Author Archives: Jack Neely

Knoxville in 1990: Remarks Tendered on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Knoxville Museum of Art

If you’re like me, 1990 may not seem all that long ago. You may have noticed, as I have, that as we get older, the period of time we think of as “recent” gets longer and longer. For me, the 1980s does seem like a long time ago, but the 1990s seems like the beginning of the present time. And despite the hundreds of times I’ve visited, this clean, modern museum still seems new to me. To those of us who remember the complicated Japan Pavilion, with its painting robot and bullet train experience–it was right here in 1982–the KMA will probably always seem new.

Since the museum was built, a lot of things haven’t changed much. Although Knox County has grown by about 100,000 since 1990, the city population is not much bigger than it was then.

Knoxville’s street layout is about the same, our buildings are about the same. Our big four hotels are the same as they were then, though some have different names. Our larger entertainment venues were the same: The newest of them, Thompson Boling Arena, was already familiar to most by 1990. Our major downtown office buildings are the same. Our tallest buildings then are our tallest buildings now. Knoxville’s skyline has changed little.

A Rip Van Winkle returning to Knoxville after a quarter century and viewing the city from a distance might be surprised at how familiar it looked.

Of course, we’re all subject to nostalgia, and we all miss some things about Knoxville in 1990, like Saturday morning breakfast at Harold’s Deli, slow summer evenings watching minor-league baseball at Bill Meyer Stadium, late-night jazz at Lucille’s.

Still, I think if any of us were transported back to Knoxville of 25 years ago, we’d be in for a bit of a shock.

Consider our appetites. In 1990, Knoxville didn’t have a single Thai restaurant, or a single Indian restaurant. There was one small, obscure sushi place in West Knoxville, but most people didn’t know about it.

We had no creperie, no brewpubs, no gastropub, no Scottish-themed pub. We had no cigar lounge, no gelato parlor, no high-gravity bar, no restaurant that specialized in locally sourced food.

We had no brewery and no local winery. It’s even harder to contemplate that in 1990, Knoxville didn’t have a single espresso coffee shop. In most cafes, coffee was coffee, and Knoxville coffee was thin and cheap. Some of us had heard of Starbucks, but it had never opened a store here. A couple of the fancier restaurants offered espresso drinks, but there was a rumor back then that one of them made its cappuccino from a mix.

Just a couple of restaurants had outdoor patios, with fences around them, but we had no sidewalk cafes. We had no non-smoking restaurants.

We had no Barley’s, no Preservation Pub, no Square Room, no Pilot Light. Nightclubs with live entertainment were unusual, and almost no nightclub featured different music every night.

In fact, I don’t remember any pubs, in the now-familiar sense of a common gathering place where you were likely to see almost anybody. We spent a lot of time in the malls, but we all experienced Knoxville separately.

In 1990, bicyclists were rare, and almost always they were just people out exercising, returning to where they started. Even at the university, very few of us used bicycles for transportation. There were no bike lanes, and the city’s only greenway was the same one it had had since the ’70s, a couple of miles along Third Creek between West High and Tyson Park. Volunteer Landing was just the muddy shoulder of Neyland Drive. Ijams Nature Center was a small, modest place of about 17 acres, and not a place that attracted many young people. There was no such thing as the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, and Fort Higley was just an interesting ruin in the deep woods that was known to only a few intrepid trespassers. We’d never heard the paradoxical term Urban Wilderness.

There was no history museum in Knoxville. We had no WDVX, no public radio station that wasn’t associated with the university. We had no Blue Plate Special, no Tennessee Shines.

The city had no big weekly farmer’s market. Knoxville grocery shoppers had their choice of mainstream corporate supermarkets. The city’s only food co-op was so small it fit in a little house on Broadway.

And in 1990, we had few festivals. Today we’re used to several big, genuinely Festive festivals every year, some of which get national attention–and several small ones, seemingly every weekend or two on Market Square.

But 25 years ago, Dogwood Arts was a very sober daytime craft fair. We did have the brief annual noisy storm of Boomsday, and of course six or seven Vol football games a year. But we had no Rossini Festival, no International Biscuit Festival, no Hola, no Rhythm’n’Blooms, no Brewers Jam, no jazz festival, no East Tennessee History Fair, no Scruffy City Soiree or Summer Suppers, no Knoxville Brewfest, no Outdoor Knoxfest, no Knoxville Marathon, no Vestival, no First Night, no First Friday, no Big Ears music festival. And, of course, we had no Alive After Five.

These have become so much part of our culture it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have any of them.

The lack of them in 1990 wasn’t for lack of trying. I remember one frustrated festival organizer after another, disappointed at the turnout at a public event—and, perhaps worse, at the apparent reluctance of attendees to ever seem like they were having fun. In the early 1990s, one organizer confessed to me a dark suspicion that Knoxvillians were an inherently Unfestive people.

According to Wikipedia’s shorthand in its entry about Knoxville, the city was reinvigorated as a result of the 1982 World’s Fair. As I’m sure you know, it was more complicated than that.

The big Energy Exposition’s long-term effects were indirect. The World’s Fair surprised Knoxville, and reshuffled our municipal deck.

But in the seven or eight years after the Fair closed, most of downtown seemed stuck in a slow decline, as one fair-site redevelopment plan after another fell through. It seemed as if much of the fair’s promised long-term benefits weren’t likely to come to fruition, and the fair site—in those days it was never called a Park—could seem melancholy.

Its lawns were only occasionally used for specific events. I lived nearby, and walked across the Clinch Avenue viaduct almost daily. I rarely saw anyone down on the fair site itself. I remember attending events on the fair site mainly because I was worried no one else would.

The L&N station hosted a restaurant in 1990, but the old L&N Hotel, which had hosted a restaurant before and during the fair, languished, burned, and was torn down. The Sunsphere was closed to visitors, and the U.S. Pavilion, intended to be permanent, was so little used we were soon to tear it down. In the mid-’80s the New York Times ran a short cautionary tale about the fair site’s failure to thrive, with a picture of the Candy Factory, empty and with a fence around it.

The Fair’s momentum may have played some role in launching the Old City, but by 1990 even that one bright spot downtown was going a little dim. Ashley Capps finally closed his wonderful nightclub, Ella Guru’s. Hewgley’s music store closed. Several of the Old City’s original developers cashed out, and a couple of the more prominent ones moved away to other cities.

Since the fair, downtown Knoxville had seen very little new residential development. Some blocks of Gay Street, notably the 100 block and the 400 block, were considered problems almost too big to solve, with giant buildings empty, and with no obvious takers. On Gay Street alone, there were hundreds of thousands of vacant square feet of floor space in old buildings that were still standing mainly because no one could afford to tear them down. The once-famous Miller’s Building, covered with faux-modernist glass since the ’70s and almost forgotten, allowed it to rain inside.

There were a few people living downtown in upscale renovated buildings, like Kendrick Place or the Pembroke, but then again, so few that each of them could probably name all the others.

Market Square could look lively at lunchtime, but all of its restaurants—every one of them—were closed for the day by 2:30 p.m. Except for Watson’s unique department store, Market Square was almost completely empty on Saturdays and Sundays. Few downtown restaurants even tried to keep weekend hours.

We had long since begun thinking of downtown as mainly an office park, and for years, Knoxville had accepted the truism that the main thing about downtown Knoxville, and perhaps its main hope of salvation, was TVA. But TVA had recently laid off more than half its downtown staff.

The fast-growing media company known as Whittle Communications was building its amazingly grand new international headquarters across two blocks of Main Street, and in 1990 the company’s leadership and the hundreds of talented young staffers it brought to town from all over the country promised to be a major player in downtown’s development. It would last only four more years, but gave us reason to hope.

In spite of hosting a World’s Fair, and a few seemingly positive anomalies like Whittle, Knoxville declined in population in the 1980s, losing 10,000 citizens, the second biggest 10-year decline in the city’s history.

In 1990, Knoxville badly needed some encouragement and direction. It took a huge leap of faith to believe that what the city really needed was an art museum.

To people who weren’t directly involved in the effort to build it, the Knoxville Museum of Art arrived as a surprise. It was the permanent art museum Knoxville had been talking about for a century, ever since the Edwardian days of the Nicholson Art League, when Lloyd Branson and Catherine Wiley were introducing Knoxville to impressionism. The earliest attempt I know of was accidentally burned down in 1906 by Christmas fireworks. A second, the Knoxville Lyceum and Art Museum, was torn down in the early 1930s for the federal post-office project.

This is, by my count, the fifth major attempt, in the last 115 years or so, to start an art museum in Knoxville, and by far the largest, most durable, and most successful.

