For much of his professional life, Chattanooga native Bill Landry has told other people’s stories through his popular “The Heartland Series” television segments on WBIR Channel 10 in Knoxville.
But now he is telling a few of his own stories – including some with Chattanooga area connections – in his new book, “Tellin’ It for the Truth.”
Using a title that comes from an old slang phrase meaning that the story is true as far as the teller is concerned, or is being told as if it were true, Mr. Landry put together the book over the last few months.
But he has been collecting and researching the material for nearly his entire life.
“They are the stories I’ve been carrying around with me for 40 or 50 years that I have wanted to tell,” the East Tennessee TV personality and familiar face among Knoxville area residents said in a recent interview. “They mean a lot to me.”
Several of them date back to the time period from when he was attending Notre Dame High School in the 1960s through when he headed off to the University of Chattanooga/UTC and got the acting bug.
For example, one story is about playing high school football at a time when Tom Clary was the coach, although he does not identify the coach by name. The tale revolves around a conversation he and another person his age had in recent years about the good old days of playing high school football.
Mr. Landry recalled telling the other person that getting in a whirlpool was the cure all for any injury when he was at Notre Dame, and then a person was supposed to be able to run off even a broken leg.
Also, coaches in those days thought getting to drink water in hot weather was for sissies, he said.
“They thought water was bad for you or something,” Mr. Landry wrote, adding that all the players usually received to quench their thirst was one wet towel for the entire team to use.
While Mr. Landry obviously remembers those days with a laugh, he was very serious when he wrote another chapter with a local connection called “The Harlequin Massacre.”
During the summer of 1971, he and fellow UTC drama students under Dorothy Hackett Ward and Jim Lewis put on some outdoor drama productions for underprivileged children of Chattanooga in housing projects and other public gathering areas.
While the troupe, which also included future TV star Dennis Haskins and was named the Harlequins, enjoyed big crowds and numerous happy experiences reaching out to the inner-city community, it took a turn for the worse one night. As the group was getting ready to perform at the Spencer McCallie Homes in Alton Park, they were savagely attacked.
Although hospitalized briefly, Mr. Landry escaped without serious injury, unlike some of the others, including his brother, Paul, who had just been there to watch him.
But to this day, the mental anguish has not healed for Mr. Landry wondering about the incident. He also has been confused over how it was handled by the media, the courts and the university.
“For nearly two-thirds of my life this event has been like an inscrutable puzzle to me,” he writes in the book. “The truth about what happened, the information about it, has been inaccessible.”
Mr. Landry just surmised that some black youths had angrily targeted the gathering for some reason during that racially charged time, even though he and other members of the troupe supported equal rights for blacks and others.
As a footnote to the story, he said he had gone over to the UTC chancellor’s on-campus house after the incident to tell him about it, and the chancellor was aware of it. He did not identify who the chancellor was in the book, but the chancellor in 1971 was Dr. Bill Masterson.
Another story with a local connection that Mr. Landry writes about relates to the Rhea County Spartans, a group of strong-willed, horse riding women spies sympathetic to the Confederacy during the Civil War. With many of their husbands off fighting and the Union Army coming through, they were able to use their female flirtation skills to get valuable tactical information from the Union soldiers back to the Confederates.
Later, their espionage work was uncovered by Union Capt. John Walker. As a result, he had them rounded up and brought to Chattanooga. However, Gen. James Stedman, perhaps thinking the charges were frivolous and that the actions of Capt. Walker were not the proper ways to treat women, had them released.
Mr. Landry writes that one of the women was Mary McDonald, whom he thinks is related to the McDonalds of Chattanooga, including former Chattanooga News-Free Press publisher Roy McDonald.
Mr. Landry also has stories in the book about other incidents closer to Knoxville and other places.
Although Mr. Landry has felt comfortable showing his face on TV after narrating and helping produce “The Heartland Series” episodes in some format for nearly 30 years, he admittedly felt a little more challenged displaying his personal side on paper in this book.
And that is despite the 2011 publication of “Appalachian Tales & Heartland Adventures,” about his experiences putting together “The Heartland Series” stories about Appalachian people and life for the Channel 10 newscasts.
“This one’s a little more advanced, a little more personal, a little more human,” he said. “It is a little more courageous for me to write this book than the other. I’m proud of this book.”
He also recently put together a children’s book, “Buddy: Dog of the Smoky Mountains,” in collaboration with Ryan Webb and Sharon Poole. The book chronicles the tales of his dog, who, just like most humans would, likes to explore the scenic area around the Great Smoky Mountains.
Both books can be ordered through Celtic Cat Publishing in Knoxville (www.celticcatpublishing.net) or though various online book purchasing avenues.
Mr. Landry said that he also welcomes opportunities to do book signings or speaking engagements in the Chattanooga area when his schedule permits. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even though Mr. Landry did plenty of writing for “The Heartland Series” episodes, getting to write books in his early 60s is a little more of a fulfillment of a career dream he had dating back to his college days in Chattanooga, he added.
“I wanted to be a director, writer and actor, but not necessarily in that order,” he said.
“I did think I’d like to write books, but didn’t know when I’d get to it.”
- Photo2 by John Shearer