From The Outhouse To The Courthouse - The Incredible Life Of Tom Crye

  • Wednesday, March 29, 2023

(Editor’s note: Bradley County Commissioner Tom Crye, 78, has lived a long and fascinating life that began in extreme poverty and extended through Vietnam and finally back to Tennessee where he seems to always be in the middle of either success or controversy. This story is based on interviews with Crye and is written in his “first-person” perspective.)

People tell me I have lived an incredible life, but I don’t know if “incredible” is the word I would use.

When I look back, I don’t see how I accomplished what I did and survived to be honest. I tell my grandchildren that I have been in survival mode my whole life.

I was born on Lowery Street over in East Clevleand in 1944. My mom and dad divorced in 1946.

Mom and I moved in with her parents in Charleston. They owned a farm there. My grandfather and grandmother could not read or write, but they were remarkable people.

My grandfather paid for the farm by illegal fishing and hunting and trapping and things of that nature. We had no electricity, however, and we also had no insulation or anything like that. Remarkable, that old house is still standing today!

We moved in and we had an outhouse about 50 feet from the main house. We had a hand-dug well about 20 feet deep. We had no electricity or telephone.

My daily mission in life was to go down and get the milk jug out of the spring, which we called the “family refrigerator.” We kept the milk cool in the waters of that spring.

I basically left my mother’s house when I was 14. I lived with my grandfather and uncle during that time and with another family, the Willard Calfee family. They got me into church, and it kept my bearings straight.

Going to church is what I credit for keeping me balanced. It kept me away from beer and crime, but if I hadn’t gone into the military a few years later, those things would have been inevitable.

I went to Mount Harmony School and I had never been to a bathroom, only an outhouse. I went in to use the school’s bathroom and I didn’t know what to do! I stood there until another student came in and I watched what the procedure was and then I finally understood how to use an actual toilet.

I lived with my grandparents until 1952. My mother remarried a gentleman from Meigs county who was a one-armed, obese alcoholic. He had a car accident in 1956 and burned to death because he couldn’t get out of the car due to how large he was. My mother was unemployed and had triplets to raise at the time (one of them died 21 days after birth).

Looking back, I recognized the state of poverty we were in. The American Legion, VFW, the church members and neighbors, were always dropping by the house with food to help.

Shortly after that, my mother purchased a home on Parker Street near where Lee university is today. And at 13, I met my father for the first time. I had never seen him even one time after they divorced.

My father was a remarkable individual. He could sign his name, but he was basically uneducated. He had a wonderful new family, which was something I missed out on growing up.

He worked in another city, and I would see him sometimes on weekends. What little time we had together, it was precious.

I quit school after the ninth grade at Charleston. I enrolled at Bradley High School twice and was expelled both years for conduct. I took part-time jobs changing truck tires and pumping gas. I thought I knew everything about life until I realized that I didn’t.

Basically, everyone I knew who was my age was in school and here I was in 1957 doing absolutely nothing worthwhile! I went in the army at 17, got my mother to sign the paperwork. She never saw that on the paperwork that I had volunteered for Germany. I was trained in Signal, Morse Code, and high-speed radio operations.

I arrived in Germany on Thanksgiving day and spent three years there. I attended two weeks of German language school prior to being given an assignment. I later attended radio repair school and the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy.

I was promoted to the youngest sergeant in my battalion at the age of 19. Then I was transferred to the 82nd airborne division and I was scheduled to go to jump school. But I was told I couldn’t get promoted to a higher rank without a high school education, so I went down to the education center and took the high school GED test to see what I had to catch up on, subject wise. Ten days later I was notified that I had passed all courses, and I finally had my GED.

During this time, I got married to a wonderful woman named Peggy Bishop. We have been married now for 58 years.

I was sent to tank gunnery training at Fort Stewart Georgia for 45 days. I came back and was immediately yanked up and sent to Fort Jackson to be a drill instructor. Going through the school, I was later promoted to a Staff Sergeant. I was a drill sergeant for about a year. It was rough – the hardest job I had but the most rewarding. You tear people down to ground zero and then built them back up again. My first child, Hope, was born at Fort Jackson.

