John Shearer: Remember Tom Smoot And The Polio Outbreak At Baylor School In 1948

Friday, February 8, 2013 - by John Shearer

When I was in the seventh grade at Baylor School in 1972, my father, Dr. C. Wayne Shearer, purchased for me as a Christmas gift a copy of teacher Jim Hitt’s school history book, “It Never Rains After Three O’clock.”

Although many of the events in the book were only 20 to 30 years old at the time, they seemed like ancient history to me, and I enjoyed scanning the pages, although I was probably too young to read the book thoroughly.

One of the events that affected me strongly, even as a 13-year-old reader, was the polio crisis that struck Baylor in the fall of 1948. After several students contracted this sometimes paralyzing and deadly disease that is usually spread by ingesting contaminated food or drink, Baylor had to shut down school for about three weeks in what was considered its greatest and scariest short-term crisis to date.

The football season also had to be canceled in that frightening time before research scientist Dr. Jonas Salk began developing his antivirus vaccine for polio in the early 1950s.

But most unfortunately regarding the Baylor crisis, one student, Tom Smoot, died a few days later in a hospital in Knoxville, where his family lived.

As I grew older and became a newspaper journalist, I was naturally drawn to researching more about the Baylor outbreak and have done several stories and articles about the topic during various anniversaries and at other times.

I was not necessarily planning to do another article anytime soon, but what prompted another story – nearly 65 years after the horrific event – was a piece I read recently in the newspaper in my current hometown of Knoxville about an old Knoxville nursing school that was located in the now-closed Knoxville General Hospital.

I remember that was where the 16-year-old Mr. Smoot unfortunately died after several days and after having to be put in an iron lung, a long metal machine that helped affected patients breathe through pressure changes inside it.

I did not know exactly where Knoxville General Hospital was, but the article prompted me to make several trips to the Knoxville library and around Tennessee’s third largest city to find tangible reminders of Mr. Smoot and his family.

I almost felt like a family descendant doing genealogical research. But maybe that is appropriate, as I am a member of the extended Baylor family of which he was also a part.

I already knew that Mr. Smoot was evidently quite a leader at Baylor. He was the junior and senior class president after arriving as a freshman in 1945, and had also received the Jumonville award as the most outstanding junior.

Classmates had previously told me about his leadership, likability and his talents as a football player who was also the team captain as a lineman. If he had not died, he might have likely played major college football somewhere, I learned.

As classmate Pete Denton, who was also from Knoxville, told me over the phone recently, “He was pleasant, always friendly. And he was a good student. He was intelligent.”

However, Mr. Denton added that his friendliness did not carry over to football, where he was known for being a tough and hard tackler and player under coach “Humpy” Heywood.

His domination on the football field was a sharp contrast to his unfortunate condition as a helpless patient at Knoxville General Hospital, which I learned was located near the corner of Wray Street and Dameron Avenue in North Knoxville. The site of it is just off Interstate 275, less than a half mile north of downtown Knoxville.

I decided to drive by there, and soon learned that the building sat where the Knox County Health Department now is.

The part of the hospital where Mr. Smoot had been was torn down shortly after what became the University of Tennessee Medical Center took over the hospital in 1956 and relocated to land across the Tennessee River from the UT campus.

However, two older buildings remain. Just south of what was the main hospital plant is the former African-American hospital wing that was built in 1933 in the days of segregation. It has since been turned into an assisted/senior living facility.

And a few feet east is an early 20th century building that had initially been a laboratory for a medical school that was connected to the hospital. It is now used as a family and children’s services facility.

Mr. Smoot’s time at the hospital had no doubt been traumatic. He died there on Oct. 1, 1948, after being stricken with meningitis and possible polio complications on Sept. 18 in Chattanooga. His family had moved him to Knoxville a short time later.

The obituary that ran on the front page of the Knoxville News Sentinel said a call had been made for blood to be donated to help save his life, and five students at Knoxville Central High not far from his home donated.

Mr. Denton recalled visiting Mr. Smoot at the Knoxville hospital and looking through a window into the room where he was lying inside an iron lung, and they could see each other through a ceiling mirror.

He said that the two had lived next door to each other in Lupton Hall, and he remembered that Mr. Smoot came over one night and said he had a headache and was feeling chilled. As a result, Mr. Denton let him borrow his terri-cloth robe before going to the infirmary, where his condition unfortunately worsened. 

School and health officials wondered later if the students might have contracted the disease after eating ice out of a soft drink bucket that was passed around while the team members were down watching a pro football game in Birmingham in the late summer.

After Mr. Smoot’s death, his mother – who favored him in looks -- wanted him buried in his Baylor uniform, so Mr. Denton said he and classmate Charles Griffith went down to Baylor, which was still closed, to pick it up.

Sometime after his death, Mr. Denton said he received a package in the mail from Mr. Smoot’s mother, and it was a new terri-cloth robe.

Mr. Smoot’s parents apparently separated or divorced sometime during the World War II years, and that may have been a factor in a decision to send him to Baylor.

Mr. Smoot’s father, John Smoot, had been a doctor and surgeon who specialized in diseases of the skin. He had been a News Sentinel ad representative and bank clerk in his early 20s before going off to World War I, but later work in sales again before becoming an employee of the U.S. Veterans Bureau.

Apparently in the mid- and late 1920s, while in his 30s, he began studying medicine and married.

About the time Tom was born in 1931, his office was in the now-razed Medical Building in the 600 block of Walnut Street in downtown Knoxville. By the mid-1930s, John Smoot had moved his practice a short distance away to the still-standing Medical Arts Building on Main Avenue.

