Barbara McConnell

Barbara works at her desk as Secretary of Commerce.

  As a grammar school student at Livingston Elementary, I worked in the school lunchroom during the years I was in the fifth through the eighth grade. One of the jobs I had was drying plates as they were washed by hand by one of the lunchroom employees whose name was Mildred Wright. Back then, jobs like that were all done by hand. An automatic dishwasher would have been considered a luxury in the most extreme sense of the word.

I fondly remember Mrs. Wright as someone who was always especially nice to me. One of the special things she did for me was save the beaters from the large, industrial size mixer so I could have the icing off one before she washed them. I can still remember how good that icing tasted.


During the years I worked beside her, I knew she had three children, two of whom were older than I was: John Kelly and Barbara, and one who was younger, Joel Douglas. I remember seeing her daughter, Barbara, from time to time, but I was never personally acquainted with her while I was growing up. It was not until just the last five or six years that I’ve gotten to know Barbara, and only just recently learned what an outstanding political career she has had.

Mildred, whose maiden name was Willeford, grew up in the Bangham Community of Putnam County, and married Carson Wright, whose family lived in Hilham. Mr. Wright was in construction work, and it was under his direction and skilled craftsmanship that a great many of the courthouses, hospitals, post offices, government buildings, and TVA projects were built in Tennessee.

When the two older Wright children were very small, his work took them to live in Panama and in Cuba. John Kelly was enrolled in first grade and Barbara in kindergarten while they were living in Panama. Since their parents were not in the military, the Wright family lived in the Canal Zone, but children were allowed to attend an American school for American citizens. While in Cuba, Mr. Wright was working on a project at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and built the air base in Panama. They were on board a ship headed back to the United States on December 7, 1941 – the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. Their ship was ordered to turn around until it was determined to be safe to sail into Cuba. They were then able to obtain flights on Pan American Airlines into the safe harbor of Miami.

In 1939, and prior to moving away from Livingston, Mr. and Mrs. Wright bought the home on Henson Street in Livingston that Mr. Wright’s mother lived in while the family was away on construction jobs. That house was bought from Hack and Marie Roberts, who had two small children: Carole Ann and John. Following the completion of the work in Panama, the family returned to their home in Livingston. Their son, Joel, was born in 1950.

Barbara described the Henson Street neighborhood as an ideal place to grow up. The small town atmosphere of Livingston was a safe and secure place to raise a family, and it was from a loving, caring family and childhood that Barbara says laid the foundation and gave direction to what the years ahead held in store for her.

The children who lived in the Henson Street neighborhood were Bill Winningham, Tom and Bill Davis, Jim Sid Mathis, Gene Smith, and John and Carole Ann Roberts. These children spent a lot of time playing together, and in the summer months, they shared nearly every day with each other. Their days were filled with roller skating, riding bikes, or just being together.

One of the games the boys liked best was playing army, a game Tom Davis especially enjoyed. One day he dug a boobie trap in order to capture John Kelly as he walked home from school. But playing army was one game the boys didn’t allow Barbara to join, so she went crying to her mother because she was left out. Her mother had the remedy for that – she made her a Red Cross apron and cap, and when Barbara went back outside proudly wearing the cap and the little white apron with a big red cross in the center, she was allowed to care for their wounded.

Another game Tom Davis loved was playing Tarzan. Barbara knew it was time to get up when she heard the “call of the wild” from Tom as he stood on the sidewalk near her house on some mornings.


Barbara represents President Lyndon Johnson at the memorial services for Tom Davis, the first American to be killed in Vietnam. Services were held at Livingston Academy football field. Governor Frank Clement also attended.


  Barbara nor Tom had any way of knowing that one day she would stand on the Livingston Academy football field representing President Lyndon Johnson at the memorial services held to honor Tom Davis, her friend and classmate since childhood, who became the first American soldier killed in the Vietnam War. Governor Frank Clement also attended the service.

This same group of neighborhood kids went on to attend Livingston Academy together, and during Barbara’s senior year, she and Bill Winningham were voted “Most Likely to Succeed”.

