Gideon Fryer, 1921-2014

This column has taken me a good deal longer to write than I expected. I told Gideon Fryer about a year ago that I could write a profile of him every year without repeating anything. One about people he’d known, one about things he’d seen, another about institutions he’d founded, and several more about opinions he had. He proved that on rare occasions a very old brain can generate opinions that are new and fresh and unlike anyone else’s.

I’ve written about him several times already, most recently for my Secret History column in Metro Pulse last February. Still, I was going to augment that with a Gid Fryer series, as a sort of exercise, the continuing adventures of a thoughtful contrarian.

But he died this past weekend, after a short illness, at the age of 93.

If you met this lean old man with a black beret and a cross-eyed grin–and there’s a very good chance you did, because he was not shy–you might not take him as a founder of things.

When I lived in Fort Sanders a long time ago, the Laurel Theatre was often the most interesting place in town, the surest evidence that there were good and thoughtful people here. He had had very much to do with exalting that venue for music and dancing and discussion, and the community it spawned.

Somehow he also co-founded the vigorous and influential East Tennessee Community Design Center, even though it had nothing very obvious to do with his fields of study, and the university’s College of Social Work.

Gideon Fryer’s name sounded like it belonged in a period novel, perhaps that of a suspicious character, a renegade cleric of the Restoration era. I’d heard the name, in multiple unlikely places, but I don’t think I ever met him in person until I began writing my column for Metro Pulse, 20-odd years ago. He let me know, in several different ways, that he was a reader.

I remember coming back from lunch one day and found an unexpected packet of fascinating old articles on my desk—I think it had something to do with urban design—and a note signed “Gideon Fryer.”

I gave him a call, and knew I was in for a story. Over the next several years, Professor Fryer’s adventures and opinions unfolded by degrees.

He spent most of his good long life in Knoxville, but he was originally from small-town Middle Tennessee, Union Hill and Goodlettsville, rural communities on the north side of Nashville, and nurtured a particular drawl that always distinguished him from other East Tennesseans. As a child he suffered lazy eye, rendering him practically blind on the left. “It has never been a great inconvenience,” he once told me. It gave him a cross-eyed, slightly touched look that suited him.

In spite of that disability, he learned to drive at age 11. He was proud that he had maintained one of the longest no-accident driving records known to humankind, 82 years. Truth be told, though he kept up his drivers’ license, Gid disliked driving. Driving a car is never more fun than when you’re an 11-year-old boy, after all. He put aside childish things and rarely bothered with driving in his later years. That was part of the secret of his safe driving record.

He first arrived in Knoxville as an undergraduate in the late 1930s, during which time he encountered the young Frank Sinatra, in town with the Dorsey band, attending frat parties and playing baseball on campus with a local team. I once interviewed him just about that, but Gid was not that much a big-band fan even at the time, and was not much impressed with Frank Sinatra, or with himself for having met him.

Later, drafted in an aggressive recruitment program that overlooked his half-blindness, he spent some time in Europe as part of the occupation forces, eventually promoted to master sergeant. One of his bunk mates was a fellow Tennessean, future Pulitzer-winning author Peter Taylor, who impressed Gid a good deal more than Sinatra did. They became good friends. World War II left Gid with a strong sense that war was a wasteful thing, and to be avoided.

He studied education at Columbia, taught at UT’s Nashville branch, and later returned to Knoxville to teach sociology, eventually to co-found the university’s School of Social Work, later elevated to College level, and ranked among America’s best.

Meanwhile he was married for many years to a woman he loved named Bet, and they lived in house he designed himself in a subdivision on the south side of town, Martha Washington Heights. They raised a couple of daughters.

In 1996 his wife died after a crippling illness, and he made an unusual choice for a widower of 75. He moved into an apartment in Fort Sanders. Some people are careful to lock their car doors when they drive through Fort Sanders, but Gideon lived there for many years as an old man by himself, and never bothered with locking anything.

In his apartment was a parlor sort of like a pilot house, overlooking 12th Street.
For the next 18 years, he took long walks around the neighborhood, threw frequent parties for his friends, and watched over the place as a benign spirit. He became known as the Bishop of Fort Sanders.

We’d been beer-drinking chums and co-conspirators for a decade or so before we realized that Gid and my great-uncle—my grandfather’s younger brother Billy, from Jellico—were close college chums. Uncle Bill went to war and lived in Myrtle Beach for years, raised beagles, smoked a lot, and died when I was a teenager. His widow and a couple of his sisters outlived him by 30 years, and I knew them much better. But when everybody from that entire large generation of my family was gone, Uncle Bill, his widow, and his sisters, I still had Gid to talk to. The fact that we had that coincidental connection remained a source of wonder to us both.

Along the way Gideon developed a reputation for controversy, speaking out in support of a friend, a young law student who was a named plaintiff in a civil-rights lawsuit against UT. It was, he told me, the most disloyal thing he ever did as a UT faculty member. Rita Sanders Geier, who in that landmark lawsuit helped desegregate the upper reaches of Tennessee academia, eventually became a Baker Center Fellow and a member of UT’s administration.

