August 2007

Chad Baxter sent me a poem written in Germany in 1918 during WWI by his grandfather, James Preston Baxter, to his future wife, Olivia Dykes. A company clerk typed the elegy on a roll of thick toilet tissue.

While in France during the battle of Hindenburg Line, James, a messenger with the 117th Infantry, needed to get a communication to another allied forces sector.

“Grandfather did not smoke or chew,” said Chad, “but a fellow soldier, Bill Martin, gave him a plug to help ease the stress of war. As Grandfather attempted to make his way through enemy lines, he spotted a patrol heading his way. He lay down in the mud near a creek and dropped the plug of tobacco into the water. ‘They might get me, but not Billy’s plug,’ he thought. “Several in the patrol kicked him as they went by thinking he was dead. Afterwards, he worked his way through the line under fire and delivered the message.”


The 19-verse poem that Baxter wrote, “The Girl I Left Behind,” expressed the feelings of a 24-year-old homesick soldier in war-torn Germany for his favorite girl back home:

“Dear when I’m far away, From you somewhere in France, I ask you to always think of me, And pray that I have a chance.

“To leave you dear was hard, The hardest thing of all, But I am no slacker, When I hear my country’s call.

“To be at home with you little girl, Is happiness that is true, But I cannot see the enemy, Down the red, white, and blue.

“I used to be with you often, Those beautiful happy days, But it makes me blue to think, That we are so far away.

“Some day in the near future, This great conflict will end, And the soldier boy who loves you, Will come back to you again.

 “It is the duty of every girl, Who is left behind, To always remember the boy she loves, Who is on the firing line.

“He did not want to leave you, For he is gone to risk his life, He is a true American, And upholds the stars and stripes.

“The girls here are beautiful, Most everywhere you roam, But are nothing to compare, With the ones at home.

“When the boys go marching by, In step with some national hymn, It thrills my heart to know, That I am one of them.

“I told you when I kissed, Those lips of yours sweet, That I was going to leave you, And again we may never meet.

“Don’t give up my dear, If you love me you will wait, If we don’t meet on earth again, We will meet at the golden gate.

“Some girls are not patient, Who will not wait so long, Will go and love a slacker, When their soldier boy has gone.

“When he goes to fight the battle, For his country and for you, His thoughts are always resting, On the one he thinks is true.

“When he returns in years, And finds you false, His whole life will be ruined, And his happiness lost.

“Don’t bear this strain little girl, Make your love be true, Greet the boy in khaki, When he comes back to you.

“Throw your arms about his neck, Let him kiss your sweet little lips, Then he will joyfully tell you, All about his wonderful trip.

“Do not respect a slacker, They deserve not even a chance, The boys who you should honor, Are the boys who go to France.

“I will close this letter hoping, You will be mine some day, As I bid you good-bye for this hour, And good-bye for the day.

“If it’s good-bye for a month, He loves you true as ever, Good-bye for a year, And good-bye perhaps forever.”

After receiving a Bronze Star in early 1921, James married Olivia in October in Fall Branch and eventually raised seven children.   

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Johnny Wood, WCYB-TV news anchor, read with interest my recent column containing remembrances about his station from Frank Santore. It brought back memories for him.

“I went to college with Don Garland and Don Bagwell,” said Johnny. “I worked at WOPI Radio with John Thomas who had the greatest internal time clock of anybody I ever knew. He did his play-by-play broadcasts and also all the commercials from the site of the game. I ran the control board back at the studio and logged all the commercials. John’s 30 and 60-second commercials were always exactly on time. He never used a watch or script and adlibbed the commercials.”

Johnny was at WOPI when Ed Spiegel, then manager at radio station WCYB, hired him. He had the pleasure of working with Eddie Cowell and Don Sluder. He remarked that Eddie was a radio pro with a great internal clock. “Us radio disk jockeys,” said Wood, “prided ourselves in our production qualities of spinning records, talking, running and reading commercials and hitting the network right on the second when the big hand on the clock hit twelve. I accomplished this by keeping a running time of my 30-minute segments on a piece of paper and then back timing the final record to finish before the network news break came on the hour. Eddie was just the opposite. He just grabbed a stack of records, did his commercials and everything seemed to time right out. His on-the-air banter was innovative, timely and always different.”

