John Shearer: Random Thoughts About Interstate Wreck, Ralph Potter, Graham Nash, And News-Making Old Buildings And Potential Park Sites

  • Friday, December 8, 2023
  • John Shearer

Amid all the interesting news in Chattanooga about buildings, vacant tracts, and coaching legends stepping aside, I headed up to Knoxville on Tuesday morning for the final class day for two journalism classes I teach at the University of Tennessee.

As I have mentioned before, I have felt blessed to get to teach some adjunct college journalism and English classes at least one semester a year at UT since 2008 and have enjoyed them thoroughly, especially since I don’t have a PhD. I have continued driving up there twice a week since we moved back to Chattanooga in 2017, as the school has been kind to let me continue.

But, since I am not currently scheduled to teach next semester unless a class opens in the next few weeks, I was especially looking forward to this semester’s last day, when I normally wish everyone well and take group class pictures for posterity. As a result, I was feeling kind of nostalgic and sentimental as I headed up there a little before 10 and was glad to see the freeway was clear, a constant fear I have and an issue that resulted in me having to miss one class about two years ago.

Well, guess what? Around Mile Marker 40 in McMinn County, I suddenly saw vehicles slowing down, and I had to stop as well. An accident had just occurred perhaps only a minute or two before I arrived on the scene as about the 10th vehicle. And the roadway was completely blocked.

As I discovered after walking up there, an 18-wheeler had crashed into the guardrail, with some of its giant rolls of aluminum out on the side of the road. A small car also had its back end smashed in pretty good. Thankfully, no serious injuries appeared to occur, although the driver of the car had a bloody face.

But I suddenly realized I might have trouble making my class. I had left early enough to arrive in Knoxville about two hours before my class as I normally do to allow for potential traffic slowdowns and to eat a casual lunch. Now, however, all that was having to be recalculated amid sudden stress and worry.

Although these days I can post an assignment online for the students to do if I am unable to be there, I hated to know I might miss my last day and have to say goodbye to all of them via a group email.

I had basically figured I might be at the wreck site for at least 4 to 6 hours with the truck and its debris blocking everything, and with the investigation and cleanup appearing to go slowly and deliberately as I watched from nearby with several others. I stood there like a nosy newsman in part after realizing sitting in my car and not being able to see anything were more stressful.

I did contact the UT office to let them know what had happened and that they might have to put a note on the door explaining that class would not be held and that assignments would be posted online, a cruel fate for me on the last day.

But then a miracle from my perspective seemed to happen. I saw a little scurrying and people talking, and then some authority official said to several of us standing there that we could get back in our vehicles, that they were getting ready to open one lane.

“Hallelujah!” I shouted to myself as I ran almost the entire 75 or 100 yards back to my car while looking for others to whom to spread the good news. And my happiness was partly because I knew I could still make my classes.

While it took another 10 minutes or so, we all inched through the emergency lane/shoulder by the right guardrail, and then I was off for the nearly one-hour drive remaining to the UT campus.

Luckily, it was smooth sailing into Knoxville after that. I even had time to stop by the McDonald’s on the Strip – not my intended place to eat – and very quickly grab a cheeseburger after thankfully finding one parking place. I ate it hurriedly as I made my way up to campus, where I found another singular parking spot in a usually crowded school parking lot.

I then walked into the Communications Building with 15 minutes to spare and with a smile, feeling as if the Good Lord had watched over me and blessed me in several ways that day.

And speaking of trips to Knoxville and other blessings, I still write for the Shopper News that is part of the News Sentinel, and I made a special trip up there about a month ago on a non-school day to hopefully get to meet one of my favorite musicians – Graham Nash.

The member of the iconic Crosby, Stills and Nash group was appearing at the Bijou Theatre there and was making a special appearance at the small Everly Brothers Park in the Bearden area. He had grown up in England greatly admiring the brothers, who had spent some of their teenage years in Knoxville in the 1950s, and Knoxville park officials several years ago had learned of his admiration. As a result, he offered to get some quotes from other famous musicians who had also admired the Everly Brothers, and their comments and his are in stone-like ground tablets in the park.

He had never been to the park and was being taken to it that Monday afternoon. The city of Knoxville had also planned a brief ceremony, and about 50 fans or admirers were on hand. While the 81-year-old was not super-engaged with the fans as a political office seeker might be, perhaps due to some natural stoicism, he still graciously posed for pictures and offered some very brief comments during the ceremony.

That was not quite enough for my story, but luckily several other media members and I were able to interview him briefly after the ceremony, and I even asked him a couple of questions about what the Everly Brothers meant to him, etc. He kindly answered all of them and then went back to talk to some organizers before leaving and glancing at his own stone on the way out.

Despite having to come up to Knoxville on a non-school day, I was thankful to have been able to cover a story much more fun than an Interstate wreck. I was also able to say I had met another famous person, and one whose songs such as “Our House” I love.

And speaking of houses and having them in order, I was quite surprised to learn that the very successful Ralph Potter – whose McCallie School football program has been the cream of the crop locally – announced on Wednesday plans to step down as head coach.

