Roy Exum: The Big Oak Story

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

This may well come across as a big chunk of self-aggrandizement, but it is my hope you’ll discover my true intent before we are done. Several weeks ago I was piddling in my office, with the Alabama-Auburn football game playing to my side, and the ‘old man’ in me creeped out. I’ve been to dozens of Tide-Tiger games and back when the two played at Birmingham’s Legion Field there has never been anything as fine wearing a football helmet.

There came one particular year, this in the late ‘70s, when Bill Lumpkin, a dear friend who was the sports editor of the Birmingham Post-Herald before it merged with the News after its demise, had a big crowd of the Southern writers out for a brunch before the 2:30 whistle. I’ll testify boldly that no one could match the four-cheese omelet, the long-forgotten vow that the only beverage drinks were iced tea, iced coffee, or iced water. And, oh, at every table would be a platter of sliced tomatoes and Vidalia onions that had been refrigerated all night long. My oh my!

I guess I wasn’t the first to go for seconds but I was in the top three. Our hostess would take the perfect spices, and it was delightful. She’d cook biscuits, halving then and flipping the tops upside down so she could fill the shells with maybe 15 different kinds of her homemade preserves.

On this day I’d slipped back to the big table for seconds, more grits and Lord have mercy her preserves, when Clyde Bolton followed me and got me in a corner. Clyde, who won more writing awards than the Birmingham News ever had pages, told me that a handful of the Alabama writers wanted me to do them a favor. Well, I was suspecting Candid Camera to jump out from under the table or something, but Clyde was all business.

He told me that John Croyle, a big, rangy defensive end under Bear Bryant, had forsaken a chance in the NFL to open a boy’s home, Big Oak Ranch, and while story after story would melt your heart, John needed a little push. My Alabama writers wanted me to write a story, and then send it around to our sports-writing brethren all over the South, with the idea all of them would then try mighty to talk it into their Sunday editions.

I asked him, ‘Have you fallen and hit your head?’ and Clyde said I was the one amongst us who could tug heart strings. “This ain’t to give you the big head … it is just what needs to be done.” I told him I’d never been as flattered or humbled in my life and, yessir, I’d give it a twirl. “But if every editor turns the story down, you still owe me two beers somewhere down our road.”

I guess it was a couple of weeks later when I left home before sun up to meet John and visit the Big Oak Ranch for the first time. I saw it, I felt it, and I loved it. I am also proud that on that day I started crying only 43 times because some men have to wander off for 30 minutes or more to regain their grip. Like I say, I stayed the day and got back to Chattanooga around 10 that night. I remember I was so moved I didn’t even listen to the radio driving back up I-59 towards home.

Instead of going to the house, I went to the paper’s office that night and with all quiet and still, I wrote my heart out for the boys at Big Oak Ranch. I switched paragraphs, which at the time you did with a pair of scissors and a glue pot. I put something funny between two tragedies. I made up quotes for Croyle, and I combed that story time and time again.

Finally, I took it to our composing room, and told Mr. Ralph I needed 50 copies. We sent it out Special Delivery and then it was like waiting in labor and delivery. Golly, what if I laid an egg? That Sunday the story of Big Oak Ranch was told across the South and let me just say a bunch of hairy-legged sports writers had us a time.

It gets better. Several weeks go by and, ‘boom!’, I get a call from Reader’s Digest, wondering if I would consider allowing them to reprint it. Is a pig’s ear pork? You mighty right, I told the lady and, I can admit it now … not a one of us knew what we were getting into. First, I just thought they wanted to use it – no problem – but then they sent a contract, buying the story rights for a wad of cash by the inch. Whoo-wee!

Soon a fact-checker called then-Alabama football  coach Ray Perkins to validate a quote and ‘Perk’ asked who wrote it. “Roy Exum,” came the reply and Ray said, “Yes ma’am, I said it.” Excuse me sir, don’t you want to know what it says? “If Roy wrote it I said it,” Ray answered. Well the story reads … and she read the quote … and Perkins was trying hard not to guffaw. “This is the fourth time I am telling you I said it … if you need any more quotes just call Roy.” (The Reader’s Digest people still laugh about it … and I do, too.)

Soon we were getting close to the press date. Imagine, 9 million copies in almost 50 languages. At the last minute I get a call that informs me the weak ones on the issue team are demanding Big Oak Ranch’s address and whereabouts be struck from the international public domain or some such nonsense. rural Alabama and that something wonderful is happening. If you can’t realize what that means to some great people, strike the story, and fill the pages with pictures of big trees, bowling tips, or whatever,” I told the lady in my plea. Lordy, my lordy … biggest gamble ever but Reader’s Digest had worked so hard … I couldn’t imagine them tossing the story in the can.