The news anchorman recalled that Don Sluder was one of those radio pros that did it all – wrote and produced most of their commercials, pulled a board shift, handled promotional activities and did most of the production work.

In the late 1960s, Wood received a call from Art Countiss at the WCYB-TV News Department asking him if he wanted to come across the street and work at the TV station in the Sports Department. He accepted the offer: “Later, six of us – Art, my supervisor and TV mentor; Merrill Moore; Evelyn Booher; Jim Edwards, the early morning man; and I – comprised the News Department and worked for Walter Crockett. Art gave me my start and taught me television; Evelyn instructed me a lot about reporting; and Merrill showed me how to do all the stuff on the air. We reported, wrote, shot the film, edited and produced three half-hour newscasts, numerous morning updates and did hourly newscasts for radio. We were quite busy and I quickly learned a lot.”

Johnny said Booher was a pioneer in television news in an industry dominated by men. She was hired by the station to write, report and air the half-hour long newscast at 1:00 PM: “This lady was one of those great reporters who had great news contacts. Something would happen and she knew someone who could give her the lowdown on who had the information. I watched her do this time and again.”

Wood indicated that Crockett was a story in himself: “He was one of those gruff, hard-boiled, hard driving old-time newsmen who often wore a Fedora hat. Walter had a very compassionate side to him. I did many stories about the charities and causes that he supported. He was also one of the most well read people I ever met. During my early days, I got to do Looney Tunes, Kiddie Kollege and Klassroom Kwiz after Don Sluder and Ed Spiegel left so I got some great experience doing live television.

Johnny offered these parting words: “Thank you for reminding me of the past and letting me indulge in my memories.” 

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I received several written correspondences from Frank Santore, a former resident of Bristol, with strong memories of several WCYB-TV personalities of the 1960s.

Frank first mentioned the “Looney Tunes” broadcast that was aired at 4:30 pm on Channel 5. He wonders if any Press readers remember this show. “Ed Spiegel was the host of the program,” said Frank, “which had a rotating crew of sponsors that included Foremost Milk. He would have a bunch of kids on live and would interview them in a peanut gallery like studio in between Popeye cartoons.”

The former Bristol resident recalled his late father taking him to the old WCYB studios on Cumberland Street in Bristol on Nov. 9, 1965 to appear on the program on his 6th birthday. This event coincided with the memorable New York City blackout.

Frank remembered a joke he told on live television: “Knock, Knock. Who's there? Dwayne. Dwyane Who? Dwyane the bathtub, I'm dwouning.”

Santore continued: “I remember that this program ran for many years and one of the people who contributed to one of your articles, Don Sluder, took over from Ed Speigel.”

Frank said his six-year-old eyes couldn’t believe seeing Evelyn Booher, WCYB newswoman in person that day. After the show, his father took him to one of (Jack) Trayer's Restaurants in Bristol to eat.

Somehow, I just knew that Frank would mention the legendary Eddie Cowell and he did: “Eddie Cowell hosted Klub Kwiz on Monday nights at 7 pm on Channel 5.

“Ed Spiegel had Klassroom Kwiz on Wednesdays at the same time and Art Countiss emceed Kiddie Kollege on Fridays. Art was the only guy I know who grew more hair as he got older.”

Frank further mentioned Jack Mallon on Channel 5, and Don Bagwell, Don Garland and others on Channel 11. He also noted some television programs such as “Nick Carter's Furniture Time,” “The Kathryn Willis Show” and “Memo from Ilo.” 

Santore was delighted to read Dr. Herb Howard's feature story in the Press. He took some graduate courses in Communications under the former WJHL-TV news and weather announcer at UT and became well acquainted with him.

“I wonder if anyone could recount in detail the history of Walter Crockett?” Ed inquired. “As youngsters, we always used to run around doing our Walter Crockett impressions in a gravelly voice, importuning viewers to place their litter in waste baskets, and other ‘scintillating’ subjects.