It was also while still in high school, Barbara got her first taste of politics while doing summer clerical work in the com-missioner’s office of the Department of Finance during Governor Frank Clement’s term in office.

Following graduation from Livingston Academy, Barbara went on to attend Tennessee Tech, where she majored in Music her first year, and later changed her major to Business. It was her goal at that time in her life to become a secretary to a corporate executive.


In 1955, Barbara was selected Miss Putnam County and competed in the Miss Tennessee contest that year. After graduating from college, Barbara married Terry McConnell from Chattanooga.

Her husband’s job in the U.S. Patent office in Washington, D.C. made it necessary for the young couple to move to the nation’s capital. It was during the years the McConnell's lived in Washington that Barbara went by the office of Congressman Joe L. Evins to apply for a job. At the time she applied, Congressman Evins’ secretary was out because of illness, and Barbara was hired to fill in. When his secretary returned, Congressman Evins helped place Barbara in another office as secretary to a Texas congressman, Wright Patman. When an opening became available later, Barbara returned to Joe L. Evins’ office, and as time went by, she advanced from a secretarial position to administrative assistant to Congressman Evins.

During the years she worked in Congressman Evins’ office, she achieved a vast understanding of the ins and outs of government that included a compassion and understanding for problems people encounter when dealing with governmental agencies. She also learned how to help solve and work through these problems. One incident in particular that she was personally involved in was working out a solution to help pay back taxes Alvin C. York had incurred after receiving royalties from the movie and books that were produced about his life. Even though Sergeant York did not personally benefit from the royalties, he was taxed as if he had. All the money that came from the royalties went to the building of York Institute so that underprivileged children in that area could get a high school education. Even though this money was donated by Sergeant York for that purpose, the government said he owed more than $200,000. The fact that he did not have the money to pay this enormous sum was a great worry to this Congressional Medal of Honor hero.

After the situation was made known to Congressman Evins’ office, the congressman formed a committee to raise money to take care of Sergeant York’s tax problem. Distinguished members of this committee were Jack Warner, Sam Rayburn, Joe L. Evins, Bobby Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Barbara was named staff director for the committee. Although each committee member personally donated a substantial amount to this cause, there was still an outstanding balance due, and it was Barbara’s idea that helped get this problem taken care of. She suggested to the committee that they get Ed Sullivan of CBS television involved. Barbara contacted Mr. Sullivan by telephone, and sure enough, one Sunday night during the Ed Sullivan show, he asked his audience for help. The next day, huge mailbags were carried in, and not only was the entire debt taken care of, but enough money was left over to establish a trust fund for Sergeant York’s widow.

During the time Barbara worked in Washington, Eisenhower served as President, as did John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. She got to meet not only Kennedy, but Harry Truman as well during those years. Kruschev, Castro, as well as Martin Luther King, were among those she saw when they visited in Washington.

The McConnells had been living in Washington for several years when her husband received an offer to work with a bank in New Jersey. He agreed to take the job, and they moved to the city of Flemington, a place where Republicans greatly outnumbered the very few Democrats who were there. After settling in there, Barbara became active in organizing a Democratic party, and she also helped to organize campaigns for many political candidates. Working hard to get other candidates elected to various offices helped her decide it was time to get involved in a political race of her own. She ran for and was successful in being elected as state representative to the New Jersey Legislature.

While serving in the Legislature, she helped to change the laws that dealt with discrimination against women by lending institutions which, for instance, required a single woman have a co-signer on a note. Helping to establish laws to help protect women against domestic violence was another of her accomplishments, in that she wrote the first domestic abuse law in the nation that changed the way courts, law enforcement officials, and society must deal with these situations.

Barbara meets with President Begin in Israel.



Today, most other states have adopted this law dealing with domestic abuse. Barbara continues to serve as chairman of the Women’s Crisis Services in New Jersey, and has been instrumental in putting together programs of counseling, job training, residential safe houses for women and children, as well as programs for high school groups about date rape and programs for grade school children on topics such as “Hands Are Not for Hitting”. Other programs she has helped to set up are designed to help those who are the abusers.



     She has been the recipient of many awards throughout the years and featured in many magazines and articles about women role models. In 1969, Barbara was given the Outstanding Democratic Woman of the Year award, and was described as “the next best thing to come from Tennessee since Jack Daniels”.

