John Shearer: Remembering The Summer Of 1980 In Chattanooga
Saturday, July 25, 2020 - by John Shearer
Do you ever think back to where you were or what you were doing 10, 20 or 50 years ago during a certain month or season?
The summer of 1980, when I was 20 and just finishing my second year at the University of Georgia, especially stands out due to several events important to me and the entire Chattanooga community.
Most of my memories of that summer involve working at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club. I had worked the summer before out on the golf course there doing everything from mowing, to sodding and digging, to trimming hedges, and I realized how hard it was.
With the help of friend and worker Bob Martin, I was able to get a job working under Billy Buchanan in the pro shop in 1980 primarily putting up golf carts, picking up range balls, and loading and cleaning members’ golf clubs.
While going on the recommendation of my friend, Billy still wanted to meet me before he officially hired me when I called him on the phone, so I made plans to meet him one Saturday afternoon when I was back in Chattanooga before finishing spring quarter.
I was coming up for neighborhood friend Don McGonagil’s Saturday morning graduation from Baylor School and then planned to go by the golf club that afternoon.
Unfortunately, friend Kurt Schmissrauter and I decided to “celebrate” Don’s pending graduation with him Friday night, and the next thing I knew, it was already the next morning, and I had gotten basically no sleep.
Needless to say, having to head over to talk to Billy instead of taking a nap that afternoon was not fun. Not only that, but after Billy kindly offered me the job, he asked if I could work a little – that day.
That was definitely not what this tired college student wanted to hear. I figured I better not say no, but I hurriedly thought of a good compromise, telling him I could help for a couple of hours and then I had to be somewhere. I did not, of course, say the bed was where I needed to be.
It was my first night ever without much sleep, although it would not be my last, even though most of the others have been due to restlessness over some issue bothering me or an important event coming up the next day.
Anyway, I returned a week or two later and started working at the club, learning for the first time about having to deal with people in sort of a subservient or service-focused way. But it was a good experience, and I eventually learned to treat my work with respect and enjoyed becoming acquainted with several members.
The staff was also an interesting group of characters. That included the colorful Charles Wilcox, who oversaw the bag storage room and golf carts, as well as Billy, who knew how to talk to the members in an outgoing way and, in his own style, had the best interest of us workers at heart.
There were also the caddies – the real characters -- and the rest of the clubhouse staff.
And among all those employees, there were one or two who enjoyed a little too much holy water on the job.
Overall, the experience of being around so many different types of people – including blacks -- was good for me.
The one aspect about the job I did not like was that I did not get to eat lunch until around 1:30 or 2. I have still not forgotten walking past the dining areas countless times and seeing the members heartily enjoy nice lunches around 11:30 or 12, and I was already hungry.
To this day, I never eat a late lunch if I am in charge of the situation!
During the month of July while working there, the temperature reached maybe 100 degrees or so for a couple of weeks, and we did not get much rain. Needless to say, I was thankful I was not still working out on the course!
But at about the same time, Chattanooga was heating up with racial tension as well. Three white Chattanoogans with racist outlooks or affiliations had been found not guilty or sentenced on minor charges in the shooting of some black women on then-Ninth Street in April, and some began marching and rioting in protest primarily in the Alton Park area.
I remember watching the national nightly news at that time, and the tense situation in Chattanooga was one of the lead stories for several nights in a row. Chattanooga became the Ferguson, Mo., or Minneapolis or Portland for a few days, although the situation never got super bad.
I do recall hearing one club member come into the bag storage room one afternoon during those tense days saying that he heard someone had been shot and killed in front of the Chattanooga Glass building in an incident connected to the protest. Only when I got home and watched the recently deceased Bob Johnson on Channel 9 that night did I learn that the media was trying to quash the false and rampant rumor that someone had been shot there.
Working at a club that might have seemed far removed from the frustrations in the black community, even though some of the staff might have even lived in Alton Park, was an issue I probably did not ponder at that time. But wanting race relations to be better and more harmonious has definitely been on my mind a lot as I have grown older.
