Andi & Jim Erwin: Bringing Alzheimer’s out of the shadows

November 22, 2014 at 4:42 am

I want to share a Thanksgiving love story.

 

Jim and Andi Erwin

Jim and Andi Erwin

Those smiles belong to Jim and Andi Erwin of Collegedale, now married 45 years.  Jim is 68, Andi is 63.  I met them last summer, and fell in love immediately.  Andi is a talker.  Full of life, with energy to spare.  Jim used to be a talker, an award-winning one.  In his youth he was a teacher and pastor, very well-educated.  Simply put,  he was tested at near-genius levels.

Having grown up poor, he could do physical labor, but he specialized in communicating.  His storytelling skills were beyond compare.  His speeches were in demand.  He delivered thousands of sermons over a thirty-year period, each one better than the last.

Suddenly, at age 57, there were signs something wasn’t right.  His razor-sharp memory began to fail.  His once-smooth delivery was now interrupted by embarrassing pauses and gaps.

Andi saw what was happening to her husband, and recognized it sooner than most.  Eleven years earlier, Jim’s father exhibited some of the same symptoms.  Andi and Jim became his caregivers for more than a decade, until they could care for him no longer, placing him in a nursing facility.  Soon after, the elder Mr. Erwin passed away.

In the prime of  their lives, and with two teen daughters, life had dealt the Erwins a difficult hand.  Being an Alzheimer’s caregiver, as millions can testify, is a draining job.  She and Jim had juggled their lives around the needs of Jim’s dad.  As with most advanced Alzheimer’s patients, his passing was viewed with sadness, yet relief.  In an instant, his pain and confusion were lifted.  The Erwins could now focus on their remaining good years.  Jim had big plans, to complete a Doctorate in Communication and a Doctorate in Leadership, a process he had begun at the age of 54.

erwin7Just a few months after the death of his father, Jim’s own descent into the shadows began.  He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Doctors told Andi they “had never seen a brain that had shrunk so much, so quickly.”  That was in March 2004.  He continued to work as long as he could, but by early 2005, leaders of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church met with the couple, and told them it was time for Jim to step down.  By early 2008, at the age of 62, Jim had lost the ability to speak, read, or write.

In the years since, he has suffered physical setbacks including a 2012 seizure that resulted in a 17-month stay in an assisted living facility.  His reactions to medications can change without notice, affecting his usually affable personality.  Andi has become an active, outspoken advocate for Alzheimer’s research, and frequently leads the fund-raising pack in the local Alzheimer’s Association’s annual walk, leading the “Papa’s Paraders” team, named in honor of Jim.

erwin6

She’s quite candid when asked about the challenges she and Jim face every day.  “He has gradually become a small child living inside a grown man’s body,” she said.  A particularly poignant Facebook post described a recent visit to the grocery store.  “Leaving the store, I unloaded the groceries into the car.  Jim and I then proceeded to go put the cart into the area for them in the parking lot.  Jim would not let go of the cart (he has done this before). A friend came up, and I asked him if he would shake Jim’s hand to say hello. It worked!  Jim turned loose of the cart! Thanks Steve!”

I met the Erwins after offering to sell some of my TV news ties for charity.  Andi saw my Facebook post, and we agreed to put the ties to good use: she would buy them with a $100 donation to the Alzheimer’s Association, and I would match it with another $100, resulting in a $200 donation.  Andi brought Jim to the station, and we posed for a picture.

erwin She described their life together.  “There are alarms all over the house, because he’s still quite mobile,” she said.  “I prepare his food, help him eat it, brush his teeth, bathe him and dress him.”

What keeps him occupied? “He loves his old magazines,” she said. “Lately he’s taken to rubbing the papers. That seems to give him comfort.”

I had to ask. “Do you still see signs of the real Jim Erwin, the man you fell in love with?” I asked.  “Oh yes,” she said. “He’s still in there. When I kiss him at night, he starts giggling.”

She’s learned to appreciate the little things. “Some of my friends who are Alzheimer’s spouses answer the same questions dozens of times a day, because their loved one can still speak,” she said. “I haven’t heard Jim say ‘I love you Andi’  in six years, and I know I’ll never hear his voice again.  But I know he loves me, and he knows I love him.  We’re in this together.”

“For as long as we’re able, we’re going to live our lives,” she said. “We go to restaurants, and people will see me feeding him.  They’ll stare at first, but then they’ll smile. They seem to understand.”  Yes Andi, we understand.  This is what love looks like.  Even as this cruel disease gradually dims the lights, we can still see the sparkle in Jim’s eyes.

 

 

 

Fun facts about those songs you grew up with!

November 17, 2014 at 1:36 am

Does this happen to you?  There’s usually a song in my head, which causes me to ask my wife, “What song’s in your head right now?”  Ever the hip chick, her answer is always something by Fleet Foxes or a little-known Van Morrison track.  I’m more likely to have a burned-out oldie spinning up there.  Even worse, if I try to be clever and change the lyrics, CCR’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain” becomes “Who’ll Stop Lorraine,” and Huey Lewis’s “If This Is It,” turns into “Is This a Zit?”

