Women of Distinction are so named for their extraordinary work in their profession and community. Some are also seen as unconventional trailblazers who have carved a path other women may then travel. Conversely, some of the women the American Lung Association of Tennessee honors each year have made a clear mark while living a life some would define as traditional. Carol Mutter, a 2013 Woman of Distinction, counts herself as among the latter group.
Her resume is heavy with the weight of an accomplished legal career. She’s received many awards for her contributions. And there appears to be no end to her tireless work, as in August of last year, she became mayor of Lookout Mountain, Tenn. What’s more, she’s done all of this, she chuckles, while “following [her] ... husband.”
The two met in high school in Jonesborough, Tenn., dated through college, and then remained together as they went in different directions to continue their education. He went to Memphis to learn to be a doctor, and she went to Columbia University in New York to study medieval and Renaissance art.
“I was going to earn a Ph.D. in art history,” she says, the stonework of the town hall where she presides as mayor surrounding her. “But it was going to take several years, and I was going to have to study abroad, so I put my Ph.D. on hold so Mitch and I could be together.”
Their sincere, but naive, plan was to return to New York, where he would do his internship and residency, and she would continue her art studies. This proposal was laden with uncertainties tied to his education.
Then, in the early ’70s, Time magazine published an article about how more and more women were becoming lawyers. Mutter credits her husband with suggesting she pursue the law. She was thunderstruck.
“I had never thought about becoming a lawyer, and I didn’t know any female attorneys. But I knew I’d be able to study and practice law wherever Mitchell went, so it seemed like a good idea,” Mutter says.
The couple moved to Washington, D.C., where he studied at Walter Reed and she earned her Juris Doctor at Georgetown. There, Mutter showed natural proclivity for the law, graduating in the top one percent of her class and serving as research editor of the law journal.
Mutter clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals and then practiced law in the nation’s capital for four years. She and her husband then moved to Augusta, Ga., where he served as chief of cardiology at Fort Gordon. Mutter continued to practice law during their stay in Augusta, but by the time she and her husband moved to Knoxville for his work, they already had two sons, so she decided change was in order.
Mutter was too career-minded to stop working, but also focused on raising her sons. Once again, she discovered an avenue that allowed her to continue to ply her astute legal mind while also being available to her children: teaching. In 1982, she began what would become a 30-year stretch as a professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Her topics included health law, insurance law, remedies, contracts, torts, business torts, civil procedure, and legal process.
Her students included many lawyers practicing in Chattanooga today.
“I’m usually quite proud of how they’re doing. I enjoy watching young people develop and learn to practice the law,” she says, smiling.
Mutter continued to teach at UT after she and her husband moved to Lookout Mountain in 1992. Although she ended her time at the university last year, she still lectures on remedies for the Midsouth Bar/Bri bar review program, which she’s done since 1999.
The author of a seminal work on comparative fault, Mutter has also lectured extensively for continuing legal education programs across the state and has made several presentations to committees of the Tennessee legislature.
Through volunteer efforts, Mutter has served her profession with the same skill and dedication she’s applied to her paid work. In 1991, she was chair of the Insurance Law Section of the Association of American Law Schools. Nine years later, she served on Gov. Don Sundquist’s Blue-Ribbon Commission on TennCare. From 2008 to 2009, Mutter was the chair of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Health Law Section. And since 2006, she’s served as a member of the Baroness Erlanger Foundation.
Her awards are many. In 1987, Mutter received the Senate Resolution of Appreciation and the UT Chancellor’s Citation for Extraordinary Community Service, in honor of her work on comparative fault. She also was a Knoxville YWCA Tribute to Women Finalist in 1988, a member of the inaugural Tennessee Leadership class in 1990, and in 1999, became a Fellow of the Tennessee Bar Association.
On becoming a Woman of Distinction, Mutter says she’s “pleased and honored.”
Today, Mutter has added “mayor” to her list of service positions. The town’s residents elected her to the town commission in 2006, and for the next six years, she served as the Lookout Mountain police and fire commissioner. Last year, as three members of the commission retired and the need for a new mayor arose, the other commissioners tapped Mutter for the job.
If they wanted someone who loves the community and its people to lead them, they found her. “Small towns are appealing to me because you know everyone,” she says. “Whenever I drive from my house to work, I see someone I know, and wave at them. Not only that, but this is a safe community, and a good place for children.”
Mutter is intimately familiar with the ways of small towns, as she also grew up in one – Jonesborough, Tenn., which she calls “the oldest town in Tennessee, the capital of the lost State of Franklin, and the home of the famous Jonesborough Storytelling Festival.” In high school, her future husband was the captain of the football team and president of the student council, and she was a cheerleader and editor of the yearbook. They have since tallied “43 happy years together,” she says.
Although busy, Mutter remains as committed to her family today as she’s ever been. She’s proud of her sons, which include a professor of English literature, a future doctor, and a future lawyer. She visits her two grandchildren whenever she can. And she takes advantage of the leisurely Lookout Mountain pace to walk her two Papillon pups through the local streets.
When Mutter was making the decisions that turned her down the path of the law, there were no role models for her to follow, and no frame of reference into which she could fit. Now years later, she’s become for young women what she did not have: an example of what a woman can accomplish when she sets her mind to it.
That she did this while “following [her] ... husband” is certainly worth a chuckle.