Interestingly, I also lightly crossed paths with one of the former white defendants, Marshall Thrash, while I was attending Red Bank United Methodist Church 20 years later. By then he seemed to be more of a repentant Christian, and I always wanted to know more of his full story.
My mother had also worked with his seemingly pleasant mother at the Downtown General Hospital in the early 1980s, and I always talked with her and her husband at the annual Christmas luncheon I attended there for a few years.
Politics were also in the air nationally, as Ronald Reagan was the Republican nominee for president, although no one knew at the time just how popular a president he would be with his great communication skills. Incumbent Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, was struggling due to the economy and the hostage crisis in Iran, even though he would also go on to become as beloved as President Reagan in a different sort of way.
After those tense days of July 1980 in Chattanooga, life turned to more normal back at the club. I continued to work there during the day into the early evening several days a week. I even began working some in the pro shop on Mondays, when the rest of the club was closed, or briefly when Billy Buchanan or another staff member would have to step out.
A club member would invariably walk in and ask about some of the clothes or clubs for sale, and I was not in there enough to know and be able to help the person. “I am just in here temporarily,” was my standard line.
And I realized my sales skills probably needed a little – or a lot of – refining at that time. It made me catch on that sales work was probably not a good vocation for this somewhat introverted person, although I concluded as I grew older that a little commission can motivate anyone.
I also wished I was a little more outgoing at that time for another reason -- to flirt more comfortably with the cute female lifeguards at the pool.
To help with my social life, I also learned to disco dance that summer.
That requires a little explanation. The previous spring, I had a roommate who had been in Kappa Alpha fraternity at Georgia, and he was always doing a dance called the shag at various fraternity and sorority events.
I had thought being in a fraternity might be fun, or at least help me meet more girls, and for some reason naively thought I might need to learn to dance beforehand. I had seen an ad in the paper for a six-week class at Chattanooga State on disco dancing and figured that might be close enough to shagging.
So, in what was a bold step for me, I signed up for it. I was hoping to be incognito, but as fate would have it, I saw a former neighbor a little older than I and his wife also taking part. But they did not laugh at me either for signing up for the class or for my dance moves.
Practicing dancing might have literally been the best step I took that summer, as it did later come in handy. I did not join a fraternity that fall, but I did get a chance to go to some dances during the remainder of my college career, and I no longer felt unconfident. However, I never did learn how to shag dance to beach music.
Other memories from that summer included training to try out for the Georgia track team as a walk-on, showing I was ready to fast step it in more ways than one, and taking a trip to Panama City Beach with a former Baylor classmate, Bill Freels. I remember we went several nights to a nightclub called the Spinnaker II, and there was certainly no social distancing in the busy place – but thankfully no pandemic, either.
For the record, I have now been a teetotaler for 20-plus years – and probably a little bit of a party pooper, too.
I also became interested in local history for the first time that summer, looking at some of the old pictures in the beautiful old country club’s clubhouse before it was remodeled, and examining the hidden streets of adjacent Riverview more closely. I also occasionally talked to some of the old members about their memories -- and wished I had talked to more.
Friend Kurt Schmissrauter and his parents had moved into the former home of Coca-Cola bottler Cartter Lupton there, and Kurt asked me to house sit for four days or so while they went to Florida. That seemed fine and potentially fun, but Kurt had once told me he thought he had seen ghosts of past house employees in there.
And yes, I started thinking about that a lot, and ended up having someone different stay with me each night, although there was an hour or so some nights when I was there alone before the person arrived. On those occasions, I hung out in a front room near the door to the driveway. Yes, I had about as much courage as Don Knotts in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.”
It was a memorable summer that concluded with getting to watch in person freshman Herschel Walker – certainly not a Mr. Chicken on the field – lead my Georgia Bulldogs to a stunning, come-from-behind win at Tennessee in early September.
And 40 years later, I still vividly recall plenty about that meaningful summer of highs and lows.