Gid was also one of the few middleaged faculty members openly, and sometimes not so openly, involved in UT’s antiwar movement. Some charged that Gid was the Svengali behind UT’s student unrest. In recent years, Gid has owned up to quietly helping charismatic antiwar activist Peter Kami flee the country, and federal charges. Gid might have gotten in big trouble, at the time, if that had gotten around, but it did not trouble him in his old age.

Although a longtime parishioner of Church Street United Methodist, Gid played a major role in converting an old church in Fort Sanders to secular purposes. A lot of fans believe Laurel Theater, at Laurel and 16th Street, run by Jubilee Community Arts, might not be there if not for Gid’s help in getting it going as a community meeting place and performance venue. The big basement gallery is named for him. His tastes in music were not as liberal as his politics, but Gid loved old hymns, and became a regular with the shape-note singing groups that assemble at the Laurel.

And there was the East Tennessee Community Design Center, which he founded with the late architect Bruce McCarty. Gid remained devoted to the organization, both in fact and in principle. Gid hated dumb development. There was lots of it back then, and if you talked to him recently, he’d tell you there’s still much more of it than there should be.

He followed things closely, and, almost every day, he walked, observing each change in his adopted city. He could often be found at lunchtime on Market Square, in his black beret, pausing for a rest under a shade tree. I saw him often enough that I didn’t have to telephone him much.

I was a latecomer to an ongoing party called Gid Friday. It began sometime in the last century as an afterparty for those who weren’t quite ready to leave the nearby Knoxville Museum of Art’s Alive After Five events. Usually held at Gid’s apartment, it was an almost-weekly conspiracy of old-school hippies, shape-note singers, world travelers, liberal Christians, activist lawyers, nonprofit volunteers, retired politicians, beer makers, people who live in tents, occasional journalists, and random people who just liked Gid. I suspect we all liked this weekly proof that some people over 50 could still throw good parties and have pretty lively conversations. His parties reminded me of those undergraduate parties so crowded you’re not even sure which way is out, but you don’t care because you’re not headed that way.

In recent years, he did much of his rambling with his well-connected girlfriend, Georgiana Vines, who writes a political column in the daily. She lived, still does, in a different flat opposite his, across the Second Creek valley, and he could walk over there to visit. In recent years she was his chauffeur, handler, and roadie, on their many travels in town and to points far beyond.

A couple of years ago I ran into Gid at a Rossini Festival on Gay Street. He was standing still in the middle of the street, near Union, grinning and taking it all in, beholding the tens of thousands of people filling the street on a Saturday afternoon, with no cars, enjoying themselves on this street that once seemed like an overwrought mistake. “Just look at this!” He shouted. “Isn’t this just great!”

I decided I was too old for Fort Sanders when I was 26, but I think Gideon could have stayed in that crowded, noisy neighborhood, never minding that he was four or five times older than most of his neighbors. But after a health scare a year ago, he felt obliged to leave his apartment, opting for a conventional retirement home. He figured he’d be disabled someday, and that it would be the more sensible thing to do. He accepted his fate in good humor. He had interesting friends out there, he said, and he enjoyed roaming the corridors.

Although Gid could startle new acquaintances, and some mistook him for a cynic or a crank, sometimes he was carried away with how wonderful life was, and he grinned his loony grin and the sheer joy could bring tears to his eyes.

I wish everyone could have his or her own Gideon Fryer. It’s impossible to feel old and decrepit when you’ve got Gid ahead of you, carrying the standard. He wore the indignities of old age lightly. He worried about other people, but not much about himself. He once admitted to me that he had a bit of a heart problem, but he thought his personal problems were all pretty funny.

In fact his age seemed to offer him a freedom of speech and action unknown to fearful, inhibited youth. He spoke his mind, without much regard for consequences. Maybe we should all do the same, regardless of our age. Whenever you catch me speaking my mind with reckless abandon, you know whom to blame.

4 thoughts on “Gideon Fryer, 1921-2014

  1. C Thomas

    I’d only gotten to know Gideon in the last couple of years, and only because we kept running into each other so often it was almost unavoidable. I’d see him at the Rossini Festival, Knoville Symphony Orchestra, First Friday, Farmer’s Market–usually in the company of Georgiana and always with that noted twinkle in his eye. He said little, but didn’t have to. And for someone of 93 years, he sure got around. Inspirational.

  2. Arbiter Buddha

    Because Nancy Elizabeth Vaughan Fryer (1924-1996) is the maternal aunt of my wife Ashley Morrow Ayers Smith (1958-2003), I have called a fellow Middle Tennessean, Gideon Willis Fryer, my “Uncle Gid” by marriage since 1992. Personally I have around 30 people who can legally call me “Uncle” if they like, so it can be a loose connection to be sure, and Gid and I always kept it loose, but we ended up at the same place downtown for lunch or after work many times after we were both widowers. One year he bought me a surprise one-year gift membership in the Historical Society… or maybe it was Knox Heritage. Having outlived our own wives, I figured Gid and I would both live forever or close to it, so I don’t blame you for planning a Gid Fryer series.

    As best I can tell, Jack, your legal right to refer to Gid as your late uncle is at least as great as my own, and probably stronger.

    PS For the record, family legend says Gid taught my mother-in-law how to operate a motor vehicle.

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