For John Kerley, service has been a life-long calling.
The Portland native recently stepped down from the Portland Board of Aldermen after serving as the city’s vice mayor since 2016, which was his second stint on the council.
Kerley’s colorful career includes service with Portland’s police department, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as time in the U.S. Navy.
Kerley recently spoke about his career, how Portland has changed over the years and his decision to retire from city service.
“I was elected to the city council for my first term in May 1977,” said Kerley, who first served on the board until 1985. “I grew up here in Portland around my family’s store (J.E. Kerley & Sons) on Main Street, where the Strawberry Station is now.”
Kerley worked in the family store as a youth and originally expected to continue there. However, the rise of big chain stores made it difficult to keep the family business operating.
After graduating high school in 1967, Kerley went on to join the U.S. Navy, where he spent three years. He served in Vietnam as part of a Patrol Boat River squad.
“I served on the rivers and canals there, what they called the Brown Water Navy,” Kerley said.
While in Vietnam, Kerley was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide used by the military that has been linked to health issues in a number of veterans.
After returning to Portland, he joined the local police department in 1973 as a dispatcher and part-time officer. He also married his wife Beverly in 1973.
“Fred White was mayor at that time, and he asked me to join the department,” Kerley said. “I was involved in early stages of drug investigation as a police officer and also working with the store still. I felt like I wanted to serve and give back to the community.”
In 1977, Kerley decided to run for the city council to try to provide more support to law enforcement.
“I felt the department wasn’t really getting the support it needed,” Kerley said. “It needed to be modernized, and that drove me to want to join the council and see if I could make some changes for the better.”
He was re-elected in 1979 and in 1981, when the council changed to four-year terms for its members.
From 1979-81, he served as Portland’s vice mayor. Part of his initial term as an alderman involved work on Portland’s wastewater treatment. He was part of a delegation that went to Washington and Iowa to examine how similar-sized cities handled their water treatment issues.
“I tried to get more funding for the police department and also tried to work to better the city,” Kerley said of his early service.
Kerley rejoined the Portland Police Department in 1985 and rose to the rank of assistant chief in addition to receiving his state certification. In 1993, he left to join the TBI’s criminal investigation division, which was just starting up. He worked under Jeff Long, who is now Tennessee’s Commissioner of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
As a TBI agent, he developed forensic computer skills and helped develop the TBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
“I joined the TBI in the fall of 1993,” Kerley said. “It was an interestingtime.
“In 1998, I was approached by the FBI to put in an application.”
After joining the FBI, he became an expert forensic computer specialist and was certified to testify in court cases as needed. He later joined the Bureau’s division working on counterterrorism cases.
“I worked on any number of cases that involved computer evidence,” Kerley said of his FBI service.
Cases he worked on during his tenure included the Boston Marathon bombing, a shopping mall bombing in Africa and setting up a computer command center in New York after the 9/11 attacks.
His wife also went to work for the FBI, serving as a secretary for various unit chiefs and later working in the FBI Director’s office.
After retiring from the FBI in 2015, Kerley and his wife returned to Portland. Kerley said that he had considered running for the mayor’s job when he returned, but health concerns made him decide against doing so. Instead, he sought re-election to the board of aldermen and won in 2016.
During his second stint on the council, Kerley worked to help preserve the city’s history. Renovations to the Temple Theatre and the revitalization of Main Street have been priorities. Kerley also helped lead the effort to keep City Hall downtown instead of moving it out to Highway 52 West.
One of his final votes as a council member was to turn Portland’s Moye-Green House into a historical museum. Kerley had served for years on a committee tasked with finding a museum site for the city.
His health and that of his wife are among the reasons Kerley declined to seek re-election to the council this year. He and his wife are moving out of state to be closer to their son and grandchildren.
Kerley noted how that Portland has changed significantly during his time in service. In 1970, the city had roughly 2,900 residents, he said. The U.S. Census estimate in 2019 had the city’s population at just over 13,000.
“There have been a lot of changes, including the ways cities can govern,” Kerley said of the differences between his first and second stints on the board of aldermen. “Cities can no longer annex at will. The department budgets are now kept separate, and one department can’t borrow from another.”
Asked about Portland’s future, Kerley noted the need to add commercial business and improve infrastructure to support a growing population.
“It’s about rooftops and being able to attract retail businesses,” Kerley said. “The change to annexation laws prevents a city from being able to expand.
“If a city can’t expand beyond its current limits, they have to develop additional growth within that limit.”
Kerley noted that his service was never a one-man deal, saying that cooperation and leadership has been key to his career.
“In every situation, I either had great mentors ... I’ve been very blessed,” Kerley said. “I’m amazed at how the city has grown and developed. Mayor (Mike) Callis has done an excellent job moving this city along.”
Reach Chris Gregory at 615-450-5756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.