But beyond its obvious contribution to Knoxville’s artistic life, it was also a major investment in Knoxville’s cultural future at a critical time. Probably none of us realized we were at a critical turning point. But the KMA planted a flag in downtown Knoxville that seemed to prove that, appearances to the contrary, much more was going to happen here. Knoxville Museum of Art has witnessed a major positive transformation Knoxville’s municipal spirit. Much of that renaissance, if we can call it that, has roots in the city’s authentic heritage and historic culture and architecture, reused in interesting ways. But these hallmarks of the city, these festivals and restaurants and greenways are things most of us didn’t grow up with, didn’t associate with Knoxville.

Most of what we boast about in Knoxville today are things that emerged and developed in the 25 years, and they happen to be the 25 years since we built the KMA. In 2015 Knoxville is a much better place to live than it was in 1990, and the KMA is one big reason for that fact.

The Launch of the Mercury, on Adolph Ochs’s Birthday

The Knoxville Mercury is out today. Knoxville’s 224-year history of independent local journalism is officially revived. I’m not even sure yet where to pick up your copy, but I’m told they’re all over the place.

It’s an auspicious day to launch a newspaper, I would think. I didn’t realize it until just this morning, but today is the birthday of Knoxville’s most influential journalist, Mr. Adolph Ochs, patriarch of the modern New York Times.

He was born on March 12, 1858, in Cincinnati, to Jewish-Bavarian immigrant parents, Julius and Bertha Ochs, who had previously lived in Knoxville, and who would move back about six years later. He always considered Knoxville his hometown.

His parents had opposite sympathies during the Civil War, and Knoxville, where he and his family lived for most of the period from 1864 to 1877, was so fractured by war and politics that I think he grew up with a health respect for the idea of being fair. It was an unusual trait in 19th-century journalists perhaps first posited by Ochs’ early mentor, Knoxville Chronicle editor William Rule.

Convinced he’d learned all he could about the journalism business here, he moved to Chattanooga in the late 1870s and bought a flagging paper called the Chattanooga Times, and hired several members of his family, including his father, to help him run it.

Several years later, with his earnings, he bought another failing paper coincidentally called the New York Times, and fixed it. He founded that newspaper’s famous book review and magazine section, and borrowed a slogan from his Knoxville cousins, the Blaufelds, who ran a cigar shop on Gay Street: “All the seegars fit to smoke.” He also fashioned a new Manhattan landmark called Times Square and commenced the New Year’s Eve party there. He was so important to the history of that city and its most important newspaper that 80 years after his death, his name is still in the masthead. His descendents are still in charge.

Upon returning to Knoxville, as he did several times as publisher of the Times, he loved to regale us with after-dinner speeches about his youth here, especially how his enthusiasm for learning every detail of journalism came about partly by way of his fear of the First Presbyterian graveyard. My favorite of all Knoxville stories, it has appeared in four of my books, most recently the one about Market Square, and I don’t feel obliged to tell it again here.

It’s enough to remind you that today is the birthday of a very interesting fellow. When he left Knoxville for Chattanooga, his colleagues toasted the popular kid they called Muley in a Market Square saloon. For those so inclined, it would be an apt observance on Adolph Ochs’ 157th birthday.

Meanwhile, have a look at the Mercury, launched today, and let us know what you think.

A Night in Happy Holler

Last week I was at Time Warp Tea Room for a full house, a satisfying and inexpensive meal on a cold February night. Proprietor Dan Moriarty presides over the Time Warp like a benevolent spirit. It’s usually not a crowded place, except on motorcycle nights, but last Thursday about a dozen older people had convened at a big table to share memories of Happy Holler.

Of course, it’s hard to keep memories in one place. And unfortunately for the concept of focus, Cas Walker had a store in Happy Holler, and everybody remembers it. I have learned, when trying to extract interesting and perhaps truthful information from anyone slightly older than I am, never to mention the word “Cas.” As soon as you do, it’s too late, and your conversation’s going off the rails. As far as many people are concerned, Cas Walker was the main thing that happened in Knoxville between 1920 and 1980, with the possible exception of some memorable Vols games, but then again, not all that many. Therefore all other subjects inexorably lead to the subject of Cas.

I never knew Cas Walker, the millionaire grocer-impresario-demagogue who died 16 years ago. I was in the same room with him a few times. I could never think of anything I needed to say to him. To be honest, I was beginning to grow weary of Cas Walker stories by the time I learned to read. Although any scholar has to admit that in fact and fiction he served a need.

He’s an East Tennessee icon, the rascal hero, like Br’er Rabbit or Sut Lovingood, the salt-of-the-earth genius who saw the potential in Flatt & Scruggs and Dolly Parton before anybody else did, the working-class hero who was an idol of the working class even when he was tricking them out of their paychecks. I don’t fully believe any Cas stories, wholly, but I’ve made it a practice not to wholly doubt them, either.

In between those obligatory Cas stories, the old timers who gathered at the Time Warp last week told a few I’d never heard before. Happy Holler may have been the only neighborhood in America where parents warned their daughters to walk only down the back alleys, never on the sidewalk of the main street. North Central, where it went through Happy Holler, was just too dangerous. Almost everybody at the table had a story, some of them firsthand, of a shooting or knifing affray there, more than a half-century ago.

One thing that makes Happy Holler different from other working-class neighborhoods in East Tennessee is the Catholic influence. The Holy Ghost church is right there, and several of the Happy Holler old-timers were raised Catholic.

“You know how Cas was about Catholics,” one woman said, smiling, almost affectionately. She recalled how Cas referred to nuns as ghost women. Cas was not Catholic, and encouraged others to regard nuns as ghosts, strange beings wandering among us, spooky, unpredictable, and not quite real.

Happy Holler does have its own history, separate from Cas. Established by the 1930s as the downtown commercial center for an industrial neighborhood clustered around Brookside Mills, which was until it closed in the 1950s was one of Knoxville’s biggest employers, Happy Holler was also central to employees of several other north-side factories, like the railroad Coster Shops, and Dempster Brothers, manufacturers of the iconic Dumpster. Happy Holler is believed to have gotten its name for its abundance of entertainment, not only its famous beer joints and dance halls and pool rooms, but also its own picture show, the Joy Theatre, a name that folded in well with Happy Holler, even if, in the memory of those best able to remember it, it was a run down and scary old place.

Happy Holler was happier for some than for others.

They talked about how they used to refer to the Broadway Shopping Center area as Mucktown, about how about 60 years ago, they hanged a director of the Boys’ Club in effigy, because he fired a staffer everybody liked. They talked about old Sheriff Stumpy Sims, and his sons Fats and Skinny.

They talked about how at Drew’s Alley, back between the railroad and Second Creek, you could get anything you wanted, bootleg liquor or casual women. One of the younger attendees talked about the night in 1975 when Gregg Allman, for reasons of his own, showed up at the Casual Lounge, a few blocks farther out Central, and played a few tunes on his famous guitar. It was right around that same time when local boxer Big John Tate, who was destined to be an Olympic medalist and a world heavyweight champ, was swaggering around in the neighborhood, throwing punches in the Golden Gloves ring, which was right here on this block.

They talked about Porky’s Poolroom—it was there before the Golden Gloves joint, and Stroud’s Barber Shop, and how they used to have some Quakers in the neighborhood, and the street gang known as the Fourth Avenue Gang. There were a dozen or so of them, back in the juvenile-delinquent era, with ducktails, hanging out at the corner of Fourth and Randolph, looking cool and bad at the soda shop known as Aunt Auby’s.

More than one of the older men could attest to the truth that being a paperboy was no way to make a living. “Everybody took the paper, but nobody paid,” said one old man. The paper was 30 cents a week. Or maybe 35 cents “But it didn’t make a difference, because nobody paid.”

One asked if they ever got robbed. Getting robbed was a hazard in Happy Hollow, but maybe not for paperboys. “No, we didn’t get robbed,” said one old man, to set the record straight about his old neighborhood. “We didn’t have any way to get robbed, because nobody paid us.”

It became a theme. Here and elsewhere in town, subscribers came to realize that they didn’t really have to pay the paperboy to keep getting the paper. The paperboy’s job was to deliver the daily paper and its advertisements to everybody, and it was his job to persuade them to pay.

It was a very interesting evening in Happy Holler, and I left the Time Warp thinking differently about this place. It’s not scary anymore, even late at night, and I walked these storied old sidewalks boldly, never once thinking I should be slipping back toward the alleys for safety. Flats and Taps was full of people who looked young and cheerful and prosperous. And at Relix Variety Theatre, about 300 people were rapt, watching rapid Pecha Kucha slide shows about architecture and design and a trip down the Tennessee River. There were actual professors in there.

I didn’t see any nuns or gangsters or heavyweight champs, but naturally, it made me wonder what old Cas would have thought about all this.

