By Elizabeth A. Davis
The American dream may seem like a clichéd concept to some people or perhaps an unattainable goal to others. It has been neither for Robby and Katerina Moore.
These married UT alumni serve Perry County as elected officials. Robby (Martin ’96) is mayor of Lobelville, a small Middle Tennessee town of just under 900 people located about 75 miles west of Nashville off Interstate 40. Katerina (Knoxville ’06), a local attorney, was elected general sessions and juvenile court judge in August 2014.
How they got here is the real story. Living in a small town is not always easy, and many people leave to find other opportunities. Robby grew up in Lobelville, went to college and could have moved on. He stayed. Katerina ended up in Perry County through a foreign exchange program in her native Ukraine and returned after the program ended to attend college. They met, married and decided to make Perry County home.
“Katerina brought me a whole new perspective,” says Robby. “The American dream is very much alive. You hear all the negative stuff, but Katerina is living proof and, to a certain extent, I am, too.”
Coming to Tennessee
The daughter of blue-collar workers, Katerina grew up in Zaporozhye, a city in the southeast part of Ukraine with a population of more than 700,000 people. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union for much of her childhood until it broke away and became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. To help children of the former Soviet states, including Ukraine, learn about the West, the United States began a foreign exchange program in 1992 that provided a full academic year in America.
Katerina succeeded in the selection competition and came to the U.S. in the fall of 1996 just before she turned 16. She was able to speak some English, but she had mostly learned about Great Britain in school. She did not know much about the U.S. except for what she had heard about California, New York and other large tourist destinations.
“The American dream is very much alive. …Katerina is living proof and, to a certain extent, I am too.”
She was to be placed with a family in Virginia, but she was notified upon arrival in New York City that the family had decided not to host a foreign student. After several days, Katerina was sent to Tennessee to be temporarily placed with a couple in Perry County.
“I never knew Tennessee existed just because it was not a state I was familiar with,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anything about where I was going.”
Herbert, who went by Junior, and Anita Dill were helping place students and did not want to host another student after becoming very attached to their last student, a girl from Thailand.
But then they met Katerina. “She is just a sweetheart,” says Anita, a special education teacher’s assistant. The Dills offered to let Katerina stay with them for the year, and Katerina agreed.
“I was always a believer that if fate or God puts you somewhere, trust it. Why change something that feels right?” she says. “Now it’s been a lifelong relationship and a blessing for me.”
But, early on, it was a culture shock. Anita remembers that Katerina got her first and only pair of jeans for her trip to the U.S. and that, when the Dills gave her a watch for her 16th birthday, “she cried and cried. She was so proud.”
Katerina did well in school, but when she went back to Ukraine in the summer, she found out the grades she got in America did not count. She was given the choice to repeat the year in Ukraine or take all the final exams in the summer to catch up with her class and graduate the following year. She did, but the Dills did not forget her. They offered to bring her back to Tennessee to go to college.
She was accepted at Lambuth College in nearby Jackson, which was convenient because the Dills let her live with them, and she rode to campus with a family friend who commuted to work in Jackson every day.
A college education was not all Katerina gained by returning to Tennessee. While at Lambuth, she met Robby through some friends, they fell in love, and it became clear that she would probably end up staying in the U.S.
After two years of dating and saying yes to Robby’s elaborate proposal along the Cumberland River in Nashville that involved a boat and a large orange-and-white sign hanging from a bridge, Katerina had several decisions to make on what to do next. She graduated from Lambuth summa cum laude in 2003 with a degree in international studies, which if she decided to remain in Perry County “would do me no good” without further education.
Robby and Katerina married in the summer of 2003, and Katerina quickly decided to continue her studies at UT Knoxville’s College of Law that fall. Her American father, Junior, nudged her in the direction of law, and Robby’s connection to UT through his time at UT Martin helped narrow the choices.
“My dad (Junior Dill) jokingly laughed that I would argue with a stop sign and that I would need to do law at some point,” Katerina recalls. So, during law school, Katerina spent the week in Knoxville, and Robby would come visit her on the weekends.
There were more decisions to be made for clerkships during law school, and Katerina got experience at large and small firms near Lobelville. After graduation, Katerina accepted a job at a small firm in Hohenwald, and then she opened her own business, The Moore Firm, in nearby Linden, the county seat, in 2010.
Meanwhile, she completed the monumental task of becoming an American citizen in 2008. The process was just as trying for Robby. “There was a lot of emotion associated with that, and I finally started fully appreciating what I was born into,” he says, adding that now he makes a point to always thank soldiers and veterans for their service.
Robby Moore has been mayor of his native Lobelville since 2002. When elected at age 28, he was the youngest mayor in Tennessee. He also serves as senior vice president of the Bank of Perry County and a volunteer firefighter. He says, “Katerina’s story is a lot more interesting than mine,” but we’ll let you be the judge.
Robby’s mother died when he was 9, and he lived with his grandparents in what he later realized were “very limited means.” He was the first in his family to go to college, starting at Freed-Hardeman and then transferring to UT Martin, where he graduated summa cum laude.
“I always wanted to go into banking, but there are not many opportunities in a rural area, or so I was told,” he says. “I had the opportunity to come back to my hometown and work at a bank. A lot of people get an education and get out of rural areas, but my philosophy was to give back.”
As a banker and mayor, Robby is able to help people, he says. When his mother was sick, many people in the community helped his family. “I don’t know who all gave. In a rural area you know everybody. That is one of the blessings,” he says. “I know that first hand, and that is a reason I feel so connected through banking and as mayor.”
“I was more humbled than anything else for Perry County citizens to trust and elect someone like me.”
Anita Dill says she never got the impression that Robby and Katerina considered moving away from Perry County. “I can’t tell you how much they do for the community,” she says, mentioning that it seems they attend every funeral and benefit. They brought water for people affected by a tornado, and Robby helped citizens through the fire department during the snow and ice storm in February.
It seems pretty simple to Robby: “If people like us don’t use our University of Tennessee degrees to come back and give back, who will?”
Becoming a Judge
“Mind-boggling” and “humbling” are words Katerina uses to describe how she felt when she learned the results of the race on Election Day. She was opposed by two other candidates for the eight-year post, which the incumbent vacated.
“I didn’t look at that (like) I was running against anybody. I was running for a vote, not against anybody. I was trying to get the confidence of the voter,” she says. Despite being a local attorney and an American citizen with two college degrees who considers Perry County her home, Katerina was concerned her background would play a role in the election.
“Roots matter,” Katerina says. “I was more humbled than anything else for Perry County citizens to trust and elect someone like me.”
The whole family was involved in the campaign. Her daughter, Sasha, who turns 5 in June, rode around town with her, and Anita and Junior helped all they could.
Katerina is working on several initiatives as judge, including finding ways to work more efficiently with the clerk’s office and establishing a foster care review board and a truancy/disciplinary board to more effectively handle certain cases in a timely manner.
“I’m trying to improve the system and find some innovative ways and things that have not been tried in the past,” she says.
Junior Dill died in October 2014, and Katerina’s mother in Ukraine died in February 2015. But both were able to see Katerina succeed.
“There are so many friends and family members who made my journey possible. However, whatever I am and I have become, I owe a lot to the sacrifices my family in Ukraine made and especially my family here in the states,” she says. “Without them, the story could have been a whole lot different.”