Ten or 12 days of silence was duly noted until I received a “Rush At All Cost.” It was more than a minute or two before I could open. Inside was the newest edition of the monthly magazine, which included the Big Oak address.

 Not only was there a magazine with my story as its feature, there was a fistful of other Reader’s Digest magazines in foreign languages with my story. But the biggest fall on your knees and praise a living Christ? In the 12 months that followed the publication date, the boys at Big Oak Ranch received, in mostly $5 to $10 donations from every corner of the world, over $1 million dollars. France, Yugoslavia, the Ukraine, China, Lisbon – you name it. Eventually it would become over two million and, believe it or not, it still trickles in.

It has now been 40 years since that Alabama-Auburn game and there has been a lot of water flowing downstream. As I sat in my office the other day, the TV sound muted so I could listen to my longtime buddy Eli Gold call the play-by-play, and I came to the conclusion that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world who was “guided” yes please, to go back for seconds one Saturday at the Lumpkins’ table.

Better put, I know it was a God thing. There is no other explanation.

* * *

To send Christmas donations address your envelope to: Christmas 2018, Big Oak Ranch, 6000 Shelley Drive, Springville, AL 35146. For further information, call 205/467-6266.

royexum@aol.com


A Richness Of Poverty In Our Schools

Clearing Up The Misconception About Medicare Recipients

Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Decision To Exclude Videotape Of Post-Polygraph Statements


Education is a proven path to upward mobility for all students. “Our schools can’t do it all, or all by themselves” according to a 2017 commentary by Mike Petrilli. Mr. Petrilli is correct. I ... (click for more)

I am a senior citizen and retiree with health problems. I've worked since I was 14-years-old and even younger doing odd jobs. I've been the spouse of a military veteran who kept the family going ... (click for more)

In an opinion released Wednesday, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that a trial court acted within its discretion in excluding from trial a defendant’s videotaped statements given in a post-polygraph ... (click for more)


Opinion

A Richness Of Poverty In Our Schools

Education is a proven path to upward mobility for all students. “Our schools can’t do it all, or all by themselves” according to a 2017 commentary by Mike Petrilli. Mr. Petrilli is correct. I would add to his statement you can’t do it without a great teacher either. Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist, wrote in The Atlantic in July 2019: “However justifiable ... (click for more)

Clearing Up The Misconception About Medicare Recipients

I am a senior citizen and retiree with health problems. I've worked since I was 14-years-old and even younger doing odd jobs. I've been the spouse of a military veteran who kept the family going while that spouse was away either in training or sent farther way somewhere else. Spouses, parents and grannies, especially, are the unsung heroes of the enlisted when military calls the ... (click for more)

Breaking News

CFC Interested In Having 3 Soccer Fields At 13 Acres Of Montague Park Available For Development; Montague Descendants Oppose Any Commercial Use

The city of Chattanooga is seeking Requests for Proposals for the development of 13 acres at Montague Park by E. 23rd Street. A pre-bid meeting was held at the site on Wednesday morning, and the proposals are due by Sept. 10. A city panel will review the proposals and make a recommendation. Tim Kelly, chairman and co-founder of the Chattanooga Football Club, confirmed that ... (click for more)

State Dismisses Manslaughter Charge Against Jadarius Knox; Anguished Mother Of Victim Says "He Didn't Have To Kill Him"

The District Attorney's Office on Thursday dismissed a voluntary manslaughter charge against Jadarius Knox, saying evidence in the case in which Dakota Biddle was killed showed a self defense theory could be found to be valid. Knox was original charged with criminal homicide in the May 2018 incident on Basswood Drive, but it was reduced to voluntary manslaughter at the Grand ... (click for more)

Sports

UTC's Szczepanski Named To All-SoCon Preseason Volleyball Team

Chattanooga volleyball senior MB Dani Szczepanski (Cincinnati, Ohio) earned a spot on the Preseason All-Southern Conference squad while the Mocs earned a seventh-place prediction in the preseason coaches' poll, the league office announced Thursday afternoon. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their respective team or student-athletes in the balloting. Chattanooga earned ... (click for more)

Sito Seoane Has Equalizer As Red Wolves Tie Tormenta

The Chattanooga Red Wolves’ Sito Seoane has a gift for scoring on the road. Of his four goals scored on the season, each and every one has been notched away from David Stanton Field. Goal number four was crucial, as it provided the equalizing score in Chattanooga’s 1-1 draw against Tormenta. Seoane’s critical score came in the 57th minute, after the sun had been tucked away and ... (click for more)