In 1980, the Distinguished Alumni award was presented to her from the Business School at Tennessee Tech. She was honored again in 1995 with the Dr. Louis Johnson Award from Tennessee Tech for outstanding achievements in the field of Business. Even today, she continues to serve on the Board of Trustees of the School of Business at Tennessee Tech.

So with this kind of background, it is not surprising to learn that in 1981, Barbara ran in the primary for the Democratic nominee as governor for the state of New Jersey. She was one of the first two women in the history of New Jersey to do so. There were 15 candidates and she came in fourth in that race. Following the death of her husband in 1985, Barbara became president of a New Jersey association representing the food industry, and as such, became a lobbyist for that group, a job she did for the next eight years.

During the term Jim Florio served as Governor of New Jersey, she was asked to serve as the Governor’s Secretary of Commerce and Economic Development. While serving in this office, she became an advocate for business interests and international trade. She traveled to Spain, Italy, Israel and Japan, and was successful in bringing more than 200 new companies to the state of New Jersey.


Barbara, with the president of American Home Products, breaks ground on one of the new facilities she brought to New Jersey under her leadership.

Barbara is greeted by Governor of Emilio Ramagno, Italy, honoring her on the last day of her trade mission to Italy for New Jersey.


Following Governor Florio’s defeat in the next election, the Coca-Cola Company contacted her and asked that she represent their interests in public affairs. Thus, seven years ago the McConnell Group was formed, and along with Coca-Cola, Barbara now represents numerous large companies and organizations. Part of the work she does for clients is to advise them on issues that will directly affect their business growth and to directly “lobby” their message to members of the legislature and government agencies.

Barbara has led a very interesting and productive life to say the least, and even though she’s thought retirement was just around the corner many times recently, it seems that she hasn’t reached that point yet. She had plans to move back to the family home on Henson Street when she did eventually retire, but now that she has a grandson, Morgan, she has a hard time thinking about living very far away from him and his mother, her daughter, Abigail. She feels very lucky to still have the house she grew up in to come back to as often as she can. Many beautiful pieces of furniture her father made by hand are still in the home, and her love of antiques, decorating, sewing, as well as upholstery work is evident there also. She says she still gets homesick if she doesn’t get back to Livingston often to stay for a while. But she treasures her home in New Jersey as well, one she describes as a simple old stone farmhouse that was built in 1760. It’s out in the country, has a big fireplace, wide pine board floors, and it is obvious she is quite attached to that house as well.

Of all the jobs she’s had over the years, she says the toughest one of all was being a single parent. And the job she describes as the very best she’s had is being Abigail’s mother and Morgan’s grandmother. She says she feels very fortunate to have come from a loving and caring family, and to have grown up in the town of Livingston.

Having lived a life that included rubbing elbows with the President of the United States as well as many foreign dignitaries, it would be easy to forget ordinary, hometown folks, but this is not the case with Barbara. She is a very comfortable person to be around, she’s warm and genuinely friendly, and doesn’t have any of the phoniness that is often seen in many who are involved in politics.

Barbara told me that no matter whether she flies home or drives down from New Jersey, each time she turns that corner from Roberts Street onto Henson Street, she knows she’s home again, and nothing can quite match that feeling.

As she and I sat in the living room of her family home on Henson Street, she remembered back to the day of her mother’s funeral. At the time Mildred Wright was diagnosed with cancer, she was still working in the school lunchroom, and had close friends there she had worked with for many years.

Her funeral was held at the First United Methodist Church, and as the funeral procession began the trip from the church to Good Hope Cemetery, and turned the corner at Roberts onto Henson Street, there on the corner stood all of Mildred’s co-workers in their white uniforms to say goodbye to their dear friend and fellow worker. It was a very fitting tribute and a touching one that will always be remembered.

A strong foundation that included a loving family, along with growing up in a small town neighborhood, contributed greatly to Barbara developing the skills necessary to achieve the outstanding career she has had. Her accomplishments are a wonderful way to say thank you to two good parents who I know had to be extremely proud to have her as a daughter.


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