John Shearer: Dr. Larry Fogo Recalls Also-Scary 1948 Baylor Polio Crisis

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - by John Shearer

Retired Chattanooga dentist Dr. Larry Fogo will never forget sitting in a senior English class at Baylor School in September 1948, and looking over at football captain and class friend Tom Smoot, who did not appear to be feeling well.

 

It was a sharp contrast to a senior year that was otherwise full of hope and optimism and excitement for the students, and one that had started with Mr.

Smoot and some others starring in the opening game win at Rossville High the Friday before.

 

“I asked him if he felt bad, and he said, ‘I hurt all over,’ ” Dr. Fogo recalled. “I told him to go down to the infirmary and let the nurse see him. He told me, ‘I think I will.’ ”

 

Little did Dr. Fogo know, but he would never see Tom Smoot again. Within two weeks, he would be deceased, taken by that thief called polio and related complications.

 

As Chattanoogans and people around the world are bracing to try and stay safe from yet another mostly invisible attacker of the human body with the coronavirus outbreak, many older residents are reminded of the various polio epidemics.

 

While mostly a crippler of young people, polio was still somewhat similar to COVID-19 in that it was also contagious and often struck without warning – usually in the late summer and early fall. As a result, communities would sometimes have to practice self-isolation, and schools or facilities would shut down briefly until the danger passed.

 

That had occurred in Chattanooga as a whole in September 1941, as was documented in a March 15 story in chattanoogan.com.

 

But perhaps the worst crisis to hit a singular and insular Chattanooga group or school was the one that struck Baylor in 1948.

 

As somewhat of a twist, Baylor is also playing a part in the 2020 health scare, but as a pro-active helper instead of an unfortunate victim. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger announced that Baylor will become a local site to test local samples for COVID-19 after the science faculty at the school offered their lab space and expertise. It is to be overseen by the Hamilton County health department.

 

In the 1948 outbreak, besides Mr. Smoot, who died from related complications in a Knoxville hospital, it also left boarding students Jack Wright of Alabama and Pat Brooks of Georgia with lifelong disabilities. And Hugh Chapman of South Carolina also suffered some minor complications.

 

Others, including future Coca-Cola bottler J. Frank Harrison, also had to be kept briefly in a hospital for observations.

 

The whole crisis temporarily tore the school apart, and it had to shut down for about a month, similar to the scenario going on everywhere today.

 

I had first learned about the crisis around Christmas of 1972, when I was a seventh-grader/first-year student at Baylor, and my father gave me a copy of teacher Jim Hitt’s Baylor history book, “It Never Rains After Three O’Clock.” I remember perusing the pages of it and coming across something about the polio crisis.

 

Perhaps that first prompted an interest in local history or in the story of places I am connected with, and over the years I have written about the 1948 Baylor polio crisis periodically. In 1988, I remembered the 40th anniversary was approaching, so I did a story on it. I talked with former football coach Humpy Heywood, who seemed to think maybe the outbreak had started when a container of some drinks was being passed through a stadium during a pro game they attended in Birmingham.

 

I also talked with the three previously mentioned survivors, and had delightful conversations with all of them, and remembered that Mr. Chapman at that time was head of a major bank in Atlanta.

 

I also conversed with Dr. Fogo then. Longtime Baylor teacher Stan Lewis also told me when I was gathering information for that story that he remembered that the students were given assignments and were to mail them to the school.

 

It was a far cry from the online/ZOOM world of 2020 in method, but not in the ulterior goal of continuing the learning amid dire circumstances.

 

After moving to Knoxville, I wrote one or two other stories about the 1948 crisis, talking to Mr. Smoot’s younger brother, Al, over the phone and to another Knoxville Baylor classmate, Pete Denton, in person. I even traced where all the Smoot family lived in Knoxville for another story, and I found the family graves.

 

I remember Mr. Denton told me that during those initial few weeks at home in 1948, he kept being afraid that he was going to wake up in the morning with some kind of paralysis. It was a fear many can relate to today hoping they aren’t the next ones to come down with the coronavirus.

