Roy Exum: My Dear Friend Jake

Sunday, July 23, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Two weeks ago four of us piled in a car to go down to Canton, Ga., so we could tell Jake Butcher goodbye. Bob McKamey, former mayor Ron Littlefield, a dazzling guy named Steve Wilson, and myself. This would be the last time any of us would see Jake. It was a spectacular day and anyone who doesn’t believe in such goodbyes is missing out on the greatest moment in their life. It is the ultimate gift to an any terminally-ill friend – never forget that.

Each of us adored Jake – along with thousands of others. Sadly, strangers know only of his bank’s collapse. He’s the guy who brought the World’s Fair to Knoxville and I’ll put my name on this: He did as much to help others than probably anybody I have ever known. You won’t read that in too many other places – “negative” is all that sells in today’s media – but as we drove back to Chattanooga each of us was basking in the delight Jake had in seeing each of us one last time.

Six months earlier Sonya Butcher had noticed some blood on Jake pillowcase. “It’s nothing, I’ll handle it.” But it was something, a squamous cell carcinoma on his ear. Jake, being a typical male, dragged his feet. Six months and just as many surgeries later, he died at age 82, but not before the four of us showed up for a last set of grins and giggles.

Our buddy could no longer talk, this after extensive facial and neck surgery, but a final hour spent was more magical than Disney World. Better than your oldest child’s christening. To watch his face as he laughed and scribbled frantically on a legal pad so he could be in the conversation – reminding us of funny stories – and his merriment in the face of the inevitable was absolutely vintage Jake. He never failed, even in ‘the stir,’ to squeeze the most from every moment.

Bob McKamey has known Jake for 64 years. They have been, quite literally, best friends every day in that span. Bob salvaged Jake’s life. Ron Littlefield goes back with Jake for years, when they both were determined to change the world for the good and each did indeed play a part. Steve, who once wrestled at Tennessee, has quite literally been like a son – a story wonderful unto itself and a living testimony of Jake’s true goodness.  Each one loved Jake Butcher.

I met Jake, oh, maybe 45 years ago. We hit it off immediately because in a lifetime of knowing phonies, Jake was the genuine article. We had hundreds of mutual friends and I can’t recall being with him and not laughing really hard about something, I mean not once. I am well aware his banks folded and many innocent people lost money. Jake never got over that but the worst part was it didn’t have to happen.

I know the real story as well as the FBI. I’ve had too many lunches, drinks, football games, and late-night talks to know exactly what happened.

Quite simply, the Butchers – C.H. and Jake -- had 26 state banks. On a Valentine’s Day, a state bank inspector descended on each of all 26 – imagine that, on the very same day – and suddenly the Butchers could not “move” any money. Banks and corporations in America thrive on moving money. With assets frozen, failure was virtually guaranteed.

Hundreds lost their life savings. What happened was horrible and tragic and a crime. But I will give you my blood oath -- Jesus Christ is going to have the Scales of Justice next to the Big Book when certain ones try to get into heaven and with no more rhetoric, I am quite certain God will judge each of them, just as He will pass judgement on me. Selah.

I remember very distinctly one morning when my grandfather called me to his office and told me to write a letter to the president, or whoever, to plead for Jake to be released after seven years in prison. An hour later he called to ask where was the letter. I dropped everything and knocked one out. Since I knew Jake well, it was easy to put my heart into it. Then he called to say how good it was … but asked if I could add some extra “umph.” Now I really added the mustard, and soon I was going to the downtown post office with about a two-inch thick Special Delivery.

How did Jake get out of jail after a cruel 7 years, 3 months of ‘white collar’ crime? Two words – Bob McKamey. Bob’s got to croak before I tell how McKamey did it – it’s more McKamey legend than Jake – but when Jake was released to a halfway house, he was released to Bob’s custody the very next day. And if you are keeping score, Bob has gotten 26 guys released to him personally out of prison and not one – not a one – has ever let him down.

A couple of days after Jake was paroled, Jake dropped by my grandfather’s office to thank him for what he had done to help. While there, “Mr. Roy” phoned Alfred Smith, the glorious “Mayor” (of Signal Mountain) who owned the men’s clothing store Hardie & Caudle, and told him to outfit Jake “in the most expensive suit you have on the rack.” He told ‘Mr. Alfred’ he wanted a shirt, a colorful tie, cufflinks, socks … all the accessories … and begged Mr. Smith to have alterations by 5 o’clock. “The Mayor” delivered.

The trendy restaurant at the time was a fabulous seafood restaurant, Perry’s, which was run by the family of currently the best caterer in Chattanooga, if not the South, Lee Towery. So “Mr. Roy” called and reserved a table in the center of the room, fresh flowers, and the works. The Towerys delivered.

Jake never looked better. Before my mother took him to lunch, my grandfather told him to hold his head high, to “laugh a lot, people need to see you laugh … by 5 o’clock this afternoon everybody in town will know you are a dear, dear friend of this family and I hope it helps you.”

Jake loved to tell that story, “One of the greatest lunches in my entire life,” and would always add, “I almost lost it when I realized it was the first time I had used a cloth napkin in years … your mother looked at me and said, ‘Well, I think that means we should have a glass of white wine.’

Mother later said the dining room grew a bit hushed as they walked in. But after a few minutes, people started approaching the table. One after another told him how good it was to see him, a quick tale about his run for governor, and ‘Tell Bob (McKamey) I’m proud of him (for getting Jake out).’ As mother told my delighted grandfather afterwards, “You would have thought I was sitting with the Governor!” For the record, Chattanooga’s kindness and forgiveness to Jake that day was one of my Pappaw’s fondest memories.

Jake and I were around one another often in the last 25 years and I have a treasure trove of stories of the times we’ve spent together. He was funny, still adored his countless friends, and was courageous, too, as he renewed friendships with those who were hurt by the collapse. Many feel Jake would have never served a day had the case gone to trial, me included, but pleading guilty was easier than seeing his daddy indicted.

Two weeks ago when the four of us went to see him, Sonya and the girls were there so it was more of a big party but, towards the time we left, each of us nestled up beside his hospital bed to tell him we loved him – “this ain’t goodbye, it is just so-long ‘til next time.”

When I sat next to him I had a joke I’d been holding just for him but he furiously scribbled on his pad: “Perry’s!!!”

Not one more word needed to be said.

* * *

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, July 29, at 2 p.m. at The First United Methodist Church, 1350 Oak Ridge Turnpike, Oak Ridge, TN with Rev. John Collett officiating. The family will receive friends immediately following the service. Graveside service will be on Sunday, July 30, at noon at Oak Ridge Memorial Park, 1501 Bethel Valley Road, Oak Ridge, TN 37830.

Pallbearers will include his grandsons, Austin Loyd, Colby Butcher, Josh Current, Jace Butcher; sons-in-law, Randy Loyd, Tim Current, family friend, Allen “Red Dog” Hicks, and his nephew, Cecil H. (Butch) Butcher III. Honorary Pallbearers will be Karl Schledwitz, Taft Butcher, Gene Cook, Rodney Holbrook, Johnny Holden, Raymond Lacy, Bob McKamey, Jimmy Naifeh, Kevin Riggs, Ronald Scott, L.E. Butch Smith, Kevin Tucker, Fred Simmons, Rob Woodson, Frank Barker, Fred Hurst, Bill Ramsey, Johnny Majors, Chris Pracht, and Brad Walker.

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