplished over the years, he is quick to say that it is all thanks to the excellent teamwork by those with whom he has had the privilege of working. And he has never been afraid of hard work.

“In my family, we didn’t know anything but hard work,” said Burgess, “[It] was necessary for a good life.”

Burgess’ first job was when he was in eighth grade. He worked on his uncle’s farm sacking grain as it came off the combine for two dollars a day. “Then, need was the incentive for hard work and effort,” said Burgess. “We didn’t have a lot, but we were able to thrive.”

In high school, he started working in construction as a general laborer. He dug foundations without the ‘fancy equipment’ we have today, namely back hoes. Burgess had to use a shovel and a pick axe. Then he went on to framing. He and three others would frame two and a half small houses per week. On the weekends, he’d do the trim, windows and doors. He did this to pay his way through college.

He admits that he has a hard time with the lack of a work ethic today. Farm work and construction work built his character. Few are willing to work as hard as he did both as a kid and an adult. He always had more than one job. His goal always being to provide a good life for his family. He is most proud of the life he created with his wife, Peggy, his three children, grandchildren and great-grandchild.

His first real job was for Arnold Engineering. He became a programmer there, creating the code that interfaced the rockets to the computers before others knew much about computers. He and the fellows he worked with learned together. He also ran a small business tied to the construction industry on the side with a family friend.

After a stint at Genesco as a programmer, Andy Adams asked him to come on at NHC. He found the work building a small healthcare company into the best of its kind in the country the most fulfilling of his life. At NHC, Burgess was able to employ his skills in building and computers while working with a bunch of talented and smart people to create their independent and assisted living facilities. He also invested in land on his own and created a few developments.

It was not until after he left NHC that he got involved in politics. Several people in the county asked him to consider running for County Mayor after Nancy Allen retired, as he had long been interested in the process. He is happy with what they were able to do during his tenure thanks to everyone – department heads, commissioners and employees – working together for the betterment of the community.

Rutherford County has one of the best school systems in the state and the country. They were able to build a much-needed state of the art judicial building. And he was excited to see the work of Judge Don Ash in creating Drug Court and then the creation of DUI Court, Mental Health Court and Veteran’s Court by others. He is happy to see more diverse ways to help non-violent offenders get on track.

Getting philosophical, Burgess says he is worried about the changes in our culture. Specifically, the changes in what is seen as life goals, values, appreciation of education, how we treat others and in our sense of responsibility. As the philosopher Aristotle said in the quote, this elder statement believes that strong moral character makes a country strong. Loss of that virtue makes us weak.

Leadership requires a strong foundation, Burgess feels. “In every decision, take careful measure of how it effects or benefits every person involved. And be more informed than those you are presenting to. Be on top of things. Work to use your own talents and develop those of others for the betterment of all.” That is true success.

One of Burgess’ favorite quotes states, “No matter how educated, talented, rich or cool you believe you are, how you treat people ultimately tells all.” Most of all, be humble. 

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