King’s Alley

Whenever we talk about black history, we have to admit that there are large parts of it that are off limits to us. Before the civil-rights era, black lives were rarely chronicled in newspapers and books. We have to rely on unexpected clues.

Lodged in an old sidewalk near the Old City is a peculiarity. It’s very small, but bound to be noticed more as there are more reasons to walk down East Jackson Avenue.

For a few decades, the Old City has ended, by common agreement, just east of Barley’s, when you get to the James White Parkway overpass. People don’t like to walk under the overpass, and until recently there has not been much obvious reason to. Only the curious venture beyond the broad shadow of the highway, and except for the Rail Salvage place, there aren’t very obvious attractions. So what they do is just turn around and walk back toward Central, where the fun is.

That’s changing. There’s now a big free parking lot under the overpass, and it’s popular. Another block or two past that is the new boutique jeans place, on Randolph Street, and beyond that, the opera company and the brewery with its tasting room. Even David Dewhirst, who never invests in a neighborhood unless it’s just about to bloom, has a long-term project out that way.

You don’t have to go far, along the block past Patton Street, to puzzle over that thing imbedded in the sidewalk. There was a time, early in the 20th century, when the city marked intersections not just with street signs on posts, but with brass markers underfoot.

The curio is just this side of the defunct old Lay’s Market. In the sidewalk are letters marking an intersection that no longer exists, and that very few people remember. In one direction, it says EAST JACKSON AVE. That’s easy to understand. It’s been East Jackson for more than a century, and it still is.

But perpendicular to it, sometimes obscured by a thin layer of dark mud, is another phrase: KINGS ALLEY.

It’s an odd thing to see, because there’s no alley there now. It’s just partway down the extra-long block that accommodates Knox Rail Salvage. There’s a paved bit suggesting maybe it used to be a driveway into the salvage yards, but even that’s not open now.

I went to the library to see what I could figure out.

King’s Alley—in city directories, it’s most often spelled with the apostrophe–hasn’t borne that name, at least not officially, since the early days of the Coolidge administration. That brass marker is at least 90 years old.

The word “alley” is disreputable these days, but a century and more ago an alley was a small urban street. Alleys were usually just one-way affairs, and probably didn’t get much through traffic, but they weren’t just service alleys at the backs of buildings, either. There were residences in alleys, and sometimes businesses, too.

A century ago, King’s Alley was on city maps. It was once home to probably 100 people.

It first appears in public records in 1891. King’s Alley was just a little residential street off the industrial railroad-frontage avenue then known as Hardee Street, before Hardee was renamed East Jackson.

Who it was named for is not obvious. There’s a King Street a few blocks away, just a little bit more than an alley off Fifth Avenue, but it doesn’t line up in such a way to suggest it’s related in any way to this old alley marked on East Jackson. Oddly, another King’s Alley pops up in 1891, the same year this one did, just outside of Knoxville’s tight city limits, over near the university.

The King’s Alley over here, near the railroad, was a residential street when it appeared, home to several households. It started at Hardee, several years before Hardee’s name was changed to East Jackson, and went south to First Creek, crossing Campbell Street and Paddleford Street on the way.

That first year, it was home to 13 households, eight of them black, five of them white. They were all working people of modest means, several of them single women who worked as laundresses or cooks. But there was one black cobbler named Lee Starr who would put down roots on King’s Alley and survive its several eras.

The street was part of the neighborhood known as Cripple Creek, which was a mixed-race neighborhood, especially in its earliest years. It became more and more purely an African-American community, though, and by 1900, all of King’s Alley’s residents were black.

It became more dense with the years, a handy place to live if you worked for the railroad, for the packing houses, or at Keller’s Foundry, just down the street.

In 1925, King’s Alley’s name was changed, for reasons I wish I could even guess about, to Quebec Alley. I can’t tell whether any French Canadians were ever involved in this part of town, but you never know. At the time, one of the most powerful men in Knoxville was UT president Harcourt Morgan, a Canadian who’s sometimes portrayed as the good ol’ boy of academia, but he was from Ontario.

Quebec Alley’s new name didn’t change its basic makeup. By then, it was home to 20 or 25 households, all black.

Meanwhile, the term Alley as a name for a residential street fell out of favor. Around 1938, its name was changed to include a plausibly French proper noun: Quebec Place. But it didn’t change much. Lee Starr, the shoemaker who’d been one of the first residents on King’s Alley in 1891, was still a resident of Quebec Place, 50 years later.

However, historian Bob Booker, who grew up in that neighborhood after it was renamed Quebec, says nobody was fooled by it. “I knew people who lived on King’s Alley,” he says.

He says there were a lot of residential alleys in that neighborhood, as he recalls it in the ’40s: Rock Alley, Drew’s Alley, Fairchild’s Alley.

“In later days they tried to clean up the old addresses for the young people, so the stigma of living in an alley wouldn’t be there.” He says most people kept calling it “King’s Alley.”

In the early 1950s, there were still about 20 families living on the little street. They might still be there today if not for urban renewal. In 1957, eight of the houses on Quebec Place, a.k.a. King’s Alley, had been torn down. By 1958, they all had. Its former residents moved elsewhere, some into housing projects.

Over the next 15 years, other streets closed, buildings were torn down, and to downtowners, the old Cripple Creek area, overshadowed by a new elevated highway, no longer seemed a part of things.

And by then, only the old timers remembered when it had been known as King’s Alley. It’s mentioned for a few more years as a little street without any addresses. Then, in the early 1970s, Quebec Place disappears altogether.

But here’s this small brass plaque in an old sidewalk. Dislodged, it would fit in your pocket. It may be the only reminder of a time when thousands of people lived down here, in a place once known as Cripple Creek.

Robby Griffith, and the people you almost know

I can’t claim to have known Robby Griffith. In my many encounters with him at Lawson McGhee Library, where he worked for a quarter century, he was always cordial and quietly efficient. I don’t think I ever said, “Hey, Robby,” and I’m not sure he ever said “Hey, Jack.” There are people like that in your life, people you almost know. You know who they are, you’re too familiar with them to introduce yourself, you’re pretty sure that next time you’ll have a discussion about something interesting. But for some reason you never say howdy, how are you doing. I didn’t know anything about his life, that he had a twin brother, or that he was from Texas, that he was sometimes an English teacher.

I also didn’t know until last week that, for the last few years, Robby had cancer. He died last week, at age 58.

He was the lankiest of all librarians, a shambling fellow who seemed taller than he was, with a long-legged gait you don’t expect to encounter in the library. He propelled a book cart up and down the aisles more swiftly than any other librarian, his longish hair never quite keeping up with the rest of him.

Something about him, the way he talked or the offbeat way he carried himself, reminded me of another Texan, thoughtful musician and actor Michael Nesmith. Anybody who knew him would probably say that was silly, but in my mind they were neighbors.

He was quiet in the library, but not onstage, in his other life, he sometimes bellowed. I watched him perform in several small productions, especially by the Tennessee Stage Company and by Theatre Knoxville and its predecessors, often in a comic role as a befuddled uncle or a philosophical old soldier. Occasionally he interpreted Knoxville history, as when he recently portrayed accidental industrialist/civic godfather Peter Kern, at one of Old Gray’s Lantern & Carriage Tours, or a few years ago, when, for a library podcast project, he brought to life one of the best pieces of journalism ever written about urban Knoxville, “A Night on the Bowery.”

He did a very good job with it, and with other roles I saw him play. Still, somehow, we never spoke. Encountering each other on Market Square at lunchtime, we’d nod, and that was it.

Even if we never had a conversation, we were once rivals. About 20 years ago, a historical organization sponsored a competition to write a play about the unusual life of John Sevier. I don’t enter contests very often, but I entered that one, with a proposal for a play about our first governor’s death in the wilderness, the day after he turned 70, of a pestilence in the uncharted woods of a region not yet known as Alabama. It was a peculiar and maybe unique death for a hero, neither a violent death on the battlefield, nor a well-attended death in bed. It was just John Sevier and one other guy in the woods, a guy who apparently didn’t come down with the fever, because he was healthy enough to bury him.

The playwriting committee interviewed the finalists, and finally it was between me and Robby Griffith. I never heard very much about Robby’s play, but maybe his experience with drama gave him an edge. He won the competition, as I recall, but then the whole thing fizzled out, and I don’t know that it got produced.

I heard it was very good. I hope someone has it somewhere, and that we get to witness it someday. If you run across it, let me know. Maybe it’s not too late to make his acquaintance.

Mr. Huckabee’s Adventures in Bubba-ville

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, was reportedly here in town early this week with his new book, “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.” In his book’s introductory essay, he draws what he thinks is a clean line between “Bubba-ville,” by which he means middle America, especially the South–and “Bubble-ville,” by which he means the three liberal epicenters of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

As they say, there are two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t. Mr. Huckabee is a member of the former group.

