ERWIN — Although Zane Whitson did not live to see the completed Unicoi County Welcome Center, the facility that many feel Whitson’s efforts helped bring to Unicoi County will now bear his name.
State officials, as well as a number of Whitson’s colleagues, friends and family members, were on hand for a dedication ceremony held Friday morning at the welcome center to pay tribute to Whitson by renaming the welcome center in his honor.
“He was just a pioneer, and everyone I’ve talked to that served with him in the House, they were just so complimentary of what he did for this area and just the fantastic person that he was,” Tennessee Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Susan Whitaker said of Whitson.
Whitson, who died in March 2009 at the age of 75 and was a Unicoi County native who served in the state House of Representatives from 1978 to 2002, where he represented Unicoi County and a portion of Greene County. Following his more than two decades of service as a state representative, Whitson began work as an industrial recruiter for Unicoi County.
It was during his tenure as a legislator that Whitson began to champion the construction of Interstate 26, which was opened to the North Carolina state line in 1995. Those who spoke at Friday’s ceremony said its construction would not have been possible without Whitson’s work.
“Interstate 26 is here because of Zane Whitson,” State Rep. David Hawk told the crowd gathered for the ceremony. “There’s really no other way to sugarcoat that.”
Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer said getting the interstate constructed in this area of the state was no easy task. Although he never met Whitson, Schroer said he was sure that Whitson possessed the “dedication, orneriness and persistence” to make the project happen. He also said the center is a great way to welcome visitors to the state of Tennessee.
“These roads and these welcome centers make a difference in every part of the state,” Shroer said.
Hawk, who referred to Whitson as a “friend and confidant,” expressed his appreciation to Whitson’s family for allowing him to serve in the state House. Whitson’s work as a legislator led to the betterment of not only this region, but the entire state of Tennessee, Hawk said.
“Zane Whitson is truly remembered as a statesman and one of the greatest men from this region,” Hawk said. “This dedication ceremony this morning goes a long way to remind folks and memorializes Zane.”
Hawk also lauded Whitson’s ability to forge friendships with colleagues on both sides of the political aisle, particularly his friendship with the late Ned Ray McWherter, former Tennessee governor. Their bond was integral in bringing Interstate 26 through Unicoi County, Hawk said.
“We are forever grateful both to Zane and Governor McWherter for bringing those friendships to fruition and bringing this interstate here,” Hawk said.
Many also credit Whitson with seeking the construction of a state welcome center in Unicoi County. The center, which is located off Exit 46 along Interstate 26 and was constructed to resemble a rustic log cabin, was opened to the public in February 2010. An official grand opening ceremony for the center was held in May of that year.
“I really think that this is the prettiest center that we have,” Whitaker said. “Every one is beautiful, but because you come out and you start looking at those mountains, it just takes your breath away.”
It was a couple of years ago when Hawk said he began talking with people in the area about how Whitson could be honored along the Interstate 26 corridor. Hawk said former Unicoi County mayor Paul Monk presented the ideal suggestion.
“Paul said ‘David, the right thing to do is name the welcome center after Zane,’ ” Hawk said.
Legislation proposed in the Tennessee State Legislature last year to that effect received overwhelming bipartisan support, Hawk said.
Whitson’s daughter, Diana Thompson, said Friday’s ceremony and the naming of the welcome center after her father signified that his efforts had paid off.
“It’s the culmination of many years of hard work by my dad, I feel like, and I’m very proud to see this day finally here,” she said. “I think dad worked really hard to make it a success.”
Diane Whitson, Zane Whitson’s widow, was flanked by state officials and was the focus of the group gathered Friday at the Unicoi County Welcome Center as she pulled away the black cloth covering a plaque mounted next to the welcome center’s main entrance.
The plaque reads “Zane Whitson Welcome Center,” which is the name the facility visited by thousands of motorists annually will now be known as.
“I’m glad that he got the recognition, and I’m sorry he didn’t live to see this wonderful facility,” Diane Whitson said following the ceremony. “If they had asked me to say anything, I was going to say Zane and Ned are up there planning another highway.”