When Bob McKamey was 18 years old, the late Hitch Grimes came home on furlough from the Marine Corps and brought a handsome, energetic friend with him, Jake Butcher. “That was 64 years ago and that’s when it started, one of the greatest friendships of my life. Talking about Jake is like picking up a book with 1,000 pages and opening it to a random page. Only you can hardly put it down no matter what the page,” said the auto dealer on the eve before one of Tennessee’s greatest sons will be buried in Oak Ridge.
I have no idea how large the First United Methodist Church is in Oak Ridge but I can tell you it isn’t big enough to hold the crowd that will gather at 2 p.m.
tomorrow to celebrate the huge life that Butcher led, including seven years, three months in prison and actually bringing a World’s Fair to Knoxville.
Like Jake, I, too, am a close personal friend of Bob McKamey so, yes, I have an inside edge of the McKamey-Butcher friendship. I’ve been with them over 100 separate times and that’s very conservative. So when I asked Bob the most telling point in that friendship, he said it came at a wooden picnic table inside the Atlanta pen.
“The Butchers, Jake and his bother C.H., became entwined in Tennessee politics. I was his campaign chairman in 11 Tennessee counties when Jake ran for governor in 1978. I have never worked as hard in my life. Jake entered the primary as an underdog to Bobby Clement in the primary but we beat him and Richard Fulton to face Lamar Alexander in the general election.
“I definitely think Jake would have been the governor. Jake was a Democrat and so was the sitting governor Ray Blanton. We had great momentum, but when Blanton got caught selling prison pardons the Democrats were through,” McKamey remembered.
“Jake hated to lose, but by then he was addicted to politics, behind the scenes. He was a ‘big player’ too. But he’d rather go to prison than see his dad get indicted. What happened to his ‘disgrace’ was that the state of Tennessee mysteriously shut down 26 Butcher banks on Valentine’s Day. That kept him from moving money and they collapsed.
“I was in Las Vegas at a Toyota preview when I got a call telling me what happened. I was totally shocked because Jake was not a criminal in any way. There were some real bad and distasteful things that happened,” Bob said, “but I don’t want to argue the case as much as tell you who Jake is.
“Jake had been in prison for about five years and there were four of us trying hard to get him out. We talked a couple of times every week – Bobby Lee Cook, the lawyer from Summerville, Bert Lance, the Secretary of Commerce, John Seigenthaler of the Nashville Tennessean, and myself,” Bob said, “but that had nothing to do with getting him out.”
“Several years before, Jake and C.H. had bankrolled a politician from Memphis the Feds wanted badly and they ‘turned’ C.H., who said he would testify against the Memphis Congressman in some way but they needed Jake to verify it. At the time the Atlanta penitentiary was brutal …. with all the Cubans … so I went down to present the deal to Jake. The Attorney General of Tennessee, instructed me to approach Jake with an offer, and we were sitting at a picnic table in the visitation day room.
“I told Jake we had their word that he would be released if he would corroborate C.H.’s story. Jake hung his head for what seemed to be several minutes and then looked at me and said, “Bob, I can’t do it. The guy has got kids.”
To this day Bob McKamey gets emotional. “That showed me the type of person Jake Butcher truly was. He knew what his own family were going through with their dad in prison. And he wasn’t going to be part of hurting some children he didn’t even know. That is a true man – a great man.”
Jake would spend another two years in prison and the government – our government – leaned on him unmercifully. Jake would never break. In the 25 years after he was released, I never heard a bitter word. I never heard one complaint.
As Bob said, “When I think about Jake and all the years we have been together, the biggest thing by far is the lives he has touched, the thousands he helped in so many different areas. He made so many people successful in business and even when he was in prison he was touching lives.
“So what will be his legacy, how will he be best remembered on this earth?” said the thoughtful McKamey before answering his question. “Jake Butcher will be reflected every day by his wife, his four precious children and his seven grandchildren. Each is a magnificent person. Years from now you’ll be able to see very vividly who Jake Butcher really, really was, by the way his family carries his name,” said his best friend.
“I will always love Jake Butcher.”
* * *
Not long ago, when a car full of us went down to say goodbye before Jake died on July 19, former Chattanooga mayor Ron Littlefield and I had one of the most delightful conversations I can ever remember with anyone. He said something very true. “You know, of all the people I have known in my life, Jake Butcher had a quality we should all try to emulate. Actually he had a number but one will always make him stand out.
“Think about this: During his life he stood on top of the highest mountain and sat at the bottom of the deepest sea but he never let either one get to him,” said the two-term mayor. “He always was himself and it was an honor and a privilege for me to know him, much less to be able to embrace him as a true friend.
“I’m going to share something else with you,” said Littlefield. “There are sadly not enough Jake Butchers in this world. If it were so, this would be a far better place.”