Of course, the book is published by St. Martin’s Press, in New York, which may explain why it’s not perfectly edited, with infelicitous syntax and excessive quotation marks. His liberal publisher obviously sabotaged it by running it as the author intended.

As a 10th-generation Southerner, I was a little perplexed by his central premise. But I admit I tend to resist regional generalities. I know many others are very fond of them.

On the one hand, I’m a typical denizen of what he calls Bubba-ville. Like Mr. Huckabee, I grew up with guns. From the age of 9, I played with pellet guns, and had two shotguns hanging on my bedroom wall—though I admit I’ve never owned a handgun. And I do have “three or more Bibles” in my house, as people in “Bubba-ville” are supposed to have. I also have two different translations of the Koran, or Qur’an, as one version prefers it, and a Book of Mormon, and somewhere a Bhagavad Gita, though I haven’t seen it lately.

“So let me make it clear,” Huckabee writes. “I’m a proud son of the South, but I can easily relate to folks from the Midwest, Southwest, and most of rural America. I feel a bit more disconnected from people who have never fired a gun, never fished with a cane pole, never cooked with propane, or never changed a tire.”

The changing a tire reference comes with some ironies, concerning the fact that automobiles were slow to catch on in the South, 80 or 90 years ago. Southern conservatives, among them the Vanderbilt Agrarians, suspected automobiles were a Northern plot to enslave the Southerner, not just to the big-city auto industry, but to the big-city banks and insurance companies—and, of course, the big-city tire companies.

But for better or worse, I’ve fired guns, fished with cane poles, and changed tires, more than a few times each, and each frankly more than I care to. Of those four, the one I’m not familiar with is the cooking with propane. I cook with charcoal, and on rare occasions, with wood. Last weekend, as my neighbors will attest, I cooked a couple of pans’ worth of Benton’s bacon over an open wood fire in the backyard. It was fun. I’m not sure why people ever cook with propane, or why that practice might make them trustworthy to Mr. Huckabee.

Many of his distinctions have to do with cooking in general. “Have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Manhattan restaurant?” Huckabee asks. “Good luck. Not even for breakfast!”

Never mind New York: have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Knoxville restaurant? Well, I take that back. Grits were rarely encountered in fancy Knoxville restaurants until recent years. But the fact is, grits have become nationally trendy, haute even, as a droll addition to shrimp and truffles and goat cheese and scallops. Now you can get grits in any number of upscale fusion restaurants across the nation.

Therein lies an interesting paradox.

Grits are much more common in East Tennessee today than they were to our great-grandparents’ generation. As I’ve noted a few times in newspaper columns, based on interviews with local folks much older than me, including the late historian Ron Allen, grits were rare in Knoxville restaurants before the 1960s, on hardly any local menus–with the exception of a couple with a “Southern Manor” theme, that catered to Northern motorists on their way to Florida.

The theory we developed is that Knoxville restaurants began serving grits because Northern tourists began demanding them. Then the rest of us got used to it. I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect that a Hollywood product called “The Beverly Hillbillies” introduced grits to mainstream America, and, indirectly, to many restaurants in my home town. Then, in the 1970s, the Carter candidacy as an emblematic Southerner gave grits a second boost, aligning with that other odd cultural developments, like the “Kiss my grits” retort of another Hollywood product. References like that at least make you curious. When a Northerner takes the trouble of driving across the South to Florida, he wants to be able to report something distinctive about his adventure to his chums back in Boston. “I went to Tennessee and I actually tried grits, and let me tell you–”

Of course, the sad fact is there’s really no adventure there. Pull back the curtain, and grits just aren’t that big a deal. Grits represent mainly a texture. If you pureed grits to remove the pebbly texture and ate them blindfolded, with no seasonings, would you have any idea what it was? By comparison to grits, skim milk has a rich, hearty flavor.

Grits take on the flavor of whatever they’re served with. What do grits taste like? Butter and salt, of course. Or garlic and cheddar cheese, if you use that popular magazine recipe, which swept the region in the late ’60s. When I order grits, it’s most often because I’ve ordered a fried egg, and I need the grits to sop it up. Therefore grits taste like eggs.

Some people claim they love grits, some claim they hate them. Maybe they’re all lying. There’s just not enough there to love or hate. We use grits to express a loyalty. Which may be the same reason most people arrive at their political opinions: to find an identity, a sense of belonging in a welcoming group.

Huckabee makes fun of Los Angeles residents for eating kale. “I thought only North Koreans ate lawn clippings,” he says. I first grew kale in my sunny Knoxville back yard when I was about 10, from a packet of seeds from around the corner at Mayo’s. I didn’t know it was fancy. I don’t grow it anymore, but I still cook kale, grown by local farmers. To me, kale still doesn’t seem urban or bi-coastal or Communist. It’s greens.
“If people don’t put pepper sauce on their black-eyed peas or order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer,” Huckabee writes, “I probably won’t relate to them without some effort.”
Although I’m lock-step with Mr. Huckabee on the issue of pepper sauce with black-eyed peas, that line confounded me on several levels. To begin with, there’s his choice of terminology. He keeps using the term “relating to,” which sounds to me like old-school liberalese. Did anyone ever “relate to” any other human until about 1967, the Summer of Love? Then there’s the phrase, “for an appetizer”? Do they serve fried green tomatoes as “appetizers” in Bubba-ville? I’m old enough to remember when the very concept of appetizers seemed fancy and urban.
But more to the point is his second culinary example, and it raises another interesting paradox, too.

Fried green tomatoes is apparently a 20th-century invention. According to the Google research feature Ngram, the phrase “fried green tomatoes” didn’t exist until the era of the motion picture and radio, and it remained rather obscure, in print at least, until the 1980s. Then it boomed. Most of the references to the dish in history have come in the last 25 years or so.

I’d grown at least a dozen summers’ worth of Tennessee tomatoes before ever heard of fried green tomatoes. It would have seemed such a strange thing to do, to fry any sort of tomato, and to consider eating a green tomato at all. Aren’t ripe, fresh tomatoes always better? Fried green tomatoes seems like a fall-back tactic, a graceful way to deal with a mistake, a tomato that falls off the vine before it’s ripe. The only time I ever have enough green tomatoes on hand to consider making a dish of them is right before the first freeze, when I go out and pick them all, no matter what they look like, because if I don’t, the next day they’ll be bags of goo.

I have a bunch of old Southern cookbooks, several from my grandparents’ generation and even before. Only a couple of them mention fried tomatoes as one of several options for cooking tomatoes as a side dish. They don’t make any big deal of them, describing them alongside fried ripe tomatoes, which are a bit more of a challenge, because if you don’t do it right, they fall apart. My late friend John Egerton’s definitive 1987 book “Southern Food” briefly notes “fried tomatoes,” both green and ripe, as a sometime accompaniment with breakfast, preferably with bacon gravy. The “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” published in Chapel Hill in 1989 after years of work by contributors across the South, weighs about 10 pounds and describes dozens of signature Southern symbols and staples, but it does not acknowledge any familiarity with the existence of fried green tomatoes.

I first heard of them around the time that big encyclopedia came out. I grew up knowing about crawfish and chitlins and gumbo and dirty rice and red rice and cornbread and molasses. By the time I was a teenager I could easily tell the difference between red-eye gravy and sawmill gravy, and Memphis barbecue and Carolina barbecue. But I never heard of “fried green tomatoes” until the release of a very funny and popular Hollywood movie by that name, in 1991. It was based on a recent novel by Fannie Flagg, who was my favorite contestant on “The Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares.” She’s originally from Birmingham, but has spent much of her life in Los Angeles. And though she didn’t invent fried green tomatoes, she’s responsible for about 98 percent of the recent hubbub about them as a Southern symbol. Fannie Flagg made them a Southern icon.

Suddenly fried green tomatoes were a thing, and you saw them everywhere. I learned to fix them, myself. By now I’ve had hundreds of fried green tomatoes. But Southern as I am, most of the fried green tomatoes I’ve enjoyed are the ones in the Eggs Chesapeake, the brunch favorite at the British gastropub the Crown & Goose. That dish also includes a poached egg, a fine crab cake, and hollandaise sauce. And truth be told, it’s not the fried green tomatoes that you notice.

I have come to like fried green tomatoes well enough, about as much as I like whole-wheat toast. Like grits, they’re best when they’re served with something else, and what you notice is the something else.