 

Dr. Fogo said this week that 1948 was not the first year he had been introduced to the fear polio can invoke. He recalled another communitywide outbreak – apparently the one in 1941 --  when he lived at his family home on hilly Garnett Avenue in North Chattanooga near Normal Park School.

 

Like today, social gatherings of any kind were canceled for several days, he recalled.

 

“They quarantined you, but I remember a friend and I would throw baseball to each other from our back yards. He threw it uphill and I throw it downhill.”

 

But Dr. Fogo would also feel the uphill effect polio would have on him, at least emotionally, as he would have to stare down the disease up close two more times, including once after Baylor.

 

Among his other memories of the Baylor crisis, he recalled that classes might have gone on a few extra days into the summer to make up for the lost time, and then in the fall of 1949 he headed off to the University of Chattanooga. He remembered that more Baylor, McCallie and Girls Preparatory School graduates were in the UC freshmen class that year than ever before.

 

He worked hard at UC academically, he said, and was able to quickly head off to dental school at UT Memphis and finish at a younger age than most students of today. He and his wife, Susan Talley Fogo, had their first child, Jimmy, and all seemed well.

 

But about 1953 while he was still in school and working hard, she got out of bed one weekend morning and quickly fell to the floor.

 

“Her knees fell out,” Dr. Fogo said, remembering she was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis.

 

She had been complaining of a prickly feeling in her back, and some doctors could not figure it out until their baby son’s doctor determined it was polio. At that time, pediatricians were most familiar with polio because it most often struck young people.

 

Although permanently disabled, she went on to have a productive and contributing family, church and community life until her death this past December at the age of 88. She had also spent time at Warm Springs, Ga., rehabilitating.

 

Dr. Fogo has never forgotten certain memories related to all these incidences along the way, he said as he continued to reminisce over the phone. He said the old home on Garnett Avenue had a horseshoe – often a sign of good luck -- and still does decades later, he learned from a granddaughter who recently visited the home.

 

And he has not forgotten the late Tom Smoot, whom he recalled as a mean player on the field, but a gentle and likable friend off it.

 

“Tom was a really fine person,” he recalled of the senior class president and football captain, who, like several of those stricken, lived in Lupton Hall. “He was a big strong boy. We lost a good student and an awfully fine man.”

 

Other members of the 1949 Baylor class included former Greyhound bus head Fred Currey, the previously mentioned Coke bottler J. Frank Harrison, former presidential adviser and lobbyist Bill Timmons, Robert Neyland Jr. (son of the UT football coach), and well-known local identical twins Chamberlain and Robert McAllester.

 

Dr. Fogo went on to practice dentistry for 49½ years and had his office at 4933 Brainerd Road near the intersection with Moore Road. His son, Jimmy, runs the office now. A younger son, Larry “Buddy” Fogo, works in commercial real estate services in Chattanooga.

 

According to the late Mr. Hitt’s history book, then-Baylor headmaster Herb Barks Sr. later wrote an account of the polio outbreak for alumni and ended it with these words, “Your school has just passed through one of the greatest crises in its history. It makes us proud to announce that Baylor stood the test.”

 

Polio would be mostly eradicated by the mid-1950s with the help of vaccines from scientists like Jonas Salk and later Albert Sabin.

 

I remember that Mr. Smoot’s younger brother, also an alumnus who later lived in Minnesota, told me that he recalled that Baylor at the time became a laboratory study for the disease among some researchers.

 

So, maybe the work did help speed up a cure.

 

And now this once-military, all-male Baylor School that has been coed for nearly 35 years is trying to do its part to fight the current serious disease of coronavirus/COVID-19 with the help of some female science faculty members in Weeks Science Building.

 

Just a few feet from where woman nurse Mrs. Omer Rubrite saw Mr. Smoot in his unfortunate predicament in the now-razed infirmary, Drs. Elizabeth Forrester and Dawn Richards are set to help test specimens for the COVID-19 virus with a stronger sense of hope.

 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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