John Shearer: Memories Of Curtis Adams, Glenn Draper And Samuel L. Jackson’s Mother

Friday, July 12, 2019 - by John Shearer

Seeing about the recent deaths of former Hamilton County Commissioner Curtis Adams and music director Glenn Draper started me thinking about one or two memories I had of observing them.


And watching a couple of recent TV interviews with Chattanooga native actor Samuel L.

Jackson started me remembering the one time I talked with his mother, even though she surprisingly wasn’t referenced in either profile.


Although I never became well acquainted with Curtis Adams, I enjoyed watching him at the newspaper as a circulation manager and observing his obvious manner of self-confidence when political office was just starting to be on his radar.


I started at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1984 and I later heard that as circulation leader in the 1970s at a time when there was a big circulation battle with the Chattanooga Times, he and publisher Roy McDonald and possibly others had an original idea.


They decided to periodically honor or salute certain communities. In doing so, the paper would apparently put together special sections and have a big night at some place like the local gym of East Ridge or Red Bank. It was done to sell papers, but Mr. Adams, Mr. McDonald and others would have the communities thinking they were really special.


Those were big events, and helped build up circulation at a time when the printed newspaper was still a hot commodity and was read by many families in town.


At some point, Mr. Adams decided to go to the Chattanooga Times as circulation director, I heard, and thought maybe he could do the same magic there. But the Free Press was the more dominant paper during that time circulation wise, and after the Times and Free Press joined production staffs in early 1981, Mr. Adams was able to talk Roy McDonald into hiring him back.


And that is where he was when I started working at the paper. He made sure to stop by and see Roy McDonald in his office regularly, knowing to stay connected to the boss – especially after he had earlier left. He also worked on Saturday night to make sure the Sunday paper went out OK, even though many other executives other than Mr. Roy were home.


While at the paper, Mr. Adams seemed to have that perfect charisma and leadership charm, finding a way to assert himself as a member of the leadership team there despite not being a member of the ownership family.


I can remember seeing him walk through the newsroom on several occasions headed to Mr. Roy’s office, and often trailed by his two circulation department lieutenants – Frank Maier and Jerry Gifford. All three would be wearing suits and ties.


Although he appeared to be more from a working-class upbringing, he had that natural showmanship that later suited him well when he ran for political office. He also impressed me by never missing a commission meeting.


Some time after Mr Roy died, Mr. Adams left to pursue other opportunities, perhaps letting many people know via a press release. I remember editor Lee Anderson saying at the time regarding the way he departed with just a statement printed in the paper, “Curtis likes to do things his own way.”


Of course, as has been documented, he also found his way to success and service in several other realms. That included running a tire company, being elected to office, serving as a city manager in Crossville, and even interviewing people for podcasts. And through it all, he had that charisma – although not necessarily in an overly noisy manner as many colorful people are.


I remember later running into him once or twice at various meetings, and he always seemed to want to know what was happening with the newspaper or newspaper business.


* * * * *


Another unique person I observed at the paper was local music and choral conductor Glenn Draper.


While his talents and skills in the music-conducting field have been well documented since his unfortunate death on June 15, I thought he was a masterful promoter after observing him. While many people today with his busy schedule and level of accomplishment might have had a PR person typing out publicity or making social media posts about his various music groups’ tours, he liked to handle it all himself.


It wasn’t uncommon to see him come into the old Chattanooga News-Free Press at least once a month with some information about his groups’ next or latest tour, including such opportunities as getting to visit the White House for a concert.


At least that was the situation when I was there in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Free Press, as mentioned, would publish plenty of local news content with pictures about the accomplishments and happenings of members of the community.


I remember on at least one occasion, city editor Julius Parker or another city editor brought him over to my desk for me to interview him about one of his group’s latest concert tours, or perhaps some distinction he had achieved. He told me about the next tour or event in an enthusiastic manner that reminded me of some kind of early television or entertainment personality, or maybe even a successful businessman who did not mind promoting his business.


He had an enthusiastic and unabashed style about him, and I find that admirable looking back years later. 


Plenty of successful people have taken the philosophy of  “if you don’t promote yourself or group, who will,” and he knew how to do that in a good way and involve the media. He could probably have taught a public relations class or written a book about it if he wanted.



* * * * *


Another now-deceased person who has caught my attention recently is Elizabeth Jackson, the mother of noted actor and former Chattanoogan Samuel L. Jackson.


