John Shearer: Remembering The Summers Of My Past And David McKenna

Thursday, August 5, 2021 - by John Shearer

Now that I am in my early 60s, I find myself getting even more reflective of the past. 


Summers, for whatever reason, seem to be the basis of a lot of memories that are as warm now emotionally as the temperatures were then physically.

Perhaps it is because it was generally a more carefree time than the school year.


Most of my summers of my elementary school years involved going to Baylor Camp. That has been on my mind some this summer because it was exactly 50 years ago when I went to my last six-week Baylor Camp in the old format before finishing my sixth-grade year at Bright and becoming a Baylor student.


Except for attending the shorter UT All-Sports Camp in Knoxville in 1972 and ’73 and learning how to live away from home as I was slowly growing up, the rest of my summers until I graduated from high school in 1978 primarily involved playing golf at Valleybrook. And when I wasn’t doing that, I was swimming in the Valleybrook pool that in recent years was filled in and covered up, much to my chagrin.


And once or twice a week I would avoid the usual Campbell’s bean with bacon soup and grilled cheese sandwiches I learned to make for myself at home and enjoy a delicious hamburger and French fries for lunch at the Valleybrook clubhouse. I would do that hoping my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, would not mind me charging it to his account! 


At that time, Valleybrook had several good or at least enthusiastic young golfers. It was due in large part to the efforts of Jack McKenna, who apparently felt a noble inner call to help young people and would coordinate junior clinics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He did that both at Valleybrook and at the old Hixson Golf Center behind where Captain D’s is now.


And it did not take long for his two sons, Tommy and David, to become good golfers as a result of all the exposure. I had a front-row seat for their development, as I lived next door to the McKennas, who were the second residents to live at 118 Valleybrook Road in what I always heard was the first house built in Valleybrook. It is a home that has been enlarged and remodeled slightly, in part because its lower garage area would occasionally flood.


Tommy was three grades older than I was and David was two, and I ended up being more of a buddy with fellow street neighbor Kurt Schmissrauter, who was closer to my age, although slightly younger.


But there were countless encounters and fun times with the McKennas as well, including basketball games on their court by the garage before the end of the driveway by the house was raised long after they moved away.


Those days have come more to mind for me because I received the unfortunate news several days ago that David died on July 23 from complications from parotid gland cancer, which was diagnosed after he found a growing lump on his neck a year ago.


Although David would develop the nickname of “Daisy” after he and Tommy went and got a haircut, and friend Jodie Martin suddenly burst out a girls’ name of Daisy after seeing his Shirley Temple-like haircut, Kurt and I early on knew him as Eggert. That was a nickname Kurt gave him while they were playing golf, and a golf ball belatedly fell out of a tree while he was looking for it and landed on his head in a hard manner. 


Kurt jokingly likened his head being struck to an egg getting cracked and called him Eggert. Kurt, who also remembered how the McKennas used to find golf balls to play with from scouring the lakes of Valleybrook, had visited with David some in recent weeks trying to cheer him up.


“I was telling David while he was sick that I was going to bring him his favorite childhood sandwich, which I recall was cheese and mayo,” he recalled. “He laughed and said, ‘Exactly!’”


Like many, Kurt was saddened to hear of David’s death but full of praises for the lives he touched.


“David was such a kind guy and I never heard him talk ill of anyone,” he said. “He will be missed.”


To David in those early days, I was Dunn Dunn, a mispronunciation of my name by a very young Kurt, and Kurt was Kurt Dirt.


During that time, Tommy was the typical older brother, while David was the more-easy-going younger brother who probably did not feel the pressures of life as much. 


Although I was an enthusiastic junior golfer who also played several other sports, I was no match for the McKennas and do not remember playing many rounds with them due to age and ability difference. They both went on to become standouts at Notre Dame High.


They were both about the top golfers there along with big star Richard Keene, and Notre Dame had the best local high school golf program at that time under the likable coach Jim Phifer. Older sister Mary McKenna had been a Notre Dame cheerleader.


Being next-door neighbors, I would see David and the other McKennas regularly and converse with them. Mr. McKenna one time unfortunately burned his hand on some grease in his kitchen, and his distraught wife, Eloise, came running out and saw me in the yard and asked me to get my father.


He came over, put Mr. McKenna's hand in some ice water and helped get him to a medical facility. I, meanwhile, was asked to go and find David on the golf course – his natural outdoor playroom for most of his life.

I got on my small Suzuki 50 motorcycle and went and found David on a golf hole near the clubhouse. I told him what had happened, and he rode back to his house with me. Mr. McKenna was able to get some proper attention at a medical facility, and I remember Mrs. McKenna brought a homemade pie over a few days later with a very sweet thank-you note with words she might not have felt as comfortable saying in person.


As David’s golf skills continued to develop, he really blossomed. Sometime around the summer of 1975, after Tommy had graduated from Notre Dame and was making plans to play at Middle Tennessee State University before I think later transferring to UTC, David was playing some superb junior golf. 


