It’s never easy to say good bye to someone you love and respect, regardless if it’s a family member or just a close friend, but there comes a time when you don’t have any other choice.
That’s how I feel about my buddy Louis Priddy, who passed early Sunday morning after more than 25 years of battling a respiratory illness that there was no cure for.
I was so sad when I got the text from his daughter Laura, stating that “Dad is soaring on the wings of eagles as he took his last breath early this morning,” but at the same time so happy and relieved for him after battling such difficult conditions for a long, long time.
I had gotten a phone call from Debbie Hightower on Friday, telling me that our friend’s condition had gotten worse and that Hospice had been called. The wheels started turning in my head as I knew I wanted to pay tribute to a man I’d been friends with for more than 40 years.
So, earlier today, I made it a point to contact old friends and running buddies who knew Louis and whose life like mine had been impacted by him.
Before all was said and done, I contacted Bill Gautier, Rodney Stoker, Pat Hagan, Dick Dillard, Phil Gates and Chad Varga. I’ve got enough information to write a short book, but it was my honor to call Louis Priddy a dear friend and to offer a tribute for a life well lived.
I first met Louis in the early 80s after I’d gotten my start as a sports writer at the News-Free Press and Louis had just started his career as a running store owner. We became fast friends and had countless experiences that were all running related.
Louis wasn’t as crazy about running as others of us, but he still liked running races and loved the camaraderie around each event. I think he valued the social aspect as much as anyone, but he just wanted to be part of it.
We took a trip to Indianapolis in 1984 when Pat Cross had qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5K. Unfortunately, Cross suffered an injury a few days before and wasn’t able to even finish his race, so our trip was cut short.
Another memorable experience was a trip to Lawrence, Kansas in 1998 to watch the NCAA Cross Country Championships. The UTC men had won the Southeast region meet in Birmingham to qualify, so hopes were really high that fall Saturday.
The Mocs had a really good team that year with guys like Nic Crider, Damian Walsh, Rodney Stoker, Kyle McLean, Curtis Gadula and Shon Grice among others, but collectively, they had the worst race of their career that day and finished dead last as a team.
Again, that was a disappointment to be sure, but Louis proved what kind of person he was that day. Always offering encouraging words and quick to compliment outstanding effort, he served as the consoling father that day, doing his best to make those guys feel better when nothing was going to change the results.
Louis was a huge supporter of the Chattanooga Track Club, not only as a runner, but as a race director. At times, he served as the director for the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon and the Chattanooga Chase and that was after he’d already started a long and successful run with the FCA 5K and the Big Oak Ranch 5K.
I’ll never forget that hot May morning when he was in charge at Riverview for the Chase. His son Wade was helping that day and had to go pick something up before the race began. He ended up getting a speeding ticket on his way back. To add insult to injury, Louis got a speeding ticket of his own later that same morning.
It probably wasn’t too funny at the time, but we’ve laughed about that a thousand times since.
Louis was also very supportive of high school cross country and track, often helping set the course up and waiting long after everyone was gone to make sure all was picked up and put away. He was the biggest cheerleader at those meets, offering the same positive encouragement to the guys who finished last as the ones who had won.
Knowing that I have the habit of getting long-winded, I’m going to those guys I’ve already mentioned and share some of their feelings about Louis.
Gautier got to know Louis when his UTC guys would work his races, often setting up cones in the early morning and doing whatever needed to be done to guarantee a successful event. Bill and Louis quickly became really good friends as Louis was one of Bill’s biggest supporters as the UTC coach.
“It’s always tough to see a guy you love leave, but that’s how I feel about Louis Priddy this morning,” Gautier expressed.
“Jan, Sydney and I went to see him just last weekend and he was his old self, laughing and joking around like he always did. I’m so glad we did and we didn’t know it would end so soon.
Priddy was the proud owner of the Front Runner and had stores in various places in Hixson before finally building his own facility across from the North River YMCA. He was getting ready to move into new store, so he quickly contacted Gautier, who provided plenty of help with his cross country guys.