Southerners are a lot like grits and fried green tomatoes. We take on whatever flavor the whimsical chefs on the coasts apply to us. If we’re noble and gallant and soft-spoken and well-mannered, as Hollywood said we were in the ’30s, we become Ashley Wilkes. If we’re rip-roarin’ rednecks, as Hollywood has said we were in the ’70s, we’re become Smokey and the Bandit, both.

We were once the one part of the country that stubbornly resisted national trends like college football and the automobile lifestyle. But then we made up for it by outdoing the rest of the country in those regards. Maybe because we’re still not quite sure what to make of ourselves, we soak up nearly everything, and you just never know what they’re going to serve us with next.

Mad Pilgrimage: the new biography of Tennessee Williams, and the unfinished project of Lyle Leverich

John Lahr’s new biography is called “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” It’s a pity Lahr chose that particular subtitle. Now, when I write my autobiography, I’ll have to come up with something else. The book’s a personal portrait of a complicated man, an interesting and well-written biography for a popular audience of America’s greatest playwright. Lahr notes that Tennessee Williams is the most autobiographical of all major playwrights, and to some extent he proves the truth of that observation.

It’s a fine book, by the well-known “New Yorker” drama critic who knows Williams’ work better than nearly anyone alive. Of course, as he may tire of hearing people note, he’s also the son of Bert Lahr, who immortalized the Cowardly Lion.

Tennessee Williams had some interesting and significant Knoxville connections—his father’s family lived here for more than a century before his was born, and were one of the most prominent families in 19th-century East Tennessee. The new biography mentions Knoxville a few times, but there’s one line, concerning the death of Williams’ father, Cornelius Coffin “C.C.” Williams, that suggests Lahr didn’t do much research here.

“CC was laid to rest in ‘Old Gray,’ as the Knoxville Cemetery was called.”

Never known as “the Knoxville Cemetery,” capitalized, Old Gray was never “the Knoxville cemetery,” either. When C.C. Williams died here, Old Gray was one of dozens of Knoxville cemeteries, and most of the newer ones were bigger and easier to get into. By 1957, few were buried in Old Gray unless they were members of old families who still had space in old plots, and moreover old-family members who felt obliged to be buried there, rather than in one of the newer, larger, safer, cleaner, suburban cemeteries. Tree-shaded Old Gray was falling on harder times in the 1950s. This once-famous Victorian cemetery was neglected in an ever more ignored inner city, and isolated by the highway, often overgrown, losing some of its most notable monuments, occasionally subject to exhumations for reburial elsewhere, and forgotten, like a metaphor in a Williams play.

It’s a minor thing, and we can’t blame Lahr for shortcuts. Lahr has a full-time job and splits his time between New York and London.
There’s a universal scholarly astigmatism concerning Knoxville, which gets blurred out of nearly every biography, our details misunderstood, scrambled, or omitted altogether. Authors on deadline don’t like to visit Knoxville, or at least they don’t think they’d like to, and almost every time the city gets mentioned in a biography, some detail or other is at least a little off. In fact, it’s hard to think of exceptions, biographers who took the time to visit and get to know the place.

One was Lyle Leverich. As good a read as Lahr’s book is, it leaves me wishing fate had allowed Leverich, a more comprehensive biographer, to finish his major two-volume biography of Williams. A few years before his death in 1983, the playwright had designated Leverich, a San Francisco theater producer, as his authorized biographer, to the consternation of some who envied the honor. Leverich’s first volume, “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams,” came out in 1995, to the general astonishment of critics who might not have expected much from a first-time author. It says something that two of its many raves came from America’s two playwright legends: Edward Albee called it “extraordinary and invaluable,” and Arthur Miller called it “a rare work of the greatest importance.”

Many have considered “Tom” the first half of the definitive biography of Williams. It closed with the playwright on the brink of stardom, at age 34, at the time of the debut of “The Glass Menagerie.”

Ever since then, we’ve been waiting for Part 2.

In the preface of his new book, Lahr explains that this new book is what we get instead. He says Leverich requested that “should anything happen to him,” Lahr should take up the project. Leverich was already grateful for Lahr’s help. Lahr’s “New Yorker” story about deliberate attempts to impede Leverich’s book has been credited with helping pave the way for “Tom.”

But it’s a lot to expect any professional writer to devote years to writing someone else’s book, interpreting someone else’s notes, following someone else’s vision. Instead of writing the in-depth Part 2 Leverich intended, Lahr chose to write a one-volume complete biography. It’s a good long book, at 765 pages, but necessarily with about half as many pages per year of Williams’ life as Leverich had done. In his preface, Lahr remarks that he rejected Leverich’s “encyclopedic chronological approach,” and also chose to ignore much of Leverich’s “useless” research, which likely included his notes and documents from research in Knoxville. Lahr and Leverich differed, Lahr admits, in their views of “the psychology of the Williams family.”

That may have a lot to do with the fact that Lahr lays out a fairly complex portrait of Williams’ father, but includes no mention of some Knoxville people and places that Leverich found fascinating.

Back in the ’90s I got to know Mr. Leverich. Although the 1995 book offers some detail about Williams and Knoxville lacking in previous biographies, Leverich told me his regret about “Tom” was that he didn’t more fully explore the playwright’s complicated relationships with his paternal family, and Knoxville. He meant to rectify that, he said, in his second volume, partly through background concerning Williams’ return to Knoxville for his father’s funeral in 1957.

Williams never lived in Knoxville. He grew up in Mississippi and St. Louis, and as an adult spent a lot of time in New Orleans and New York. Williams never set a play in Knoxville, at least not overtly.

But he had a tangle of local connections, positive and negative, some of which he hinted at in his plays, almost in the same way Quentin Tarantino does in his movies. In the major play “Suddenly Last Summer,” for example, the name of the dreaded Louisiana mental institution is “Lion’s View.” The name of Knoxville’s mental institution, a century ago, was the same as its address: Lyons View. I would not want to be the one to argue that that’s a coincidence.

His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, grew up in Knoxville, a member of one of the city’s most celebrated older families. They settled mostly on the east side of town, before the Civil War. There are two old Colonel John Williams houses, commemorating two different Colonels John Williams, a current residence on Riverside Drive and a well-renovated antebellum house on Dandridge Avenue. The Williams Creek Golf Course bears their name. Just across the river, Dickinson Island, now home to a small airport, was known, until just after the Civil War, as Williams Island.

Tennessee Williams’ formal name was Thomas Lanier Williams III. The grandfather he was named for, Thomas Lanier Williams II, was a onetime Knoxville alderman and, repeatedly, a candidate for governor. Most of the Williamses were men of aspiration, judges, politicians. John Williams was a U.S. senator and diplomat who may have originated the term “Tennessee Volunteers,” thanks to his battles with Indian tribes during the War of 1812 era. He’s the one who, late in life, lived in that house near the golf course.

Cornelius Coffin Williams grew up here, attended UT’s law school without graduating, and worked in business here for a bit, but he turned out to be quite a contrast from his family. A shoe salesman who never had Williams-sized aspirations for himself, C.C. wasn’t much of a family man either, and turned out to be an alcoholic. His sisters, Isabel, who married a Brownlow and was a high-society lady, and Ella, who ran a dress shop downtown and was a little bit eccentric, were very much part of Tennessee Williams’ life, too, even at a distance.

Ella Williams, the maiden aunt, was especially close to Williams’ sister Rose, who was the inspiration and tragic anti-heroine in much of his work, like “The Glass Menagerie” and “Suddenly Last Summer.” Aunt Ella is described and mentioned repeatedly in Leverich’s book, “Tom.” According to the playwright’s mother, Edwina, who wrote her own memoir of her famous son, the glass menagerie that inspired the famous play was a group of odd fashion accessories purchased at Aunt Ella’s shop. Her first shop, in the 1920s, was at 308 Clinch Avenue, between Gay and Market, across the street from the Holston Bank, where Ella Williams had previously worked as a stenographer.

She moved her shop to Locust Street in the 1930s, and older folks may remember when Miss Ella’s shop was at 710 Locust, where she lived. Rose Williams sometimes stayed with Aunt Ella there, as they were trying to figure out how to deal with her unpredictable behavior.

Miss Ella died before I was born, but I remember older folks talking about her, often with a knowing smile and a wink. Short and compact, Miss Ella was a lively, independent woman a Presbyterian lady who nonetheless did as she pleased, even smoked cigarettes in public. At the time of her death at age 82 in 1958, she was described by more than one obituary writer as a “personality.”

Rose Williams spent some long holidays of her youth in Knoxville, and went through the obligatory debutante ordeal here, probably because the Williamses were high-society in Knoxville, but not necessarily in St. Louis. It was during that period, according the Tennessee Williams’ own problematic memoirs, that Rose began showing the first indications of the insanity that would define her life—something, the playwright thought, about a disappointment with a boy who lived here.