“Mr. (Berlin) Benfield (“Pecos Ben”) had left Channel 11 in Johnson City by the time I was born. Merrill Moore knew my father and, I think, my grandfather, John Armstrong. He was an attorney here for many years and had a penchant for colorful dress such as fire engine red suits with bow ties. 

“John Thomas may have been WCYB’s first ever full-time sportscaster. He was on ETSU radio after Dick Ellis and for years was the play-by-play voice of the Tennessee High Vikings on WOPI. A salesman, Tom Gentry, worked for WCYB Radio for a year in the mid-60s.  He is now general manager of WMQX-FM in Charlotte and a family of associated AM stations in the Charlotte area.”

I can imagine that Frank has spurred some remembrances from area readers by mentioning the names of so many WCYB television personalities. I welcome your comments. Next week, I will extend this discussion by featuring comments from WCYB’s news anchor, Johnny Wood, who provided additional remembrances after reading Frank’s letter.  

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Williams Grocery, once located at the northeast corner of Unaka and Oakland opposite Stratton School, served neighborhood customers for 28 years. Bob and Myrtle Williams started the business in 1938, taking over the former site of (Elbert) Lowe’s Grocery and running it for 13 years.

Williams Food Market

When Bob passed away in March 1951, son and daughter-in-law, Lee and Dorothy Williams, assumed ownership and ran it another 15 years. Rosalie Odom, Lee’s sister, recently provided me with some old photographs of the store and arranged for me to talk to her brother about the business. Lee is particularly proud of the store’s reputation for high quality meats.

“We bought meat that had been grain fed for 6-8 weeks before slaughter,” said Lee. “We then trimmed the fat from it and aged it for another two weeks before selling it. We bought U.S. prime and choice beef from such suppliers as Rath, Hormel, Kingan and Swift. Lee recalled working at his father’s store each weekday after Junior High School and on Saturdays; stores were closed on Sundays then. He said that during the war years his father had difficulty getting enough workers because so many men were in military service.

The future storeowner initially delivered groceries on his bicycle that was fitted with two large baskets. He traveled up to about eight blocks from the store serving customers mainly on Fairview, Myrtle, Watauga, Unaka, Holston, the Gump Addition and adjoining streets. “I later began driving my Dad’s Studebaker to make deliveries,” said Lee. “At first, I drove it without a license. The store clerks filled the car full of groceries before I arrived there from school. My first job was to distribute them. “It was not uncommon for someone to order a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk or two RC Colas and two Moon Pies. We filled almost all requests. Those were simple and different days.”

Lee Standing by His Studebaker in Front of His Business

Gary Thomas worked at the store from 1959-1960 while attending Junior High School. “I had the privilege of doing a lot of different jobs,” said Gary, “such as sweeping floors, stocking, cashiering and cleaning up in the meat department. I have many good memories of my days there.” 

Randy Taylor worked at Williams Grocery about 1964 and recalled something unique about the operation: “They extended credit, which to my knowledge was not offered by any other major grocery store. This dovetailed nicely with home delivery service. “The employees at that time were Mildred Berry and Wanda Cade, cashiers; Ralph Evans, butcher; George Minnis, produce manager; and Earl Smith, delivery truck driver. My mother, Mildred Taylor, and one of my aunts, Sue Goff, worked with Aunt Dorothy in the bakery from time to time.  You would have to go a long way to find a better group of people to know and work with than those individuals.”

I quizzed Lee as to why they closed in 1966. He responded that large chain stores, such as the A&P at Chilhowie and Roan, were rapidly coming on the scene and offering cheaper prices to customers than smaller grocers could charge. They simply could not compete. Another factor that led to the store’s demise was that too many people were buying on credit and not paying their bills promptly.

Randy recalled something Lee once told him: “Son, one of these days you will look back at this time of your life and say ‘boy I had it made.’” I think many of us can reflect back to our special yesteryears and express that same cherished sentiment. 

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