Funny. That's the first thing that comes to the minds of thousands of us older folks in the Chattanooga area when we hear the name Buddy Houts. He made us laugh.
Although Buddy died a quarter century ago in 1989 and was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, he continues to live today through resurrected memories of his hilarious antics, which even predate his time at the Chattanooga Free Press as both automotive editor and assistant city editor.
There was never a dull moment when Buddy was in the newsroom.
Or anywhere else, for that matter.
As a staff member at the Free Press from 1981 to 1999, I was a witness to Buddy's comedic genius, which often had City Editor Julius Parker and his assistant, Irby Park, rolling on the newsroom floor and Editor Lee Anderson running through his office door.
Todd Foster, a former staff writer and former managing editor at the Free Press, once related in a reminiscent article that Buddy was “the funniest man I’ve ever known.”
One Buddy-inspired rolling-on-the-floor incident occurred when he answered the phone one morning. As soon as he answered with the usual greeting, "Newsroom," he heard a woman identify herself as "Mrs. ... of Lookout Mountain.” She then asked to whom she was speaking. To which Buddy answered, “This is Buddy Houts of Red Bank.”
Former County Commissioner Curtis Adams, who worked at the Free Press for years as circulation manager, recalled the time Buddy was visited by a couple of FBI agents in the newsroom.
Mr. Adams, who has come out of retirement to run for re-election to the County Commission, said he just happened to be there when the agents arrived at Buddy's desk. He said that after they identified themselves and showed their badges to him, "Buddy jumped up, opened his billfold and said, 'Buddy Houts, Red Food Store.'"
Then there was the time, Mr. Adams said, that Buddy had a brief conversation with one of the Free Press reporters who had a reputation of being a ladies' man. The young man dated a different woman almost every week and bragged about his dalliances to other reporters. So, one day Buddy facetiously warned, "When you get shot in a motel, I'm going to write that you got shot in a local bed."
Mr. Adams then told about the time Buddy was very weak and frail and lying in a hospital bed just days before his death. Several friends were standing beside his bed when 87-year-old Free Press Publisher Roy McDonald walked into the room. With a sly grin, Buddy asked, "Are you still here?"
Of course, Buddy's live, on-the-air phone calls from the Free Press newsroom to WDEF radio personality Luther Masingill weekday mornings were like a cup of Starbucks to thousands of local residents driving to work. Often he would tell a joke and hang up the phone just before giving the punch line. Or he would offer free tickets to the Vols football game with Alabama and hang up before giving the last digit of his phone number.
Working on automobiles and writing about the latest models, however, was Buddy's passion, so anytime I had an automobile question, I always asked him first. One day I had a question about repairing my wife's Nissan Maxima, and as soon as he heard me say, Buddy, he turned to Julius and said, “Here comes a car question.” We all laughed, and then I asked the question: “Can you tell me where I can find a good, honest mechanic?” Without hesitating, he quipped, “There's no such thing," and then resumed typing on his computer.
Buddy, of course, knew of several such mechanics, and he whirled back around and gave me the names of a few, of which one I took the car to and had it fixed with no problems.
Buddy's closest buddy was Larry Rose, whose friendship dates back to when Mr. Rose was a teenager and became a member of the local Road Master's Hot Rod Club, which Buddy helped organize.
"We built cars together, went on trips .... He was the best friend I ever had. I probably cried at his funeral more than I did when my mother and daddy died," Mr. Rose lamented.
Buddy was "a one-of-a-kind character," Mr. Rose said, noting that his sometimes questionable antics go all the way back to the time he had just started attending Red Bank High and rode a borrowed motorcycle down the main hall of the school. "He got thrown out over that."
Mr. Rose then recalled the time Buddy went with him and his wife, Jeanette, on a trip, and Buddy pulled one of his practical jokes. "We were walking through a museum and looking at statues in displays when we saw one that looked strange but familiar. It was Buddy. He had found a door to the display, walked inside and waited for us to come by."
Buddy repeated similar practical jokes many times at other locations, according to Mr. Rose, who related that on one occasion at Hamilton Place Mall, he excused himself from their dinner group to look for something at a store in the mall. Later, while walking with Jeanette in the mall and looking for Buddy, Mr. Rose said, "Something jumped on my back and took me to the floor."
It was Buddy. "He had secretly gone into a costume store and dressed up as a gorilla."
Retired city government reporter and columnist J.B. Collins was also the recipient of Buddy's practical jokes. J.B. worked with Buddy for decades and was a buddy to Buddy. So much so that one day when Buddy went to the cafeteria, he decided to buy J.B. an ice cream. But when he returned to the newsroom, he discovered that J.B. had gone to City Hall. So, Buddy just placed the ice cream in J.B.'s desk drawer and closed it. Of course, when J.B. returned much later, he found a drawer full of melted ice cream.
