Tuesday, August 17, 2010
The Father of Public Power
Boyish in appearance but hardheaded and knowledgeable, David Lilienthal built the TVA power system according to one guiding principle: affordable power for everyone in the TVA region.
When people met TVA’s three original Directors, he was the one who looked out of place. Two of the triumvirate were white-haired academics. The third, and the last to join, was not yet 34 — more than 20 years younger than either of his colleagues.
He looked even younger than that. During his first days at TVA in 1933, David Lilienthal was sometimes mistaken for an office boy. His youthful appearance belied his extensive experience and accomplishments.
The Tennessee Valley owes its network of municipal and cooperative power distributors to the vision of David Lilienthal, one of TVA’s three original directors.
Born in the back of a small-town grocery store in Morton, Ill., the son of a struggling Jewish family, Lilienthal grew up in Indiana with dreams of being a writer. He attended DePauw University, graduated when he was only 20, and went on to Harvard Law School. As a young lawyer he handled cases for the city of Chicago and, still in his twenties, developed a reputation for having a comprehensive understanding of public utility problems.
Through his litigation work for the city, Lilienthal came to believe there were some services so essential to modern day-to-day living that they must be made available and affordable for everyone.