Here are remarks made by Jim Conn, son of Diana Conn, when he accepted the Neighbor of the Year award at The Neighborhood Conference on March 23, 2013, at the Knoxville Convention Center.
On behalf of the entire Conn family, I am very proud and honored to accept this award on behalf of our mother, Diana Conn. My only regret is that my mom isn't here to receive it herself. I would like to say a few words about her, if that's all right.
My mom moved to Knoxville in 1981, just as World's Fair Mania was taking hold. It used to make Mom crazy when she was driving down a street and the name of the street would change without notice. Neyland would suddenly become Concord, or Henley would change its name to Broadway as Western was changing to Summit Hill, and she would be lost. But she eventually found her way in the "Scruffy Little City" and made a home here. She truly loved Knoxville and all its oddities.
She bought a little house in what is now known as the Old Sevier neighborhood. It was a VA foreclosure and had a lot of interesting quirks, one of which was that almost all the light switches were behind the door as you opened it into a room, so that you had to walk in and reach around behind the door to turn the lights on. Mom swore the person who renovated the place must have been on drugs.
But she loved that house and doted on it like a scrawny child, painting, re-plumbing, and renovating where and when she could. The house never did get finished. It was, like Knoxville, a work in progress. She paid particular attention to the outdoor spaces, creating a lovely flower/vegetable garden, and encouraging a small patch of woods to grow on part of her large lot. (She was so proud when she received a sign from the National Wildlife Federation, certifying her property as an official wildlife habitat. The sign is prominently displayed in her yard.).
She did all this with little or no money, largely using materials that were already there or from salvage. My mom believed that most things could be accomplished with creativity, determination, and hard work. She was never one to let lack of funding slow her down. Back in 1999, she decided she wanted a metal roof for her house. Installation was the expensive part of the project, so she measured for and bought the materials, and enlisted my help for the install. At that time, she was 64 years old, and there she was, clambering around on the roof in a pair of Chuck Taylor Converse like a forty-year-old.
When my mom was determined to do something, the best thing to do was either help, or get out of the way.
Mom was good neighbor - I might even say a great neighbor.
Most people, myself included, have a wary truce with their neighbors, offering the occasional nod or wave in exchange for an uneasy peace. But for Mom, being neighbors meant more than that. She got to know her neighbors, and was actually concerned about them, and the neighborhood. She believed everyone was part of the neighborhood - owners, renters, right on down to the homeless couple living in a tent up the street. Whereas most people would have considered them, at best, a nuisance, Mom was mainly worried about their safety. That was, to me, the greatest thing about my mom: she truly empathized with people, and wanted to help them.
This wasn't something she aspired to - she lived it. All people, no matter their station in life were, to her, deserving of respect and compassion, and frankly, interesting to talk to. She really enjoyed people and found them fascinating. She could, and did, talk to anyone about anything.
I think my mom would have been honored to receive this award, although she did not seek the spotlight. She did the right thing, not for recognition, but because it was the right thing. And that, really, is what made her such a good neighbor.