On March 25, Johnson City native Phyllis Corso took her seat on the 25-member Washington County Commission, replacing her husband, Joe Corso, after his death in January.
She brought with her experiences ranging from her school days, to her studies in psychology and sociology, her travels and her shared political interests with her late husband. She will apply that knowledge not only as a member serving the remainder of her husband’s term, she also has been placed on the Rules, Joint Education and City-County Liaison committees.
Corso’s roots go way back. Her grandfather was the city’s “water chief” who traveled around mapping for the first time where all the lines were located — from memory. She attended both South Side and North Side elementary schools and moved around a bit, settling in the tree streets area.
Her father worked for the gas company, becoming the safety inspector for the Grand Division of East Tennessee; her mother was a secretary at the Johnson City Vocational School. She was their only child.
“When I was growing up here, I liked the size of the town,” she said. “It was about 20,000 people, and you could walk it east to west and north to south. I’d say my mother was the bigger influence on my life. She taught me how to behave and to do well in school. She would never yell or scream at me. She would pull me off to the side and say, ‘we won’t do that again.’ ”
Corso went to Johnson City Junior High School and then to Science Hill High School. She also graduated from what was then called the Training School, now University School. She ended up at East Tennessee State University, where she majored in psychology with a minor in sociology.
“It just struck my interest — I thought, ‘I’ll start here,’ ” she said. “There was an internship in the sociology department, and I went to work in the juvenile probation office in Jonesborough. It was a lot more personal and a lot less bureaucratic at that time, but we didn’t have the resources we have now.”
She met and married her first husband, Bill Jennings, who covered politics for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle. She accompanied him to Nashville, where he continued his studies. When they and their two children returned to Johnson City, she became a full-time mother and housewife.
Following her split with Jennings, she was working as a legal secretary when she met Joe. They married in 1990 while he was well into his tenure at ETSU as a political science professor, and with three children from a previous marriage of his own.
“The thing that brought us together was politics,” she said. “I helped with his campaign when he won a seat on the Johnson City Board of Education. We were pretty naive. We believed that if you just stood up and said what you believed that people would see things your way. We found out that had nothing to do with how the game really worked, but we still have tried to do what we believed was right.”
She said Joe wasn’t always free to travel, but he encouraged her to do so. She took advantage of that and was able to experience a lot of different cultures.
“It showed me that my little tight-knit community did not have all the answers and that others had things to bring to the table,” she said. “He taught me a lot; he was extraordinary. A lot of people were intimidated by him because he was so intelligent. The County Commission had great respect for him. Joe wanted to find ways to bring government to the people — that is, let the people know what’s going on and get them involved in it.”
It’s no surprise then, that one of her first goals is to work toward getting all County Commission meetings televised.
“At the very least, we could film our meetings and stream them on the county’s website,” she said. “Too many people, especially in the city — and I represent a city district — don’t know what’s going on in county government. I also want to be a good steward of the taxpayers.”