I can remember watching him in the Valleybrook junior club tournament about that summer, and he had been playing so well and was probably feeling some inner pressure to continue playing well that he seemed obviously relieved when the tournament ended.


A few months before David graduated from Notre Dame High in 1976, his father was transferred to North Carolina in his work with a division of General Motors. Somehow, David had worked out arrangements to stay with the Creswell family down the street to be able to graduate locally. 


Tommy Creswell was in the same grade as David, but he went to Hixson High. Valleybrook was unique in that a lot of the neighborhood kids went to different schools, but still developed a good rapport and friendship. 


And that rapport would greatly affect the rest of David’s life in another positive way. Living next door about that time before moving were Hixson students Eddie and Suzy Davidson, the children of Jackie and Betty Sue Davidson. 


As fate would have it, David and Suzy began a dating relationship at some point, and I had not even associated them together or seen them together before that! They would later marry. 


David went on to UTC to play golf and became a standout golfer there. 


Although he did not grow up in Valleybrook, 1976 McCallie graduate Rusty Scott went to UTC at that time and remembered David fondly and shared his memories of David’s college years after hearing of his unfortunate death. 


“What i will always remember about David is his ever-present smile,” he said. “I remember sitting around the student center in between classes and at lunchtime. We would give him a hard time as he waited on Suzy, his wife-to-be. 


“When Suzy would arrive, he would stand up, smile at all of us, then leave with her – a romance of 45-50 years. He loved his family, golf, UTC Athletics, especially Mocs’ men’s basketball, rarely missing a home since he graduated in 1981.” 


I understand David discovered some issues with diabetes while playing golf at UTC, possibly during a round, and that would unfortunately be his medical sand trap with which he had to deal over the years.


But he continued to successfully play golf well while also following his father-in-law’s lead in getting into residential construction, and I enjoyed the infrequent encounters with him. He always seemed friendly in a manner that to me was a little bit shy and a little bit outgoing.


The days of childhood neighbors immaturely teasing each other were over, and he always had a first-class smile and personality when I saw him.


I can remember seeing him everywhere from the Piccadilly Cafeteria at Northgate when he and Suzy’s daughter, Brittney, was young, to Knoxville where I lived for several years while he was up there following UTC golfers in tournaments as an assistant coach to good friend Mark Guhne.


And seemingly about every other time I would visit my father in Valleybrook and walk his Yorkie dog, Daisy, (yes, another Daisy!) I would see David playing and speak to him and always ask him if he was still playing great golf. I was surprised to read his obituary where he had made an impressive 11 holes-in-one during his career.


It was also neat to learn he had liked the music of Elton John. We could have had some great conversations about that, because I was a big Elton John fan in the 1970s as well.


I also happened to see David one time around the first of September last year while walking the dog, and he pulled his golf cart over to me and seemed more reflective than typical as he asked me how old I was then. Thinking about it later, I realized he must have just realized his cancer diagnosis or knew it was something he needed to get checked.


When David’s condition became known and he was beginning to undergo treatment, several of his old friends got together with him and played a round one Saturday at Valleybrook last fall and took some nice pictures.


Due in part to my lack of playing much golf, I was unable to join them, much to my loss. I came to appreciate such an event even more not only because of David’s unfortunate health problems that exasperated, but also because I broke my upper arm on Christmas Day.


On the day of my injury that still would prevent me from being able to play golf or even toss a ball for months, I was being seen at a local hospital and I happened to hear David’s name and voice in the adjoining room, as he was being seen as well.


I was unable to visit with him then due to my own condition, which paled compared to David’s, but looked forward to catching up with him in the future, when we could maybe laugh at our unfortunate conditions of having to see a doctor on Christmas Day. But I unfortunately never received the opportunity.


Among my other memorable encounters with David in recent years was when we were walking a few holes together while watching a Knoxville tournament I was covering for the Knoxville News Sentinel. I remember asking him if he had ever won the Red Bud Invitational, the prestigious tournament at Valleybrook. He said he had not, but that he had come close several times.


I felt a little sad over that comment, because I do not know of anyone who has more faithfully played at Valleybrook than David had. If anyone deserved to have won the Red Bud, it was David. I would also be willing to say that no one has played more rounds of golf there than he had dating back to the late 1960s.


I know he had a nice overall golf career, although I am not sure how many tournaments he won. I know I never really saw him hit a bad shot from tee to green, so it was likely putting that slowed him down, if anything did.


But I was thinking after hearing the nice tributes following his unfortunate death that maybe he was more of an ambassador for golf than just a good golfer. As a result, he needs to have a nice permanent golf memorial in his honor. 


It could, of course, be a memorial tournament to raise money for diabetes or the cancer he had. But maybe his friends could take it further, and a plaque could be placed at Valleybrook, or, better yet, UTC could start having a tournament for college teams or a fund-raiser for the school and call it the David McKenna Memorial Invitational.


And the perfect name is already available for the winning trophy – the Daisy.


Rest in peace my old former next-door neighbor. I know it just will not be the same walking or driving the streets of Valleybrook and not seeing you playing a round of golf there.


* * *

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