Remembering The Life And Legacy Of Former Baylor Student Felder Forbes, Part 2: The Impact On Charlie Norwood

Sunday, June 18, 2017 - by John Shearer

One Wednesday earlier this month, three members of Baylor School’s Class of 1959 gathered in the nice large dining room at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club for lunch.

 

Although they were sitting next to a window with an eye-catching view of the Tennessee River – and one not totally unlike that found atop Baylor hill -- Andy Cope, David Longley and Dr.

Stephen Sawrie were focused on the past more than the present.

 

As they reminisced, they proudly said their overall time at Baylor had been enjoyable and positive, but one somber event had left a pall over the entire class their senior year. As was documented in Part 1 of this story, likable classmate Felder Forbes – who was known for his unique opinions in class -- died from injuries suffered in a gun accident at his Lookout Mountain home in 1958. Authorities said friend and classmate Charlie Norwood had accidentally discharged Mr. Forbes’ weapon in his direction, not realizing it was loaded.

 

It was a nightmarish story that in the years since has played out thousands of times in varying forms across America, particularly with younger people. It has even happened a number of other times locally. A check of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department media page online describes an accidental shooting that occurred just last month.

 

While stories of those kinds of shootings are unfortunately somewhat common, the story of Felder Forbes’ death has not been discussed in a lot of detail over the years, his classmates say. In fact, they said during the interview that the story has really never been told. 

 

And that was due in large part to the accidental shooter, Charlie Norwood, now deceased.

 

Only when he decided to run for Congress from Augusta, Ga., in 1994 after a career of service in the military and a successful dentistry practice was he briefly faced with having to discuss it publicly.

 

Despite that, Dr. Norwood did talk about it somewhat indirectly through his positive actions over the years.

 

And the Baylor class of which Charlie Norwood and Felder Forbes were members has also had to reflect on and work through the incident, including during that first year of 1958-59.

 

"I do think it taught our class that life could change in a blink of an eye,” said Mr. Cope, who went on to work in banking and later with the Summerfield K. Johnston business and related interests.

 

Mr. Longley, the Baylor quarterback who went on to serve as a financial and insurance adviser after a teaching and coaching career at his alma mater, added, “I could have been up there with them.”

 

He said the first he heard of the early summer shooting on Lookout Mountain came after reading about it in the Chattanooga paper.

 

Mr. Forbes had been able to go home from the hospital several weeks after the shooting, in which the future Dr. Norwood pulled out his gun while Felder was out of his room and accidentally shot him when he returned. But then Mr. Forbes’ condition worsened, and he died on July 19

 

Dr. Norwood – whom Mr. Forbes had befriended in part due to the fact they both had family connections to South Georgia – had eventually gone to his Valdosta, Ga., home for the summer and learned the unfortunate news of Mr. Forbes’ death there.

 

His first impulse, he later told his friends, was to stay in Valdosta that school year and not have to face directly the fact he had been the reason his classmate had died, even though it was an accident, said Dr. Sawrie, a longtime local orthodontist.

 

But with the encouragement of his father, he did return to Baylor that fall and began the first step of an apparently lifelong journey to make the rest of his life positive and worthwhile, despite the tragedy that occurred when he was only 16 years old.

 

His classmates recalled that he walked out on the football practice field next to the gymnasium a little later than his teammates that first day of practice during the fall of 1958 and all eyes were on him. Among them were apparently those of the tough but well-liked head coach Humpy Heywood. 

 

The future congressman no doubt probably felt a little uncomfortable being back at Baylor, but that likely quickly changed due to the reaction of his teammates.

 

“Everybody rushed up to him and gave him a hug and welcomed him and cheered,” recalled Dr. Sawrie. 

 

During his senior year, he was a standout tackle on a Baylor team that also included future Georgia Tech star Rufus Guthrie, and he also played soccer and participated in track. He had earlier been on the wrestling team. 

 

One classmate told Dr. Sawrie that he remembered that Charlie Norwood was more easily approachable and likable than a typical high-profile football player at a school like Baylor would be. 

 

According to his senior yearbook write-up scanned and forwarded by Baylor director of external affairs Barbara Kennedy, he was also a good enough student to win the approval of longtime Baylor English teacher Roy Ashley. 

 

But it was in the area of overall student leadership where he stood out the most. In a result that might not have been so possible the year before, he was elected senior class president. Dr. Sawrie remembered the students being out on the quadrangle, perhaps for the afternoon formation at the then-military all-male school, when the announcement was made.

 

And yes, an enthusiastic applause broke out across the Baylor campus then, too. “It was kind of exciting,” Dr. Sawrie recalled.

 

His classmates had tried to place in Dr. Norwood some confidence – and encouragement -- by electing him. 

 

Dr. Norwood then went on to Georgia Southern, where he met and in 1962 married the former Gloria Wilkinson. Dr. Sawrie said he still talks with Mrs. Norwood several times a year, and said he recently asked her during a conversation in connection with this story whether Dr. Norwood ever talked about the accidental shooting.

 

“She said that the only time he did was when he told her when they started dating,” Dr. Sawrie recalled. 

 

After their marriage, Dr. Norwood went on to receive a dental degree from Georgetown University, serving as president of his class.