Since it wasn’t a long drive, they basically put the racks of running clothes in the back of the rental truck and didn’t bother securing anything. The guys rode in the back for the short trip down Hixson Pike. Apparently, Louis wasn’t familiar with air brakes, so when it came time to stop, everything and everybody ended up in a pile at the front of the truck.
Luckily, nobody got hurt.
And much like the speeding tickets, it wasn’t funny at time, but lots of laughs have been shared since.
“He almost killed us in that moving truck, but we somehow survived,” Gautier recalled.
“My guys all loved him like he was their second father and it was a blessing for us all to have been part of his life. Louis was one of a kind and the most kind-hearted person I’ve ever known. He was a huge supporter of our team and we still talk about those days,” Gautier said in a quiet tone.
Hagan made more than one road trip with Louis and Wade, including a trip to Florida in Feb. 1984 for Wade’s first marathon.
“I know that Louis had been sick for a long time, but it’s still sad as he was a really good friend of mine,” reflected Hagan, who ended up running 155 marathons.
“He always wanted to help everyone. I helped him at the FCA 5K for a number of years, but we had a really good relationship and he will be missed.
Gates offered similar memories.
“I’ve thought a lot about him this past year, knowing that his health hadn’t been the best, but Louis was one of the kindest, most gentle people I’ve ever known. He bent over backward to help Debbie and I, but he was a very giving person who never turned anyone away.
“I’m heart-broken to hear of his passing as today is a really sad day for us, but he did a whole lot more for me than I ever did for him,” Gates nodded.
Dillard was a business competitor as he owned the Athletic Attic when Priddy started the Front Runner.
“I wasn’t real happy when he opened that store as I wasn’t sure Chattanooga was big enough to support two running stores,” Dillard remembered.
“But he was a very gentle man and we turned out to be really good friends, working together to make it happen for our running customers. He was a very loving and gracious man who put running on the map in Chattanooga,” he added.
Stoker was on that 1998 UTC team and he later worked at the Front Runner after graduation. He developed a relationship with Louis like none other.
“I worked for him a long time and spent a lot of time in the store with him. He always wanted to know you,” Stoker began.
“I was in the back of the truck that day and we all ended up in a pile. Luckily, nobody got hurt.
“Louis wasn’t your typical businessman, but he made running special for a whole lot of people. He taught me what it meant to be a good husband and father and those years I spent with him were some of the best of my life,” Stoker added.
Varga is now the owner of the Front Runner after purchasing it from Louis in 2001. Ironically, the sale was completed the week following 9-11.
“He’s battled this respiratory thing for a long time. I’m so sorry to hear about his passing, but Louis was always my friend and I was blessed to have the opportunity to buy the store from him,” Varga expressed.
“His generosity was unbelievable. I remember when those kids from Big Oak Ranch would come into the store and Louis let them have whatever they wanted as he knew those kids might not have that chance again.
“He was telling me about those two races when I was in the process of buying and I told him I’d to my best to keep the FCA race alive. I respected everything that Louis Priddy did. The running boom was just getting started when he started the Front Runner, but that was a big leap and he made it work.
“I’ll never forget going with Louis to Birmingham on November 16, 1998 to see the Mocs win the Region. The reason I remember that day is that was my 40th birthday. I had trained with the Mocs, but they had a great day and we all celebrated. Louis was jumping around like a little kid at Christmas after the Mocs won that day,” Varga reflected.
These stories could go on forever as Louis Priddy touched everyone he ever met, making them feel like the most important person on earth.
Mr. Priddy's body was donated to science at Vanderbilt. Hopefully in the coming weeks, we'll be able to have a memorial service to honor all he stood for.
In the meantime, if you want to make a memorial contribution, his picks included the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Big Oak Ranch in Glencoe, Ala. or the Hixson United Methodist Church.
We have lost a dear friend here on earth, but I’m sure there’s a big celebration going on in heaven.
Rest in peace, my friend. I look forward to seeing you again one day.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)