It’s not necessarily something for Knoxville to be proud of. But it’s part of the texture of the Williams’ family, and of this complicated place.

Separated from his wife, partly estranged from his children, Cornelius returned to Knoxville in the 1950s to live alone his final years, albeit sometimes with the help of his sisters, in downtown hotels and at the old Whittle Springs Hotel, near Fountain City, and of course was buried alongside his noble family at Old Gray.

Lyle Leverich was going to get into all that in his second volume, using the playwright’s reaction to the death and burial of his father, the deaths of his Knoxville aunts, and the subsequent reference to a mental institution as “Lion’s View” as an aperture for examining the Knoxville family, and the Knoxville part of the playwright’s perspective, in more depth.

Leverich lived in Northern California. We corresponded some, after someone had forwarded him some of my columns in “Metro Pulse,” but when he was doing research here, I met him in person at Old Gray Cemetery, on a hot day in the latter 1990s. He was older than I’d pictured him. Portly, he wore a dark suit even on that hot day, and reminded me of the character actor Charles Coburn, who played formal and genially fussy characters in old black-and-white movies.

He seemed genuinely interested in getting Williams’ full story, and was even interested in Williams’ 1980 speaking visit, when the playwright, on his last public return to his ancestral home, was obviously unprepared for an Alumni Hall audience in the hundreds, a painful experience for most in the room. I was there that stormy evening, but Leverich seemed to know some things about that visit that I didn’t.

We walked around the cemetery, not just to the Williams’ family plot, which is one of the handiest ones, a few steps away from the Broadway sidewalk, but to several other sites in the graveyard, including the Parson Brownlow obelisk, which memorializes one of Tennessee’s most controversial writers and editors of the Civil War era. The Brownlows are related to the Williamses by marriage. Tennessee Williams’ father, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s mother, Emily Dickinson’s Amherst-born cousins are all buried a stone’s throw from each other. Leverich was interested in the whole odd fascinating place, and although he was red-faced, sweating and stumbling a little, he was carried the zeal that comes with a life mission, and didn’t let the heat impede his curiosity.

We said we’d stay in touch, and for years after that day I looked forward to that second edition. He said he was going to give me a credit. But I stopped hearing from him, and eventually I wondered what had become of Lyle Leverich. I had his name and address in my Rolodex, but didn’t want to bother him.

A few years ago, I looked him up on the Internet, and was dismayed to learn why he’d been so quiet. He had died back in late 1999, not more than a year or two after our graveyard tour. His death had been covered in the “New York Times.” I often scan their obits, but I’d missed that one.

It was one of those inversions of memory you have to get used to if you’re serious about getting older. I had to check multiple sources to convince myself it was true. His visit didn’t seem nearly that long ago.

Lahr’s book is a strong one, substantial enough that there probably won’t be a call for another biography of Tennessee Williams for another quarter-century or so. He knows the backstage dramas better than anybody, and the politics of Broadway. It’s a lot about the importance of the plays themselves, in context with American culture. His book is full of famous people, of course, Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Gore Vidal, Dick Cavett, Tab Hunter, John Huston.

But never mentions Aunt Ella, who tried to take care of poor Rose. It never mentions Lyons View, or the original glass menagerie, or that strange last lecture at the university his troubled father once attended.

I just checked, and am not surprised I still have Mr. Leverich’s card in my Rolodex, 15 years after his death. But I’m starting to suspect we’re never going to see the book he described.

Obama’s Knoxville Visit

Here’s a coincidence. When I was naïve enough to think there might be a Metro Pulse still in publication in January, 2015, I made a note in my calendar to look into a column about President Obama’s traveling habits. For next week’s issue, concurrent with the halfway point of his second term in office, I was going to remark on the fact that our president had never visited Knoxville. Unless, driving down I-75 on some forgotten spring break–perhaps early in the Reagan administration–he pulled off for gas and cigarettes at a Weigel’s.

Who was the last U.S. president who spent six years in office without visiting Knoxville? No one since Truman, certainly. And I’m not sure about Harry. It could be much, much longer than that.

Until his Knoxville visit this week Obama was in the running for a peculiar distinction he could have shared only with four of our founding fathers. I’ll get at that in a moment.

First, I feel obliged to adjust a doubly misleading statement made this week by a local news source: “Because Tennessee isn’t a traditional battleground state, presidents haven’t made frequent visits.” That could be true if “traditional” applies only to the last 15 years, and if “presidents” applies only to Barack Obama.

Tennessee actually is a traditional battleground state. But its battleground-state status is now only traditional, as opposed to contemporary.

Beginning maybe with the Civil War, when it was literally a battleground state, Tennessee has been the political equivalent of a continental divide, with equal numbers of Republican and Democratic voters going this way and that. For well over a century, Tennessee was the unpredictable wild card in the so-called Solid South. Few states have split their loyalties more evenly between the two parties in presidential elections, and for generations, Tennessee was a prize to win, frequently visited by candidates of both parties. Lest we forget, as recently as 1996, Tennessee favored the Democrat for president. That changed in 2000, perhaps forever. Ironically, it took Tennessee’s first presidential nominee in more than a century to turn the state against the Democrats. I’m still not sure how that happened. We liked Al Gore as our senator, twice, and as our vice president, twice. Just not as our president. We’re funny that way. Maybe it’s the memory of the last Tennessee president, Andrew Johnson. Maybe we figured a Tennessean headed to the White House is rising above his rearing.

In fact several presidents have made relatively frequent visits. By my count, before Obama’s prospective visit, 23 of our 44 presidents since George Washington have made visits to Knoxville at least long enough to make a speech. (Or 22 of 43, if you don’t count Cleveland twice.) Several of them came three or more times during their administrations.

That’s even though presidential travel was rare before the Civil War—and as far as I know, none of our founding fathers ever had a good look at Tennessee, even though it was here to look at. Some of those who did make it to Knoxville visited to campaign. Others, especially Republicans, have visited to raise money. That’s the other reason to visit. Republican presidents in particular have found it worth more than the Air Force One fuel to make a trip to Knoxville, to host $1,000 a plate dinners.

Democratic presidents have usually visited for other reasons.

Several presidents and presidential candidates of both parties have come to Knoxville expressly to voice their support for the Tennessee Valley Authority. That was part of the reason for Kennedy’s 1960 trip, and a bigger part of the reason for Reagan’s 1980 trip. Reagan had opposed TVA early in his political career, and wanted to come to let us know he’d changed his mind. TVA has been a talking point in most presidential visits to Knoxville, and no president has raised questions about TVA’s long-term viability since Eisenhower called it “creeping socialism.” That is, nobody until Obama—who is, unpredictably, the first president of either party in half a century who hasn’t paid proper homage to our sacred cow.

I can understand how newcomers might have the impression that presidential visits are scant here. No president’s been here in about a decade. I’m not sure there’s been a spell that long without a presidential visit since the Civil War.

It’s partly because W didn’t need another infusion of Knoxville cash after winning re-election in 2004 election. And Obama couldn’t have expected that campaigning in Tennessee would ever produce results. And maybe his questions about TVA might have made him shy about visiting TVA’s headquarters.

Both Presidents George Bush found it profitable to visit Knoxville several times. Ronald Reagan was here at least three times. I’ve seen four or five presidents in downtown Knoxville, myself. The first one I remember, I was a kindergartener waving a little flag with my Republican grandfather in 1964 as Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s parade went up Cumberland Avenue. I know he didn’t vote for LBJ, but my grandfather seemed very happy to see him in town. (Do Republican grandfathers still take their kids to parades for Democratic presidents?)

JFK was here, Ike was here. I still haven’t proven whether Harry Truman ever got his Knoxville ticket stamped. In the library I can’t find a record of a Truman visit. He was certainly a major figure here, in the era when Oak Ridge and TVA were federal projects under his supervision. He had motives to come here. It would be odd if he didn’t. I was once told by someone old enough to remember that Truman indeed did come here once, but details are elusive.

Franklin Roosevelt came to Knoxville at least three times. Lately there’s been some issue of mistaking old pictures of FDR’s parade down Gay Street in 1936 with his parade down Gay Street, in the same direction, in 1940. They look a lot alike.

However, just before FDR, the three Republican presidents of the 1920s are elusive. I’ve never run across any account of Harding or Coolidge ever darkening our door either during their campaigns or terms in office. Hoover made a car trip through East Tennessee, but a newspaper feature suggests he favored small towns, and may not have come to Knoxville proper.

However, for a long period during Knoxville’s boom years, in the half-century after the Civil War, most U.S. presidents came to Knoxville to give a speech to a big crowd, either during their term in office or in the four years before their first elections.

Wilson came here for a brief whistlestop visit at the Southern station, accompanied by his son in law, who was also his Secretary of the Treasury, former Knoxvillian William McAdoo.