There were also car-story trips, based on the experiences of Buddy when he traveled to various cities to test drive vehicles for automobile manufacturers.
"One day while he was in San Diego," Mr. Rose recounted, "Buddy was told by an automaker's representative to, by all means, not go into Mexico because the vehicles were not insured in Mexico."
So, Buddy smiled and nodded and "immediately got in his test car and drove to Mexico." He went there, Mr. Rose said, to buy gifts, especially switchblade knives. "Buddy loved switchblade knives."
Immediately following Buddy's shopping spree, however, his rebellious trip became very expensive, according to Mr. Rose, who related what happened: "After shopping for a while, Buddy came back to the car with an armload of packages and, before he could open the door he heard a police whistle. It was a Mexican policeman who apparently could not speak English and pointed out that his car had no tag.
"Before long there were four police cars there, and they put Buddy in the back of one of the cars, took him to jail in Tijuana, took his billfold with $300 inside and his heart pills and left him there in jail for a few hours. A while later a man comes in wearing a three-piece suit claiming to be Juan Valdez, an attorney, and asked Buddy if he wanted him to represent him.
"Buddy asked him, 'What for?' And the man said, 'You have illegal drugs, a car with no license or insurance and you're in Mexico.' So, Buddy asked how much would it cost, and he replied, '$300.' "
Mr. Rose said Buddy then paid the man, who then took him back to his car. And as Buddy was about to drive away, the guy who couldn't speak English waved and said, "Have a nice day!"
On another trip, Mr. Rose recalled, "Buddy had gone to a gift store early one morning and bought a bunch of things, including post cards, that he brought back to the hotel where he was staying. Well, Buddy always carried a money clip with a wad of bills in it, and on this particular morning, he had it in his hand after buying postage stamps. He then went over to the mail box in the hotel and dropped the cards into it, only to realize afterward that he had also dropped his money clip with them.
Buddy, he said, decided to stay at the mailbox and wait for the postman, even though he would have to wait there for three hours. Finally, the postman arrived and asked Buddy what he wanted. Buddy explained that he had accidentally dropped his money clip in the box and needed to get it back. But the postman tersely replied, "So?," and then told Buddy he did not have the authority to do that.
Buddy refused to give up, however, and told the man he had to get the money back because he was visiting the area and needed it to get back home. So, the postman gave in to his passionate plea and, after making Buddy step back and turn his back to the mailbox, retrieved his money clip.
Another incident involving Buddy's money clip, according to Mr. Rose, happened during the 1970s at a small, country restaurant on Hixson Pike near the entrance to the Hamilton County Park. He said Buddy had eaten there with him and Jeanette, and Buddy had reached in his pocket and pulled out what he thought were three dollar bills for a tip. But later that evening, he discovered that one of those dollars was actually a hundred-dollar bill.
"I asked him if he wanted to go back and get the money, but Buddy said he did not because he had eaten there often, knew the waitress and knew she could use the money," Mr. Rose fondly reminisced, recalling also the time he and his friend went to the Indianapolis Speedway.
Buddy had lost his money clip, which held $1,300, and he persuaded speedway officials to announce over the public address system to 50,000 people what had happened. Of course, no one ever showed up with the clip or the money.
To Buddy, however, money was something not to covet but to share with those in need, Mr. Rose said, noting that his best friend often gave money to complete strangers he met at stores and would sometimes buy them a roast to eat if they appeared they could not afford it.
Recalling a couple more Buddy trips, both far and near, Mr. Rose recounted the time he and Buddy went to San Diego, and Buddy wanted to walk down a trail on a steep bluff beside the Pacific Ocean to a beautiful beach below and take some photos. He said he thought it would only take Buddy a few minutes to take the pictures, but when more than an hour had passed, he became worried. Another hour later, however, Buddy finally appeared. "What took you so long," Mr. Rose asked. To which he answered, "That was a nude beach down there!"
Former Free Press Sports Editor Roy Exum recalled the day Buddy painted one of his friend's car's "with beautiful black paint." Buddy had done the painting in Soddy but unexpectedly had to rush back to Chattanooga before the paint was dry. "He drove down a dusty road, and it was awful, the paint peeling up in spots the size of a quarter."
So, in a classic Buddy Houts reaction, he took the car to his friend and boasted that it was the latest thing -- "an alligator paint job."
"What a character!" said Roy.
Then there was the time Buddy gave Mr. Roy (McDonald) a ride in a Chattanooga police car. Mr. Rose said Buddy was test driving the vehicle one day and offered to drive Mr. Roy to a grand opening at Marshal Mize Ford. So, with the siren blasting and lights flashing, Buddy drove at speeds up to 115 mph. And when they got back to the Free Press, Mr. Roy shouted, "I'm not ever getting in a car with you again, Houts!"
And he never did.