John Kaley Jennings, 1883-1972, was Indiana's WPA administrator during the late 1930's. He was born on November 24, 1883 in Rich Hill, Missouri, the son of John and Elizabeth (Kaley) Jennings. He came to Evansville, Indiana in 1907 as a bookkeeper with the Crescent Coal Company. He soon moved on to other increasingly important positions in the community. His other careers in Evansville included: 1908, vice-president and sales manager, Sunny Side Coal Company; 1912, president, Independent Hay and Grain Company; 1921, organized Diamond Mills; 1927, added Rosedale Theater to his Evansville business interests.
In November 1931, Jennings organized and became Chairman of the Unemployment Relief Agency, one of the first work relief programs in the nation. From then on he began his long career in the public service. He was also an unsuccessful democratic candidate for Mayor of Evansville against Herbert Males during the height of the Klan movement in 1926, and against William H. Dress in 1934. In July 1935, he was appointed WPA District Director for ten southwestern Indiana Counties and from 1937-1946, he was State Director of the War Manpower Commission.
It was while John K. Jennings was civilian adviser to the military and also supervising district WPA activities in February 1937, that Henry Hopkins, National WPA Administrator visited Evansville on his tour of flood-stricken cities.
"I like the way Jennings does things," Hopkins was quoted as telling, friends.
When a few months later Wayne Coy resigned as Indiana Administrator to become secretary to Paul V. McNutt, High Commissioner to the Philippines, Jennings immediately was named State Administrator. In six years he had risen from Director of Evansville's Unemployed Relief Commission to the state's highest work relief administrative office.
The driving, purposeful qualities he had displayed on many other occasions during times of emergency were apparent the moment Jennings moved into State WPA headquarters. Another emergency was at hand -- an emergency born of whirling flood waters that had ripped through the southern Indiana cities of Jeffersonville, New Albany and Leavenworth. Under the direction of John K. Jennings, the Indiana Works Progress Administration played an outstanding role in rehabilitating the flood torn cities.
Later positions held by Jennings were Discrict Director, Department of Commerce; State Director, U.S. Employment Service; Chairman, Governor's Commission on Unemployment Relief; Chairman, State Housing Commission; Director, Commercial Indemnity Insurance Company, Indianapolis. On May 25, 1909, he married Lillian Helfrich of Evansville. There are two children from this marriage: William and Mrs. Marie (Jennings) Kollker.
(Sources: Jennings mss., Lilly Library, Indiana University. Work Relief under John K. Jennings, 1931-1939. Chapter IV, Indiana WPA Director.)
The Jennings Manuscripts at Lilly Library
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