Taft, our heftiest chief, gave a talk at the Hotel Atkin on Depot Street.

Teddy Roosevelt, who was very popular in Knoxville, spoke to roaring crowds here on several occasions. (The Knoxville area even supported TR in 1912, when he was running for a third term as the most liberal of the three candidates, touting, among many other progressive measures, a national health-care policy.)

Going farther back, McKinley came to Knoxville two or three times, before and during his presidency. Grover Cleveland, too, who visited during one of his famously non-sequential terms. Benjamin Harrison was downtown once, as was Rutherford B. Hayes, who gave a big public speech in the front of what’s now the Bijou Theatre on Gay Street.

For President Grant, we might be allowed to fudge a little bit. I don’t know he ever came here as sitting president, but Grant spent about a week in Knoxville about four years before his first election to the presidency. It’s true that he was not giving speeches here, as a politician would. He was a general of an occupying army. Still, it was mainly on Grant’s military record that he was elected, so maybe we can call that campaigning.

Obama’s avoidance of Knoxville until this week was beginning to suggest a new distinction.

Consider this. Since the Civil War, all the presidents who never came to Knoxville—that may include Garfield, Arthur, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and (maybe) Truman–were elected only once. Is a Knoxville visit necessary to a successful double-term administration?

I’m not ready to make that claim today. But here, at least, is a damnably vexing question for trivia night. Who was the last president to be elected, and re-elected, without ever visiting Knoxville?

If you guessed Abraham Lincoln, you score a swig of hard cider. He probably never set foot in East Tennessee, even though he had a lot of friends here, and even though his father had lived in Greene County for a while.

Of course, a Knoxville visit would have been inadvisable during most of Lincoln’s administration, because, for more than half of it, Knoxville was deep in enemy territory. Then, even under Union occupation, some disgruntled Confederate might well take a shot.

As was the case even in the Union capital. Lincoln didn’t get to serve much of his second term, just six weeks of it in fact. So that raises another question. Before Obama, who was the last president to be elected, re-elected, and serve more than two months of his second term, without ever seeing Gay Street?

It wasn’t Andrew Jackson, obviously. Between the 1790s and the 1830s, he was probably here dozens of times. Young Hickory kept a room here, in his circuit-judge days, felt comfortable enough here even to challenge local hero John Sevier to a duel in front of the courthouse.

No, the streak goes back further, to our founding fathers. None of them saw much of the nation they founded.

Consider Jefferson. He’s considered the symbolic Southern champion, but in his very long life, he never saw most of the South. He spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, spent years in Paris, but never saw Charleston or Savannah or New Orleans. Or Knoxville. He offered some advice to the founders of our university, but he never crossed our border. In his 83 years, he never ventured south or west of Virginia. Eleven states later formed the Confederacy, but Jefferson never saw more than one of them.

And he was actually better-traveled than some of our founding fathers. In his day, there was no expectation that a leader was obliged to actually visit all the states he governed. It wasn’t just that roads were bad. People just weren’t accustomed to political campaigning, and the flattery that comes with a visit.

He wasn’t the last president to serve two terms without a Knoxville visit. That distinction goes to James Monroe. His famous Doctrine was globally far-reaching, but he wasn’t.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all served two full elected terms, and none of them visited Knoxville. Since Monroe, who left office in 1825, every two-full-term president has Knoxville on his resume.

So, in visiting Knoxville this week, just before the halfway mark of his second term, President Obama maintains an obscure 190-year-old streak for the city of Knoxville.

At the same time, he spoils a presidential distinction he almost shared only with our founding fathers.

The First Municipal Christmas Tree: A Knoxville Christmas, 1914

Weathermen had predicted a white Christmas. It was almost cold enough. For days, the temperature never climbed out of the 30s, and then it got colder. But in Knoxville, all it did was rain, more than three inches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The river was up 15 feet. If it wasn’t a flood yet, Knoxville could thank the fact that some of the rivers upstream of Knoxville were frozen. But the poor people who lived in the bottomland shanties along the creeks were starting to worry.

And to the south, near Chattanooga, came word of smallpox on its way.

Still, in downtown Knoxville it was the year of the “First Municipal Christmas Tree.” For decades, lots of churches, schools, and fraternal groups, like the Tribe of Ben Hur, had sponsored a tree on their own premises, often as part of a charitable event. But this was the first time there was a great big one out in public, for everybody all at once.

The cash-strapped city wouldn’t have paid for that sort of thing. A group called the Jovian Society, “an organization of electrical men,” was behind the ambitious project. They were good at what they did, and declared that an electrically lit tree could work even in a driving rain. The 40-foot tree, harvested in East Knox County, went up on the 500 block of Market Street. It was hardly a candy cane’s throw from the Krutch Park site where we put it now. But what was most different about 1914 was not the where, but the when.

If Christmas was ever a holiday that was not commercialized, few in 1914 remembered that day. The Journal described the usual Christmas-shopping ordeal, “that pushing, squirming, elbowing, dodging, grasping, struggling, etc.” of shoppers “as they try to get into the stores, try to get up to the counters, try to get waited on, then try to get out again and then try to move on to the next store.”

That hasn’t changed much. What was different in 1914 was most didn’t decorate, or relax enough celebrate the holiday, until Christmas Day, or perhaps the evening before. That’s when the Christmas party started, and it didn’t end until early January.

And following Old World customs, Christmas Eve was, of course, the day to put up a Christmas tree.

There was a steady, cold rain that Thursday afternoon as the sky darkened. Frantic last-minute shoppers in rubber boots and overcoats sloshed from one storefront to another while an estimated 500 clustered under umbrellas along Market Street to witness a new spectacle. To get out of the rain, performers assembled on stoops and in covered second-floor balconies of businesses and boarding houses.

The Jovians had a flair for the dramatic that probably seemed almost magical. At 4:30, music on chimes emanated from the nearby Second Presbyterian steeple, as some soft carols from the assembled choirs competed with the downpour. At 5:00 sharp, as it was getting darker, a large five-pointed electrical star at the top of the tree suddenly glowed. Trumpets sounded, not loud enough that everyone noticed at first, but then they grew in volume into a fanfare. And as the sound increased, 1,300 electric lights glowed on the tree, first dimly, then brighter and brighter, until they washed the streets in color.

The event was in full swing by then, with music from a brass sextet and several choirs, a chorus composed of the Tuesday Morning Musical Club. The Jovian society ostensibly honored the Roman god Jupiter, but the Jovians of Knoxville tolerated Christianity enough to allow a brief ecumenical address by Methodist minister and sometime author George R. Stuart, who had recently co-founded the spiritual retreat known as Lake Junaluska. He implored the damp audience “to brighten and beautify every circle, to carry light into the darkened places.”

Maybe it was the dreary weather that left an editor in a funk that produced one single unexplained line on the editorial page. “Let it be hoped that the world will never see such another Christmas as this one in some respects.”

War had broken out in eastern Europe during the summer. Somehow by Christmas Eve, Germany was attempting, with limited success, to bomb England, and nobody completely understood why.

It didn’t seem likely that America would ever be involved that Old World clash of royal cousins, and some European leaders were predicting it would be over within weeks. Still, it was unsettling. Many Knoxvillians were of recent English and German heritage.

That Christmas we witnessed one final loss in an old domestic battle. Saloons had been banned by 1914, with a major assist from a tragedy at another Christmastime 13 years earlier. In a poolhall saloon on the Central Street Bowery in 1901, two good policemen, William Dinwiddie and Robert Saylor, had confronted the Wild West outlaw and known killer Harvey Logan, a.k.a. “Kid Curry,” who shot them both.

Western movies were already popular on Gay Street in 1914, but what they rarely portrayed was that many victims of dramatic gunfights neither died nor recovered. Both Dinwiddie and Saylor lived for years with painful wounds. Dinwiddie had died the previous summer. Saylor, forced to leave the force because he could no longer walk his beat, had made a living for his family as a bail-bonds collector. He eventually had a foot amputated. He died at his home on Jefferson Avenue, at age 50, with pneumonia the proximate cause. His funeral was scheduled for 2:00 on Methodist Hill, just east of downtown, in the afternoon of Christmas Day.

Things had been looking up in the Marble City until just lately. But just after the major exposition years, culminating in last fall’s extravagantly popular National Conservation Exposition, public money was tight, and some couldn’t help noticing that Knoxville was looking a little tired here and there. The Austin School, the high school for blacks, had seemed a progressive amenity when it was established 40 years earlier on Central, near Marble Alley–but since then a neighborhood known as the Bowery had grown up around it, and it was cheek to jowl with poolhalls and whorehouses. The “colored” branch of the Knoxville Board of Trade noted Austin was “in a bad state of repair and not fit for a high school in the city of Knoxville.” It needed to be, it was suggested, “in a different part of the city, with different surroundings.”