From 4:30am until late at night, every day. And I would practically lose my voice every day. My supervisor convinced me that I should go to Officer Candidates School. I told him I didn’t think I was qualified. He told me to go to the education center and take the test, and I did and passed. I went to Signal Officer Candidate School for six months and was without my wife and child. I graduated as a distinguished military graduate and I was commissioned to second lieutenant.

I went to school at night and started on my college degree. In 1968, I went to Vietnam and received more awards than I ever thought I deserved. Vietnam was terrible. I had never seen so much mayhem and carnage in my life. I was there during the Tet Offensive. Nothing but carnage. It was totally unnecessary. I saw a lot of good people killed. I don’t talk about it too much. I was there a year.

During that year in Vietnam, my second child, Linda, was born and was already walking when I returned to America. Once back, I started going to school again at night.

Soon, however, I was transferred to an Army base in Okinawa, Japan with my family. We were there two and a half years, although it initially took three months to get my family there.

While in Okinawa, I was notified by the Pentagon that I was eligible to go to University of Nebraska at Omaha to complete my undergraduate degree. So I jumped at the chance.

I arrived in Omaha for two years but finished my education in one year with a concentration on business and economics. We left there and went to Fort Knox in Kentucky, and I got my master’s degree in management by going to school at night.

Then I was transferred to Forces Command Headquarters and promoted to major. I worked as an action officer for a 4-star general. From there I went to Command & General staff college.

During this time, I had a seizure one morning while I was getting ready to go to class. I was 35 years old. After that, I was no longer allowed to physically do very much without someone saying it was okay. Soon I learned that I was going to be assigned to the education department of the Adjutant General’s Division at the Pentagon and later transferred to Germany again.

Upon learning about the Germany assignment, I considered everything and realized I didn’t want my two daughters to have to graduate from high school in a foreign country. I had the opportunity to retire so I asked my commander to cancel the assignment. My terminal assignment was as the personnel officer in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

Looking back, I can see that my whole life basically was structured by the military. How I operate mentally today is all military. I had no structure in my life until I went in the Army.

During my 14 years as an officer, I got so much education – both military and civilian. In recognition of my job performance, I received four Army Commendation medals, a meritorious service medal, five campaign stars in Vietnam and a bronze star also.

Now that I look back, I don’t know how I accomplished it. I had a lot of help.

I had a supervisor in Okinawa named Lieutenant Colonel Alavaro Gonzalez who taught me about mental discipline. I managed to work for him again in Fort Knox Kentucky for three years. Basically, he structured my mental ability to act – everything was focused on mission accomplishment.

Today, I have mellowed considerably but it’s all still about accomplishing a mission. To hell with the damage – you must get the mission done.

I retired in 1981 and no longer had the Army umbrella over my head.

I got in real estate and building and developing and in 1985, appraising real estate until I retired in 2022 because of medical issues.

My grandson was being bullied at North Lee Elementary and my daughter couldn’t get it corrected. That’s why I got into politics - to see if we could do something to help my grandson.

Fortunately, it all worked out. During my campaign, my daughter contacted our school board representative, Vicky Beaty, and got the situation corrected. However, my campaign was already on and I got elected.

Later I discovered that when my grandson moved up to Ocoee Middle School, he didn’t have textbooks to bring home at night because there were insufficient textbooks for the students. I then started raising holy hell on the County Commission about the budget.

It appeared to me that the people in charge were wasting all this money on things like travel and not on textbooks for the kids. We cut out a lot of the travel and the money started goig back into the system. I understand there are trips educators must make, but they don’t need to go on an annual Christmas shopping trip to Gatlinburg with the principals. We cut a lot of it out.

Eventually, Dr. Cash came along and accomplished great things.

I enjoy my time as a county commissioner. I was instrumental in Lake Forest being approved and funded and I played a role in the expansion and funding of North Lee and Black Fox also. I was a strong proponent of the PIE Center.

I think our educational system has really progressed.

Eventually I became chairman of the County Commission. The way I manage is different than what some people are accustomed to. You get the best person for the job as committee chairman and then get the hell out of the way. I don’t like to micro-manage. I do most of my work behind the scenes – I don’t scream or raise hell. And we have accomplished quite a bit so far.

And that’s my life! I now have my beautiful wife, along with two daughters, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

My advice to young people growing up today is: take advantage of every opportunity to learn something new or different. Drugs and alcohol are never a solution. Don’t ever give up, even when it seems unbearable, because the sun will always come up tomorrow.

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