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


Questions About TVA And Controlling Water Levels - And Response

When Lies Become Normal In Politics - And Response (4)

Bill Passes Senate That Preserves Tennessee's Natural Beauty And Historical Sites


So in 2003 Chattanooga and Marion County and more people below Chickamauga Dam suffered a 100 year flood because TVA had not prepared for the amount of rain that fell. Since then up until 2018 ... (click for more)

The far right Trump cult has allowed themselves to be whipped into such misinformation frenzy, that colossal lying from our president is completely acceptable to them. The misplaced excessive ... (click for more)

This week, the U.S. Senate passed sweeping legislation that will preserve Tennessee’s natural beauty and protect our historical sites. I have seen first-hand how a popular park or museum can ... (click for more)


Opinion

Questions About TVA And Controlling Water Levels - And Response

So in 2003 Chattanooga and Marion County and more people below Chickamauga Dam suffered a 100 year flood because TVA had not prepared for the amount of rain that fell. Since then up until 2018 they have done a great job with controlling the flooding problems. On Feb. 14 they started dumping water at Chickamauga Dam and raising the river, bringing the river level up. Feb 15 it's ... (click for more)

When Lies Become Normal In Politics - And Response (4)

The far right Trump cult has allowed themselves to be whipped into such misinformation frenzy, that colossal lying from our president is completely acceptable to them. The misplaced excessive admiration of Trump’s right wing cult has allowed lies to become normal behavior with our president. Promises made without follow through become lies – i.e. Mexico will pay for the Southern ... (click for more)

Breaking News

Governor Bill Lee Announces New Investment In School Safety

Governor Bill Lee on Thursday announced a new investment in school safety to better protect teachers and students and prepare against the threat of violence. He said, “The safety of our children and teachers is a top priority for my administration, and this investment ensures that school districts will have the resources they need to better protect our schools.” The ... (click for more)

Police Say White Admitted Killing Sharif After Xbox Sale was Set Up; Posted Laughing Emojis After Shooting

Chattanooga Police said a deal for the sale of an Xbox One wound up with a murder at a Hixson apartment on Tuesday. DMarcus White, 20, of 942 Shallowford Road, was charged with criminal homicide and especially aggravated robbery in the death of Mohammad Sharif, 24. Mr. Sharif was found at 12:20 p.m. unresponsive lying in the parking lot at 3825 Hixson Pike. He died later ... (click for more)

Sports

Dan Fleser: Vols Still Atop SEC, But Vantage Point Still A Little Cloudy

The view from the highest points of the SEC men’s basketball standings isn’t exactly picturesque these days. By virtue of LSU’s 82-77 overtime loss to Florida Wednesday night, Tennessee again has the best vantage point. No matter, it’s still partly cloudy up there in first place by virtue of last Saturday’s rout at the hands of Kentucky. A workmanlike victory over Vanderbilt on ... (click for more)

Top-Ranked Goodpasture Edges Notre Dame

Some things are inevitable and apparently the Notre Dame basketball team finding its way on the tracks between Goodpasture and a trip to the Division II-A State Quarterfinals is one of them. For the second year in a row, the state’s top-ranked team from Madison found a way to get in a trip to Chattanooga for a 32-minute tussle with the Fighting Irish in the opening round of ... (click for more)