Even City Hall, on Market Square, was shabby and embarrassing, something to avoid showing visitors. Some were urging it be rebuilt somewhere else, somewhere not as crowded and smelly. There was talk of moving City Hall into the Boyd School on Union Avenue.

And after years of complaints, Knoxville was planning to install public restrooms on Market Square. “Its establishment would be an act of humanity,” wrote one advocate, “and would secure for the city the goodwill of a class whose good will is worth having.”

A public restroom was considered an amenity “for wives and daughters,” as if males didn’t particularly need one. Maybe they didn’t.

Compared to years past, advertising in 1914 was low key. Featured were some of the usual things, hobby horses, roller skates, dolls. Kodak cameras, still a bit of a novelty, ran from the cheapest model, $1, to the most expensive, at $25. Pianos were available at several stores, even furniture stores like Sterchi’s, as were Victrolas and Edison phonograph machines.

Bicycles, like the Excelsior and the Iver Johnson Roadster, available at Woodruff’s, were still popular, if not quite the rage they had been in the ’90s.

By 1914, daring young sportsmen, the sort who had been bicyclists in the previous generation, were tempted by the new automobiles and motorcycles. At the Motor-Cycle Shop at 702 S. Gay, where the florist shop is now, you could by the Excelsior or Harley-Davidson brand.

Knoxville’s finest hostelry was a leftover from the Victorian era, the Imperial Hotel at Gay and Clinch. Since the previous century, the Imperial had advertised its traditional Christmas-Day dinner by publishing their menu published in the paper.

That year, the Imperial feast included “Cream Raphael” and stuffed mangoes. Lobster a la Newburg. Filet of Sole, tartare. Sweetbread patties, “aux truffles.” To cleanse the palate, they offered, in big bold letters, ROMAN PUNCH. What the Imperial’s chef meant by that is unclear. Roman punch is usually an alcoholic concoction of rum and brandy and citrus juices, sometimes semi-frozen like sherbet, sometimes with champagne in it. It would have been fairly illegal to serve in Knoxville in 1914. But it was a holiday, and Roman Punch was an old Southern tradition.

Then came a choice of venison steak with currant jelly, larded tenderloin a la Jardinierre, roast turkey, roast lamb with Yorkshire pudding—or, if you prefer, “Braised Georgia Possum, with candied sweet potatoes.” Knoxville in 1914 was a fascinating place to live.

And that multi-course meal was available for one silver dollar.

Several hotels and restaurants offered haute cuisine on Christmas Day. Despite its name, which today would surely suggest country ham and country biscuits, the Appalachian Dining Room offered mostly continental fare, canapés au fromage, potage a la Reine, Filet of whitefish Bordelaise, pommes a la Deutsches.

That restaurant was connected to the Appalachian Hotel on the 700 block of Gay Street. The word “Appalachian” was new to most Knoxville lips when the city hosted its first Appalachian Exposition four years earlier. Previously, East Tennesseans had referred to the neighboring mountains as part of the Alleghenies or the Unakas. But in the early 20th century, “Appalachian” was suddenly trendy as a regional identification, with more emphasis on industry and progressivism than homespun authenticity.

The more modest Good’s Café, across the street within sight of the Imperial, offered a more modest feast, of oyster soup, roast turkey, and plum pudding with brandy sauce, for 50 cents.

The Stratford Hotel, on Asylum Street near Market Square, offered a 50-cent “Christmas Plate Dinner” featuring “clear green turtle” soup and broiled Spanish mackerel maitre d’hotel, with the extra inducement of Wooten’s Orchestra.

Traditionally, for 30 years anyway, vaudeville houses had offered Christmas-Day shows, and they were so popular they had stacked more shows into the day. By 1914, Gay Street’s traditional Christmas-Day vaudeville orgy was fading.

The Gay Theatre was on the 400 block, not far from where Suttree’s is now, and it offered a Christmas Eve entertainment, “The Dancer and the King,” starring actress Cecil Spooner, “a Blaney Feature in Five Acts.” It was played up as if it were a live show, and appeared only one night, but in 1914 a five-reel movie was a rarer event than mere vaudeville. An extra treat was “Bronco Billy’s Christmas Greetings,” likely the comedy short also known as “Broncho Billy’s Christmas Spirit.” Broncho Billy, spelled that way, was a Western character created by New Yorker Gilbert Anderson, a son of Jewish Russian immigrants, and one of cinema’s first cowboy heroes. Tickets were a nickel and a dime.

At Staub’s, the largest and oldest of Knoxville’s theaters, Al H. Wilson, “the singing German dialect comedian in his song-adorned comedy, ‘When Old New York was Dutch’” was advertising a show for the day after Christmas.

Although the comedian made fun of Germans, part of his appeal was to German immigrants, of which Knoxville had many. But 1914 was an awkward time to be German. For the time being, German-style comedians struggled to seem light-hearted.

Tickets went on sale on Christmas Day.

The Bijou opened at 7:30 on Christmas Day with a special event for the poor, a collaboration between the Knoxville Sentinel, the Salvation Army, and Bijou developer C.B. Atkin. Adorned with a decorated tree, it was a free musical event. Seats in the five-year-old theater’s main auditorium were “reserved for the poor,” who would be treated with gifts, including clothing, fruit, and toys, among them 144 dolls that had been slightly damaged in a railroad accident.

The holiday was evolving, and downtown was not as lively on December 25 as it had been a decade earlier, when the saloons were open and theaters added extra shows. Still, several institutions stayed open on Christmas. “Christmas was anything but a holiday at the post office,” according to the Journal. “They worked harder than any day of the year, and their hours were also longer.” On Christmas Day, postmen worked 12-14 hours. They did the regular routes—how else would people get their Christmas gifts?—and greeted approximately 500 customers individually that day at the main office in the Custom House on Market at Clinch. They didn’t get to close until 9 p.m.

In 1914, Knoxville’s most eligible bachelor was McGhee Tyson. At 25, the handsome son of one of Knoxville’s wealthiest families was a championship golfer, and in no hurry to get married. He was known for the parties he hosted at Cherokee Country Club. Recently he’d been hosting a Christmas Day “matinee dance” there, inviting young married and single society folks, to dance to the fashionable music of a 10-piece orchestra. That year, about 250 attended.

Not quite four years later, McGhee Tyson would be a missing airman, lost in the North Sea.

While national prohibition was gaining traction nationally, Knoxville was ahead of that curve, dry since 1907. Police raided the Stonewall Restaurant, on Depot across the street from the Southern Railway station, and seized 40 gallons of liquor, but allowed the restaurant to remain open. Losing that much value was surely punishment enough.

But this Christmas, there were only nine arrests on Christmas Eve, eight on Christmas Day, all of them for drunkenness, disorderliness, or both. There was only a little theft reported on the holiday, that of a “possum dog” and one coop full of chickens.

The newspaper reported that it was the quietest Christmas Knoxville had ever known, but they had said something similar for the last five or six years. The holidays had once been a violent time in Knoxville. When young single men were suddenly off work and spending their free time and money in saloons, the holidays often produced multiple murders, and newspaper readers often had a murder mystery to contemplate.

It wasn’t like that this time, but there was a curious case over near the university. In 1914, one part of town was radically different from what anyone alive knows today. The area just south and west of the Hill was dense mixed-race neighborhood, with a hatch of haphazardly connected streets, Detroit Street, Robinson Street, Wordon Street, along the west bank of Second Creek, in the vicinity of what’s now Neyland Stadium.

Probably no one alive today remembers Wordon Street. It had disappeared by the time of Knoxville’s first radio broadcast. But in 1914, at 1026 Wordon Street lived a reclusive old woman named Martha Sherwood. Believed to be 87 years old, she was old enough to have been a slave, old enough even to remember Andrew Jackson and the Mexican War. Her neighborhood knew her as Aunt Martha, but that warm-sounding nickname doesn’t suggest any affection for her. She had no family, and only one friend in the world, one person she ever spoke to, and that was another black woman named Miranda Boyd. Just before Christmas, Ms. Boyd became concerned when she was unable to enter Aunt Martha’s house. She informed police, who discovered Aunt Martha had barricaded herself inside her house. Unable to force the door, officers entered through a window, and found the old woman’s body lying partly underneath her bed. “Her clothing and bed clothing were disarranged, indicating a struggle,” but a “half-filled pitcher of sweet milk” was unspilled. The police found no reason to report foul play.

It kept raining. And on Market Square, thanks to the Jovians, the city’s First Municipal Christmas Tree blazed brightly throughout the 12 days.

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.