In recent weeks, as his acting career continues to stay at a high-profile level, Mr. Jackson has been featured on both CBS’ “60 Minutes” and NBC’s “Today” show on Sunday morning hosted by Willie Geist.


In both profiles, he talked about being raised by grandparents. There is no mention of his mother, Mrs. Jackson.


Yet I vividly remember getting the neat opportunity to go to her house in downtown Chattanooga in early 1995 after he was nominated for an Oscar for the first time in the supporting actor category for “Pulp Fiction.”


In what was a highlight of my reporting career, I also had an opportunity to interview him over the phone at a time when he was just starting to become well known. I remember I had talked with his wife, LaTanya, and I either called him, or he called me, on his early-model cell phone while he was taking his daughter, Zoe, to school and was on his way to the gym.


In a polite-but-straightforward way, I remember he told me that he thought acting could be an acquired skill, and one did not have to be born with the talent. He also told me – correctly -- that he thought Martin Landau would win in his category for “Ed Wood” during this year in which “Forrest Gump” won Best Picture.


I can’t remember if I talked with his mother before or after I conversed with him,

but I recall going over to her west-facing home on Lookout Street between Third and Fourth streets. She had a sweet demeanor, I remember, and even had a scrapbook she had kept regarding his career.


She told me that she had learned the news of his nomination from a phone call from her granddaughter, Zoe.


Mrs. Jackson reminisced that he had done some acting in plays at Memorial Auditorium while at James A. Henry Elementary working under the tutelage of an aunt, Edna Eldridge, but that he did not care for her modern dance classes.


His mother also apparently put me in touch with Mrs. Booker T. (Mabel) Scruggs, and she recalled that he was a bright, inquisitive and conscientious student at school and at Sunday school at Wiley Memorial United Methodist Church.


Mr. Jackson went on to play the trumpet at Riverside High in the marching band before graduating in 1966, and admittedly had to walk to school, since it was not too far away.


His mother admitted she wanted her son to prepare to be a doctor after he went off to Morehouse College because Chattanooga did not have a black pediatrician, but she jokingly said he did not take to that.


But she was obviously proud of his acting career, and shared that she had received a call from noted director Spike Lee after her son captured an award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in “Jungle Fever.”


She also said that one local theater manager always gave her free tickets whenever one of her son’s movies was playing at his theater.


Regarding why it has been pointed out that Mr. Jackson was raised by his grandparents, it may have been because she was a steady worker during his growing-up years and was often only home in the evenings.


I recently looked at some old city directories starting in the early 1960s when Samuel L. Jackson would have been in high school. It said that Mrs. Jackson was a maid at Young Ages children’s store operated by Mrs. G.A. Griffith at 309 Chickamauga Ave. in Rossville. She may have also done some seamstress work and other chores.


She lived at 310½ Lookout St. Also listed as living there were her parents, Edgar and Pearl Montgomery, who were apparently the grandparents he mentioned. It is not clear if they lived in the whole home, or just part of it. Listed for a few years as living at 310 Lookout St. was one or more people with the last name of King. Perhaps this was in another section of the home.


During World War II – before Samuel was born in 1948 – Mrs. Jackson and her sister, Frances, had been recruited by the Navy to be clerks/typists in Washington, D.C. She later received a Recognition of Service Award from the U.S. Navy Bureau of Personnel.


I did not pursue seeing when the family started living in the Lookout Street residence, nor the life story of Samuel L. Jackson’s father, Henry Jackson.


Mrs. Jackson continued to live on Lookout Street for a number of years. By about 1980, she was working as a store clerk at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute. She told me at the time she worked in purchasing.


She continued to live in the home at least for a few years after I talked with her in 1995. Samuel L. Jackson jokingly said during the interview that he went to visit her about once or twice a year in Chattanooga, and that he woke up to the sound of automobiles pulling into then-Provident life insurance lots.


Mrs. Jackson apparently went out to live in California for a period near her son, but at the time of her death on Oct. 23, 2012, after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, she was in Rome, Ga.


Her Chattanooga house had been listed as being vacant by the early 2000s, and was torn down at some point after that. The lot where her and the other turn-of-the century homes were is still cleared and vacant.


Historians can now look back and wonder if a preserved home might have made an interesting local tourist attraction regarding the life and career of Mr. Jackson.


Or maybe some kind of historical marker to Mr. Jackson still needs to be put up there at that site -- and this time maybe mention the apparently positive role his mother had in his life.

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