To trace the career of attorney J. Wayne Cropp is to, in a sense, tell the story of Chattanooga’s transformation from a besmogged industrial city to a vibrant metropolis. For with each step forward Chattanooga took, Cropp was there, in the midst of things, walking in tandem with the place he’d chosen to call home not long after the federal government had called it the dirtiest city in America, and long before the people here banded together to lift the blanket of smog, and indignity, from their heads.
It’s the kind of story one could scarcely believe could start in a tiny Pennsylvania coal town – one with a company store and a population of about 300 – but that’s where it begins. Or rather, that’s where Cropp’s parents were living when his father volunteered to serve the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal Zone during the Korean conflict. Cropp was born while his parents were in Panama.
Upon returning to the States, Cropp’s father had no desire to pick up where he left off, so he moved his family to Orlando, Fla., and became a beautician.
Like his dad, Cropp was industrious, and at the age of 16 secured a job counting money in a bank across the street from the largest mall in Central Florida. As Cropp spent his days tallying bills, he entertained the notion of someday becoming a banker.
Cropp knew he’d need an education, but no one from his family had been to college. He’d be the first, he decided, and he packed his bags and headed for Dayton, Tenn., where Bryan College sat among the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
Cropp studied business at the nondenominational Christian school, and then returned home, ready to take the banking world by storm. But the people there had other ideas. “They still saw me as the 16-year-old kid who counted money for them,” he said. “I knew I needed to find something else to do.”
Someone else had an idea about what that something else could be. Cropp’s brother-in-law, J. Owen Foster, a federal judge, suggested he become an attorney. Cropp liked the idea, so he packed his bags again and headed to Birmingham, Ala., where Cumberland School of Law sat within the campus of Samford University.
Cropp did something unusual after finishing law school in 1977. Instead of finding a job and then moving to the city where he’d be working, he chose a city – Chattanooga – and then looked for work. He found it before he and his trusty bags even arrived.
“I was the attorney for the Hamilton County Air Pollution Bureau, the agency dealing with the pollution and air quality issues in Chattanooga,” he says. “I helped with the development of the air quality regulations and then enforced them.”
Ironically, Cumberland had offered only one environmental law class, and Cropp hadn’t even taken it. Instead, he’d focused on corporate and administrative law. But when he became the staff attorney for the Air Pollution Bureau, he unwittingly set himself on a career path he’s still on today.
In 1979, Cropp was given what he calls “a battlefield promotion” to executive director. During his 11 years in the position, he helped to develop the strategy that brought Chattanooga into compliance with the federal air quality standards. Under his guidance, the city was the first in the country to accomplish the feat.
“When I took over, we were nonattainment for particulate matter and nonattainment for ozone quality,” Cropp says. “Chattanooga was the first in the nation to go from nonattainment for ozone to attaining the federal standards.”
Attaining to the federal standards for ozone quality was the first of Chattanooga’s success stories coming out of the issues the city had experienced in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it wasn’t the last. Likewise, when Cropp left the Air Pollution Bureau in 1990, his contributions to the city’s environmental recovery were not over.
In 1990, Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison hired Cropp as part of its endeavor to develop an environmental practice. Cropp did work both locally and across the nation.
At home, he represented the local development authority during the first phase of the development of the Riverfront. Much of the land was contaminated from the days when factories and other industrial facilities sat on top of it, and Cropp helped the development authority resolve these issues.
Nationally, Cropp represented municipal governments as the country developed its environmental standards. He traveled extensively, testified before Congress, and worked on the creation of hazardous waste laws.
His expertise was widely sought, but he didn’t confine his work to his practice. Rather, he gave freely of his time as the president of the National Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, serving eight years as chairman of the organization’s air toxic committee. He says the groundwork they laid is still having an impact today, and cites President Obama and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which will move the country toward a 32 percent reduction in carbon pollution by 2030, as an example.
In 2000, Cropp became of counsel at Grant Konvalinka and accepted a job as senior vice-president and general counsel of an environmental remediation firm. He soon moved on, though, into what he calls his entrepreneurial phase when he purchased and became president of an engineering firm. After he sold his interest in that company in 2005, he was ready for a break.
“I traveled the world,” he says, smiling as he remembers the time he spent in Italy. “I loved the food, the countryside, the people, the history – all of those things.”
A year later, Cropp returned to work as the president of The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit working to establish Chattanooga as a hub of technological innovation. Through the organization, Cropp worked with EPB on developing and branding the Gig, among other undertakings with emerging companies and technologies. “I’m thankful I had the opportunity to work in that world,” he says.
Cropp left The Enterprise Center last year, took some time off, then joined Baker Donelson to rebuild his environmental practice.
“I love helping people solve their environmental problems,” he says. “The laws are becoming complex, and I can help companies figure out how to deal with any issues that arise.”
Cropp also continues to serve as a volunteer. Although he has a long history with the Chattanooga Jaycees, Big Brother Big Sisters of Chattanooga, and the Hamilton County Republican Party (including attending several national conventions as a delegate and being appointed to the U.S. Electoral College), he’s currently pouring his spare time and energy into serving as a trustee of Bryan College.
A long-time married man and father, Cropp also spends time with his family, which includes his wife, Diane, and three kids: Rachel, Josh, and Allison. The oldest, Rachel, and her husband have added two grandchildren to the mix.
Between his practice, volunteer work, and family, Cropp maintains a busy lifestyle. He works on Saturdays, goes to church on Sundays, and rarely indulges in leisure time activities. He likes golf but has played only a handful of games this year, and while he likes to travel, he says he does so only when he can. But all of this is fine with him. “I love to be productive,” he says.
Productive is one way to describe Cropp’s life. He has another: blessed. He was born into a poor Appalachian family, but went on to do things he never imagined he would, and to visit places he never imagined he’d see.
“The Lord has blessed me,” he says. “I was the first person in my family to go to college, and then I was able to move to a place I love and work in an exciting area of the law. Through that work, I was able to do things that have had an impact. So the Lord has blessed me – materially, spiritually, and with a wonderful family. I’m a fortunate man.”