John Shearer: New Bobby Hoppe Documentary Brings Memories Of Covering Case

Friday, December 3, 2021 - by John Shearer

In the spring of 1988, I was 28 years old and serving about a nine-month stint as the police and fire reporter for the Chattanooga News-Free Press before the editors wisely – and to my later satisfaction – realized I was more of a feature writer/general assignment reporter at heart.


I especially did not care for being called during the off hours by such spokesmen and media liaisons as Freeman Cooper, later the Chattanooga Police chief, and, yes, current Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who was then one of the fire department information officials.


I enjoyed talking to and getting to know them, as well as Doug Gray and Chuck Robbs, but the sad news they brought meant extra work for me.


But there was one case I wrapped my arms around with interest and enthusiasm.

Sometime during that spring or late winter, I heard Hamilton County courts and courthouse reporter John Wilson mention to the editors or someone in the newsroom that he had heard from his contacts some unusual news. Former local football star Bobby Hoppe was about to be indicted for a 31-year-old murder.


I quickly knew what he was talking about, as I had heard the not-so-subtle whispers from multiple Chattanoogans when I was growing up about the incident and Mr. Hoppe’s reputed involvement.


All that came back to mind watching on Thursday evening the very-well-done SEC Storied documentary, “The Trials of Bobby Hoppe,” which is to air on the SEC Network a few more times over the next 10 days or so. 


It was inspired in part by the 2010 book, “A Matter of Conscience: Redemption of a Hometown Hero, Bobby Hoppe,” written by his widow, Dr. Sherry Hoppe, and Dennie Burke after Mr. Hoppe’s death in 2008.


The hourlong film tells the dual story of Auburn’s unlikely run to a national championship in 1957 and the case of Mr. Hoppe and the subsequent trial in Chattanooga. After he was indicted and the trial started in the courtroom of Judge Joe DiRisio only about three months later, he surprisingly admitted shooting a gun that night but claimed self-defense.


Evidence in the trial said Teddy Donald Hudson, a known moonshine runner, had been dating Mr. Hoppe’s sister, Joan Hoppe Voiles, who died in 2009, and had mistreated her. Mr. Hoppe, who reportedly did not like the relationship, had been out with his unidentified girlfriend on the night of July 19, 2021, and had dropped her off and had gone by Nikki’s Drive-In and was driving down Bell Avenue early the next morning when testimony stated Hudson pulled up beside him.


In self-defense, Mr. Hoppe said he fired at the vehicle. It later crashed at the corner of Snow Street, and Mr. Hudson died.


In a case that John Wilson covered for the News-Free Press and current book author Jon Meacham wrote a feature or two about while a young Times staffer, a hung jury was declared, with 10 of 12 jurors pushing for acquittal. A few days later, with the unlikely odds of getting a conviction of first-degree murder – the only charge for which the statute of limitations had not run out – the district attorney’s office said it would not retry the case.


Mr. Hoppe could finally breathe a sigh of relief of some sorts after 31 years of having that on his conscience.


And then, in a followup that seemed to get more play in the documentary than in the book, a man claimed after the trial that someone else had later come up and shot and killed Mr. Hudson in his crashed DeSoto car. However, that was not pursued in any detailed way by authorities.


The documentary revealed a lot of interesting information of which I was unaware. For starters, it said that Mr. Hoppe decided to attend Auburn, a school where not many Chattanooga athletes at that time played sports, in part because he had come from a working-class background and felt more at home among the blue jean-wearing students.


The film showed some film clips of his days playing at Central, when he wore No. 33, as well as plenty of his time at Auburn when he donned jersey No. 20. 


It also told of a friendship Mr. Hoppe had with a black Auburn fan named Doc Hodge in those days of segregation. Mr. Hoppe was regularly spotted driving around in a car with him and drinking, and he once refused to board a train to a game along with his teammates when a conductor at first was not going to allow Mr. Hodge to get on board, too, due to his race.


It also mentioned Mr. Hoppe firing a gun simply at some flies at a house near the campus in which he lived with some football players, an incident that angered a teammate wanting some peace and quiet.


Interviewed from the Chattanooga perspective were Dr. Sherry Hoppe, trial lead prosecutor Tom Evans, and former News-Free Press sports editor and current columnist Roy Exum. Mr. Exum, a natural conversationalist and storyteller, told about the legendary sports status of Mr. Hoppe and how the case was received and watched in Chattanooga.


Dr. Hoppe, meanwhile, displays for the camera her late husband’s old memorabilia and photos, and she also mentions about him not wanting to attend the 50-year reunion of the 1957 team in 2007. It was apparently due to a fear of being asked a lot about the trial and case and being identified with that, and it was just a few months before he died. 


As full disclosure, I had received an email from someone with ESPN films or their production company about two or three years ago. They had seen one or two items I had written about Mr. Hoppe, including an interview I had done with Dr. Hoppe when I was still living in Knoxville, and she was having a book reception at the home of mutual friend the Rev. Jan Buxton Wade.


The ESPN officials were wondering if I wanted to be interviewed, and I think I agreed, although I am not comfortable with a camera in front of me, despite having been interviewed a couple of years earlier at the UT studios regarding the deaths of three Vol coaches in a car crash in 1965.


