Roy Exum: When Curtis Flipped Sides, Then Thought Better Of It

Sunday, July 7, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

When an overflow crowd gathers this afternoon to pay their last respects for Curtis Adams, I’m the one you may want to sit with. I suspect I know as much as any of those who will be at Heritage Funeral Home on Battlefield Parkway for the 2:30 p.m. service today because I didn’t just work with Curtis, the two of us were my grandfather’s most trusted lieutenants and, as such, we got our marching orders every single morning behind his closed office door. We talked for over 30 years, day by day, and most days we talked for maybe 30 minutes or longer.

My grandfather owned and published the Chattanooga News-Free Press and I went to work as an age-exempt “family member” at 12. Curtis, who was 16 years my senior, went to work for my grandfather and namesake Roy McDonald when I was two years old so I’ve known Curtis since I was still in short pants. He was smarter than a tree full of owls, for 22 years the County Commissioner for his beloved East Ridge. What’s more, what Comm. Adams didn’t know about Chattanooga, I did.

Just so happened Curtis was vain to a fault. Once in February, with snow on the ground, he’d snuck in the back of this place that had tanning beds. I reckon I thought it would be funny if I wrote a made-up story, had it set in type with a big headline that the AIDS virus had been discovered by the Centers for Communicable Diseases in Atlanta. Oh, I did it up fine … with Secretary General Moses Luther of the CDC urging anyone who had been there to get checked and not to dare eat chocolate. (Chocolate has zero to do with the virus, but a few outlandish tidbits really give legs to any wacky story.)

I had another account that claimed a pin-setter named Billy at the bowling place in East Ridge was how the AIDS was discovered … said Billy loved to lay under the lamps in the nude, and another immune virus – leukemia simplex – must have gotten inside Billy through his “private parts” being exposed. Well, you could envision Curtis wondering if his ‘parts’ laid where Billy’s privates did. “Het, Curt … how you gonna’ explain to Dot (Curtis’ wife) you got the HIV from a tanning table?”

Two hours later I “bumped” into Curtis in the hall and he whispered he’d gone to the East Ridge Hospital and talked them into a blood panel. “Ain’t going to make any difference now … guy on the police desk said Billy died just before lunch, but if I was you I’d forget it … You and Billy weren’t alike. Rumor is Billy was gay … “ I said as Curtis’ face went from tanned to ashen.

The best Curtis story ever?? One morning I wandered from my office to “the second door on the second floor” and asked where was Curtis. “He left me a note with his car keys. Curtis has gone to work for the Times.” In the Army when you are found to be a traitor you are either strung up or face a firing squad. I was devastated. I couldn’t believe anyone would leave us tor “the evil side,” and the fact he knew some of our plans could hurt us in the big scheme.

My grandfather just laughed and laughed. “Curtis doesn’t have a clue what he’s getting ready to go through. Within six weeks you watch … he will be so miserable and so ashamed. The people (Times’ management) are in no way like us. Curtis will never have one meeting like we have every day. Nobody will ask for his opinion because they think he’s a bumpkin from East Ridge. You and I know what the people of East Ridge have taught him, how they’ve formed him, and why he loves those people so much.”

Boss, you can’t be serious. He left here thinking he can beat you and the rest of us!

“Posh! I don’t understand how the Times sells to anyone and ol’ Curtis is going to find out the Hunter Museum and Mrs. Holmberg’s Symphony will not sell six more papers,” Roy McDonald said. “Curtis getting talked into a bad decision is disappointing to me, but the Bible has an explanation – 'And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.' 

“I am telling you this because I have seen it time and time again. The grass is never greener… I promise you … give it about six weeks … If you see him act cordial. If he tries to call you, don’t call back, but when the ‘prodigal’ comes back, take him somewhere that is nice for lunch … I want people to see your friendship.”

Lesson taught. Lesson learned. Curtis, you know the whole time you were still a valued and respected member of the family. And you know that’s true because I’m the one who called you from the Mountain City Club to whisper that the Times, after going though that $35 million to beat our brains out, could never grasp the strength of a Southern family.

I told you to drop everything, sit in a comfortable chair on the second level, and make a note or two of how we’re going to meet the needs to restructure our a.m. and p.m. delivery fleets … Curtis, what’s that you said? Are you okay? It sounded like a gasp …

“I am leaving right now. In 10 minutes I’ll be waiting for you to call me in …and …  congratulations.”

Yeah, back at you, Curt … congratulations to you as well ole son…

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