While he said he will stay on as defensive coordinator, fans of rival Baylor School are likely feeling better he will no longer be at the helm, even though replacement Joel Bradford seems like a bright and capable young coach.

McCallie hopes the transition is as seamless as when assistant George Seifert replaced the successful Bill Walsh and led the San Francisco 49ers to additional Super Bowl titles in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Baylor and other Division II opponents, meanwhile, hope McCallie is not quite as invincible as they have been and that the old cliché that it is generally difficult to follow a legend holds true.

Since he is now over 60, it will also be interesting to see how long coach Potter stays on as an assistant before stepping aside completely, or if he will get the itch to be a head coach again. He actually left McCallie for Brentwood Academy after the 2006 season before returning to McCallie after five seasons, so Baylor fans were happy once before, only to realize the legend had returned.

I have enjoyed getting to know coach Potter very casually over the years. I first met him when he was head coach at Baylor from 1994-96 and I knew he had some special coaching gifts even then. I occasionally later interviewed him in person or on the phone over the years, including for a sit-down profile in 2018.

At least around me, he was always very polite with a slightly serious demeanor. I have also occasionally passed him and briefly conversed with him in recent years when we have both been taking jogs and getting into or out of our cars at one of the Tennessee Riverwalk or South Chickamauga Creek Greenway trailhead parking lots during his offseason. Always the competitor, he usually appears to run much faster and farther and with more determination than I do when I see him, even though I am only about three years older.

Speaking of covering a long stretch, I as a lover of older buildings and park spaces have been interested in several of the news items about those topics. The R.H. Hunt-designed and slightly graffiti-covered Chattanooga Bank Building, which was built in 1927, is scheduled finally to be turned into a hotel, with a formal announcement set next week.

I once went in the Chattanooga Bank Building to interview and do a story on noted portrait artist Gordon Wetmore on the top floor penthouse office, and I also used to frequent a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern-style pickup cafe there. I also would take my watch for repair into an old-fashioned watch repair office on an upper floor.

Another news item dealt with plans for a new Federal Court building, but it had two moving parts. One was that the unique TVA Complex downtown and built in the mid-1980s might have to be torn down to make way for such a new federal courthouse building, if it is built there. And along the same line, one article did not say that preserving the current Federal Building across Georgia Avenue from Miller Park was assured, either.

Historic preservationists would likely say the Federal Court building, also designed by noted architect R.H. Hunt and built in the art deco style in the early 1930s, is one of the 10 most important commercial, school or government buildings in Chattanooga architecturally and historically.

I know from my travels to Knoxville that the similar-looking former Federal Court building there was able to be reused after a newer federal court was built nearby, and the older structure is considered one of the downtown Knoxville gems.

The TVA Complex is such a massive and gargantuan building and is unique looking enough that many people might also hope it or at least part of it is saved. While not considered overly pretty but typical of the mid-1980s, its reuse possibilities also seem endless.

When the ground-breaking ceremonies were held on Dec. 12, 1980, it was said to be unique environmentally at that time in that it would incorporate the use of waste heat from its computer center, it was cooled with underground water, and it was lighted by solar power. Officials also did not plan to include a parking garage to encourage carpooling and public transportation to save gas. Among those who took part in the shovel-turning ceremonies, besides TVA and such city officials as Mayor Pat Rose, were building designers and contractors Bill Fortune of Rentenbach Engineering of Knoxville, the Blount Brothers construction company of Montgomery, Al., and T.U. Parks Construction of Chattanooga.

About the first time that employees saw it basically completed was in 1984, when TVA leader David Freeman gave a farewell address in the atrium-like interior. I remember going as a member of the public to an open house they had not long after it opened, and that was the only time I saw it on the inside.

Maybe part of the reason for all this potential downtown disruption of the urban layout is that more people are getting into trouble and more people are wanting to sue, and more federal court space is needed as a result. At least that is my unscientific theory.

A good education has been shown in many instances to help prevent crime, and education is also making local news regarding another land and site issue. With Red Bank officials possibly wanting a school within their city boundaries if Alpine Crest Elementary does close, the county has pinpointed the old and vacant Red Bank Middle School property on Dayton Boulevard as their favored site, if a new school is built in the town.

So, what goes around comes around, and a school would be located where another one once was, but with a decade in between of almost anything but a school having been suggested for that site.

The catch is that many in Red Bank would love to see all or a sizable chunk of that land become a park for passive recreation and relaxation. It is a movement that has seemed to gain momentum in recent months.

While sometimes talk of schools and educating children seem to trump everything else and people jump to quick resolutions in the name of the youngsters, many would still like to see the Red Bank land on Dayton Boulevard studied very carefully.

I know I have enjoyed occasionally going over to that land and jogging around and looking at the pretty Red Bank buildings and older homes around it, even though it is not officially a park. I have never seen coach Potter jog there at this site where his father, Pete Potter, was once a standout Red Bank High athlete, but maybe I will.

All I know is that jogging on that undeveloped land, even if it is not yet a park or never will be a park, is a lot nicer than being stuck behind a wreck on Interstate 75!

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