However, the Bobby Hoppe film project might have gotten stalled during the pandemic, but about a year ago I received a call and maybe an email from a person named Andy Billman. He seemed nice and friendly, and he kind of concluded that I was not really that big on being interviewed. But I told him I would be glad to show them some of the historical sights connected to the case when they were going to be in Chattanooga. Or maybe I offered to do something like that in a follow-up email.


Of course, they probably had busy schedules and I did not hear back. 


I thought Mr. Billman from ESPN was actually just a young assistant helping coordinate the film, but only when it was promoted did I learn he was the lead producer, and an award-winning one at that!


I also passed along to Mr. Billman retired Baylor baseball coach Gene Etter’s name as a possible interviewee if they wanted the perspective of someone who looked up to Mr. Hoppe’s legendary high school exploits. He is also the son of the late head coach E.B. “Red” Etter.


Gene was not featured, so I am not sure if they interviewed him.


While his or someone else’s comments might have added a little more about his legendary sports reputation in Chattanooga, the film was otherwise very well done. It showed some neat period film clips from Auburn at that time, and former Auburn coach Shug Jordan’s son, Ralph Jr., is among those interviewed.


The film also mentions that Mr. Hoppe had written coach Jordan an appreciative letter in the 1970s, while Mr. Hoppe himself was a teacher and a coach. He was the athletic director at Chattanooga State at the time of his arrest in 1988.


Chattanooga names also brought out in the trial and mentioned prominently include Odene Neal, who testified for the prosecution, and Diane Shirley (who is called Evelyn Shirley in one newspaper account from the time), who testified at the last minute in support of the defense.


It also discusses the criticized testimony of then-Auburn student minister Joseph Godwin. I have never forgotten reading about his testimony in 1988, when he said that what Mr. Hoppe had told him in 1957 about the death of Mr. Hudson had been so much on Mr. Godwin’s conscience over the years that he felt he had to break pastoral confidentiality and tell authorities in 1966.


Among the minor critiques I have of the film is that they showed lots of film clips of the Hamilton County Courthouse, probably due to its classic architectural beauty, but the trial actually took place at the Hamilton County Justice Building across Walnut Street.


Leroy Phillips, Mr. Hoppe’s first lawyer before noted attorney Bobby Lee Cook later joined the team, is also not referenced, I do not believe. Nor is detective Richard Heck, who looked at old cases and began investigating the Hoppe case in the 1980s after meeting Mr. Hudson’s mother. Mr. Heck just died in September.


The film crew could have also interviewed someone from the Hudson family, although they might have tried.


They could have also mentioned that Auburn played the Chattanooga Mocs that year and drawn even more on the local connection, but do not believe they did, unless I missed it.


I believe the Mississippi State Bulldogs were also more commonly called the Maroons in 1957, although that may be nitpicking. 


It also references Bell Street instead of Bell Avenue in the promotion. But as one who regrettably has made a few errors in stories over the years, my pointing out these items is like the pot calling the kettle black.


Overall, it is excellently done.


And concerning the rest of my memories of being connected to the case, I knew that as the police reporter I would likely be involved in breaking the news some way in the coming days back in 1988 about Mr. Hoppe’s pending arrest.


So, I tried to find some background on him. I even called up his former Central coach, E.B. “Red” Etter, who had been my coach at Baylor, and he gave me a little more background on him. Among other bits of information, I remember he said he thought Auburn had not used Bobby as well as maybe they should have, although he was certainly a standout running back and defensive back in college.


Of course, he had been such a star in high school at the county school of Central after earlier going to the city junior high of North Side that it might have been hard for him to top that in college. He once gained over 300 yards rushing against the now-closed Isaac Litton High of Nashville, which was a very rare feat in those days.


I also remember trying to find some information on the death of Teddy Donald Hudson in 1988. I remember checking with the police department, and Freeman Cooper said he could not say anything about it yet other than to give us a heads up, but I asked if he could give me the date of when the incident occurred.


He said July 20, 1957, and as one who had already learned how to look items up on newspaper microfilm for historical stories, I headed a few feet back to the Free Press’ morgue and learned for the first time all the details about the tragic incident. 


I even followed up and read about the rare coroner’s inquest, in which Mr. Hoppe was not identified in the newspaper stories. It had been led a few days after the killing by coroner Dr. Doyle Currey, whose North Chattanooga clinic I had been born at and whose friendly daughter, Mary Carmichael, I had gotten to know while living in Knoxville.


Anyway, I knew a day or so before when the arrest of Mr. Hoppe was going to be made in 1988, but as luck would have it, I missed it. I had gone out one afternoon for a couple of hours, and a little while after I got back home, my mother, Velma Shearer, called to say someone with the police department was trying to reach me.


The police escort for the TV and newspaper cameras had already been held in what was no doubt a sad moment for Mr. Hoppe, and I missed it. But thanks to my background story I had already put together and some quotes I pulled off the TV news reports that night – and which might not have been the most ethical step journalistically – I was able to put together a story.


And this story that had been only whispers for decades was about to be broadcast loudly on a national or at least regional scale with the trial a few weeks later.


Through the documentary, it is once again a story out in the open for all to see and hear, too.


* * * * *


A check at the SEC Network upcoming TV show listings lists the following additional showtimes for “The Trials of Bobby Hoppe”: Dec. 9 at 10 a.m., Dec. 10 at 2 p.m., Dec. 13 at 9 p.m., and Dec. 14 at 8 a.m.


* * * * *

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