 

He then entered the Army and served in the Vietnam War in the area of dental and medical combat treatment, earning two Bronze Stars in the process. He no doubt by then had received the proper firearms training, and became a staunch advocate for education to prevent others from making the mistake he did.

 

He went on to enjoy a longtime career as a dentist but in the early 1990s began to feel a desire to run for Congress. A staunch Republican conservative who was not happy about the direction of the country under Bill Clinton or his Augusta/Athens area district under Democrat incumbent Don Johnson, he sold his practice and ran in 1994.

 

And in somewhat of a surprise, he won.

 

A few days before the election, he had found time to attend a 35-year class reunion at the home of Dr. Sawrie. Among those there to encourage him was his beloved coach, Maj. Luke Worsham.

 

The 1958 shooting incident did come up in ads and in news stories during the campaign, and he was forced to face it somewhat and talk briefly about it in the news media to halt the growing whispers. 

 

At the time, Dr. Norwood had talked about it so little to others that his two sons were unaware until it came up in the campaign, Dr. Sawrie said.

 

Walter Forbes, the older brother of Felder Forbes, said he was contacted by the media about the shooting during that campaign. He said he told them the accident was simply but unfortunately due to the fact that Dr. Norwood’s father would not let him handle guns and that he was uneducated about firearms safety. He did not have hard feelings toward Dr. Norwood.

 

“He had no concept,” Mr. Forbes said of Dr. Norwood in a recent interview.

 

Shortly after Dr. Norwood was elected in 1994, I interviewed him for a story for the then-Chattanooga Free Press about his successful election and being a Baylor alumnus. He kindly called me back and glowingly recalled the positive impact Baylor had on his life and said he used a lot of those lessons to get elected. He also wrote down my address at the end of the interview to mail me a picture to use with the story.

 

But when I had to play “real reporter” and ask him about the accidental shooting, he definitely did not want to discuss it, perhaps, as I gathered, because he did not want to hurt the Forbes family.

 

Dr. Norwood would go on to serve until his death on Feb. 13, 2007, from lung cancer. He initially had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis that slowed him, but he later died from cancer after a lung transplant, Dr. Sawrie said.

 

During the 2007 State of the Union address a few days before his passing, President George W. Bush had offered well wishes to his ailing friend.

 

Known as a feisty Republican, his political views, including those regarding illegal immigration, would have been in line with many of President Donald Trump’s, his classmates said. He did use his experience as a dentist to push for greater patients’ rights with health insurers.

 

Despite his busy schedule in Washington and back home in Georgia while in Congress or on the campaign trail, Dr. Norwood maintained close relationships with Baylor and his Baylor friends. Both Dr. Sawrie and Mr. Longley recalled visiting with him several times at different places, including the White House. 

 

He also attended reunions in later years, including one in which the old former military cadets like him had an opportunity to march down the Baylor hill just like in the old days.

 

Walter Forbes, meanwhile, said he had little contact with Dr. Norwood over the years after the shooting.

 

How much Dr. Norwood thought about Felder Forbes or the unfortunate event over the years is not known. And neither is whether he said, “This is for you, Felder,” after his first election, or whether he remembered him in any prayers.

 

And whether he sought or needed any counseling to work through any inner grief is apparently not publicly known, either.

 

But by apparently all accounts, he went on to lead an accomplished and admirable life after his world appeared to unravel by a careless mistake at a young age in the summer of 1958.

 

This man who had the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta renamed in his memory a year after his death apparently left a positive impact on the lives of many. 

 

As his wife told Dr. Sawrie recently, “Steve, he’s been gone 10 years and not a week goes by that someone doesn’t come up and tell me a story about Charlie.”

 

And for Felder Forbes, his memory burns brightly in a positive manner as well. His brother said he still thinks about him often and misses him greatly.

 

He also mentioned after Part 1 ran that he hopes a look at Mr. Forbes’ life and impact will also be a look at the importance of always handling firearms safely. He said the most important advice is this: “Treat every gun as if it is loaded at all times.”

 

Mr. Forbes’ memory is also still alive in several ways at Baylor.

 

Retired Baylor teacher Bill Cushman – also a 1959 graduate – said the gavel with which the president of the Round Table student discussion club convenes each meeting is inscribed to Felder.

 

“I am glad to have had the privilege of informing every group about its significance since the retirement of James Pennington, the principal founder, in 1966,” said Mr. Cushman, who has worked with the club for a long time.

 

And, as mentioned in Part 1, a stained-glass window in the original chapel was dedicated in Felder Forbes’ memory through a gift from his classmates, and a student lounge bears his name at the Barks Hall library entrance. And, as was also mentioned, one of those who enjoys going in the lounge is rising Baylor senior Rose Dallimore, Mr. Forbes’ great-niece.

 

Perhaps it is people like her that the “In Memoriam” tribute to Felder Forbes in the 1959 Baylor yearbook had in mind when it said: 

 

“May the Baylor cadets of the future remember him there; may they study his portrait and seek out his story; and may they be inspired to emulation by his idealism, loyalty, strength, and love that crowded this great boy’s fighting heart.”


* * *

To see Part 1 of this story, go here: http://www.chattanoogan.com/2017/6/10/349578/Remembering-The-Life-And-Legacy-Of-The.aspx

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

 

 



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