When Tom Smoot was born, the family lived in an old family home on Washington Pike in North Knoxville where Tom’s paternal grandmother had lived for a number of years. I originally thought it had been torn down, but after checking again realized it is still standing under a different street number at the northwest corner of Fairview Street.

A handsome home probably more than 100 years old, it definitely needs a little tender-loving care. It was later turned into apartments, and some newer apartment units have been built around it in more recent decades. The whole complex is called Fairview Apartments.

Shortly after Tom’s birth, the family lived briefly at a now-razed home at 1738 White Ave. in Fort Sanders behind the current UT Strip, and then in Lea Springs in Grainger County.

About 1934 they lived at 1714 North Hills Blvd. in the historic North Hills neighborhood, also in North Knoxville, before returning to the nearby Washington Pike family home until about the start of World War II.

They then moved another few hundred yards away to 2135 N. Broadway, where Dr. Smoot also relocated his office. That now-razed home was located in what is now the Broadway Shopping Center near the current site of a Taco Bell, just south and down the hill from the current Knoxville Fulton High School.

Tom Smoot, who had two brothers, had begun attending Baylor in 1945, and by 1946 Dr. Smoot’s office was at 404-8 Empire Building, a now-razed building at 626 Gay St. Dr. Smoot resided at the still-standing Hotel Andrew Johnson, which is now used by the Knox County Board of Education.

Tom Smoot’s mother, Elizabeth, continued to live at the North Broadway address after the marriage separation. After Tom’s death, she later lived at a now-razed home at 3011 Broadway a short distance north and then in an apartment at a still-standing residence at 1218 Clinch Ave. near the UT campus with a younger son, Alex, who also went to Baylor in the 1950s.

Alex Smoot died on the same day of the year as Tom – Oct. 1 – in 2010. He had politely and fondly recalled his older brother over the phone from his home in Minnesota for a story I wrote in 2009.

Elizabeth Smoot seemed to disappear from the Knoxville City Directory about 1960.

About the time his son died and shortly after, Dr. John Smoot went back to practicing in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Knoxville and roomed at 2226 Cherokee Blvd. in fashionable Sequoyah Hills, as well as at 400 17th St., Apartment 12, near UT. Both of the latter residences are still standing, although the apartment building now has an address of 410 17th St.

Dr. Smoot later had his practice at 3011 Broadway, where his first wife had formerly lived.

By the early 1950s and until his death in 1978, Dr. John Smoot lived in Louisville, Tenn., in Blount County. He also later remarried a woman named Lillian and had become an Episcopalian. 

His Louisville home was apparently a cottage/cabin-style residence at Smoot Lane and Fox Hills Drive, not far from the northeast corner of Alcoa Highway and Pellissippi Parkway. The wooded and hilly acreage overlooking Fort Loudoun Lake in that area has a number of newer homes, likely on some of Dr. Smoot’s old land, but an old and faded “Smoot” street sign still stands like a family memorial.

My mother, Velma Shearer, actually spent most of her growing-up years in Louisville, and her family for decades had a small tract of land less than five miles west of the Smoot land.

While Tom Smoot was living, the family attended Washington Pike Methodist Church a few feet east of the old family residence. Once a blossoming mid-sized church in about the late 1940s, it is now located in a quieter area far away from suburban growth. Its current sanctuary was built in 1927 but was remodeled somewhat in 1960.

The funeral for Tom Smoot had been held at the now-razed Mann’s mortuary chapel on Church Avenue in downtown Knoxville. Officiating were the Rev. Robert Eller, who had been the pastor at the then-large Central Methodist Church in Knoxville, as well as the Rev. J. Fred Johnson, who was minister at First Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga from 1933 to 1978. Whether Mr. Smoot or Baylor had a relationship with Mr. Johnson is not known, although it is believed the pastor’s son and grandson went to Baylor. The pastor was considered a mentor to area football players.

Tom Smoot was buried at Knoxville’s Greenwood Cemetery, which is just off Tazewell Pike near the Fountain City area, also in North Knoxville. A conspicuous “Smoot” marker stands in about the middle of the cemetery, and four members of the family are buried there – Tom Smoot, Dr. John Smoot, and Tom Smoot’s grandparents, A.L. and Margaret “Maggie” Lassaphine Smoot.

The elder Dr. Smoot, who died in 1911 at his home on Washington Pike at the age of 59 after failing health, had been a doctor in nearby Union County. It is not completely clear in old city directories, but the family may have already been in the big family home by then, although they may have lived elsewhere at times after his death.

Maggie Smoot died in 1934 at the age of 64 at her son’s temporary home at 1714 North Hills Blvd.

Dr. John Smoot was born in 1893, the year Baylor was founded, and served in World War I. He was 84 when he died, and his obituary makes no reference to Tom Smoot. It does mention his membership with the Knoxville Academy of Medicine.

Tom Smoot’s grave has a similarly plain marker with the date of his birth -- Nov. 15, 1931 -- and his death – Oct. 1, 1948. The latter date gives no hint that it was a time of much grieving 100 miles down the road at Baylor School.

Just a mile or so away from the cemetery is Knoxville Central High, where in 1991 Baylor’s football team played Central and future major league baseball player Todd Helton in Baylor’s first deep playoff run since 1977.

The Red Raiders were trying to bring back the rich football tradition sustained by Mr. Smoot and his teammates before a horrible disease cut a very promising life short.

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