When I hear “Angel of the Morning,” there’s this one line.  Merilee Rush sings, “Just touch my cheek before you leave me,” but I change it to “Just brush my teeth…”  Maybe it’s an old disc jockey thing.  Our hearing is so shot, it’s a wonder we can hear anything at all.

Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” certainly wasn’t written this way, but when he opens the song by singing, “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee,” I always sing “peg leg” instead of “big lake.”  That’s always what it sounded like to me.  Sorry, Gordon.

No matter how hard they try, that Sandpipers song, “Guantanamera“will always be “One Ton Tomato” to me.  “I want a one-ton tomato…”

I’ve read that Hugo Montenegro’s classic theme to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” includes chants and grunts that aren’t really words at all.  But they are to me.  I sing something different every time I hear it.  It may be “shrimp boat.”

The next time, I will hear “Ringgold” repeated frequently.  Or it could be “red bull.”  What do you think they’re saying?

In the 1960s, Dion had a hit with “Runaround Sue.”  The doo-wop background singers, according to the lyric sheet, are singing, “Hey, hey, um de hey, de hey, de hey, hey, um de hey, de hey, de hey.”  I don’t think so.  When I was a kid, the great Chattanooga DJ Chickamauga Charlie sang along with it one morning, and totally convinced me that what they were REALLY saying was, “Hurt, hurt…bumped my head, and it hurt, hurt.  Bumped my head and it hurt, hurt..” Ever since then, that’s how I sing along with “Runaround Sue.”  My apologies to you too, Dion.

By the way, you can’t always trust the labels on those records you grew up with.  Did you think “Wasted on the Way” was by Crosby, Stills and Nash?  Nope.  Truth is, it was sung by only Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.  This may come as a shock, but David Crosby was so “wasted” that day, he didn’t show up for the recording session.

Remember “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvin Bishop? That’s what it said on the label.  I played that hundreds of times, telling you it was Elvin Bishop singing that tune.  Well, it was his band, and Elvin did write the song.  But the man who sang it was Mickey Thomas, who later voiced the song frequently voted the worst ever: “We Built This City” by Starship.  Great, now that one’s in my head.

How many times have you heard “Someday We’ll Be Together,” and the DJ told you it was the final song by Diana Ross and the Supremes, since Diana was leaving to become a solo act?  The song was released in late 1969, but Diana had already split.  She wanted it to be her first solo record, but Motown thought it would sell better as a Supremes farewell.  The background singers were actually Julia and Maxine Waters, who were never Supremes.  Motown was right:  it became a number-one hit.

I used to get requests for “I Saw the Light” by Carole King, but it was actually Todd Rundgren.  That could be because Todd said he was inspired by Carole’s hit from a year earlier, “Sweet Seasons.”

Many listeners were sure that “More Today Than Yesterday” (sung by Pat Upton of Spiral Starecase) was done by Stevie Wonder.  No doubt Stevie would have nailed it, but it wasn’t him.

In fact, one of Stevie’s biggest hits was actually a group effort that included people whose names you’ve probably never heard.  The opening verse of “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” is sung first by Jim Gilstrap, and then Lani Groves.  Stevie doesn’t start singing until later.  All these decades, I just thought he was changing his voice.

Who else thought Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” was about that big city in Kansas?  Me too, but no.  Songwriter Jim Webb actually had Washita County, Oklahoma in mind.  Glen changed it to “Wichita” during the recording session because “it sings better.”

It may also surprise you to learn that some songs we thought were about boy-girl break-ups, were about something else entirely.  In that great 1975 hit “How Long (Has This Been Going On)” by Ace, lead singer Paul Carrack makes you think that a girl was cheating on him.  Truth is, the song was written in response to a band member who was leaving the group.

Finally, David Gates of the 70s group Bread had me thinking he’d give “Everything I Own” just to have a certain girl back again.  He later revealed it wasn’t about a former romantic interest.  His father had died young, and he was the subject of David’s emotional lament.  Now these words really hit home, don’t they: “Is there someone you know, you’re loving them so, but taking them all for granted…You may lose them one day, someone takes them away, and they don’t hear the words you long to say…”

That’s the power of music.  So often, a gifted songwriter is able to speak for us, better than we can say it ourselves.  As long as we can understand the words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dancin’ with your fave 60s and 70s sitcom stars!

November 14, 2014 at 8:20 pm

If these three videos don’t make you smile, let me check your pulse.  I absolutely love them.  Of course, I’m addicted to the sitcoms and the music of the 1960s and 70s.  Some Internet genius has combined the shows, and the hit songs, for some great dance videos.  First, the swingin’ 60s!

Got a few more minutes?  Let’s zoom ahead to the disco-ball 70s!

So which decade wins out?  I’m going with the 60s, in a close race.  So here’s a slightly different “twist” on those 60s sights and sounds.  Enjoy!

Found! New treasures from the Luther archives

November 13, 2014 at 3:04 am

Since the death of our friend Luther Masingill on October 20, I have received many nice comments about the stories I’ve shared.  It was an honor to speak at his Celebration of Life, which was well-attended at Engel Stadium, and streamed worldwide, online by local TV and radio stations.  I’ve spoken at a couple of club meetings since his death, and it just isn’t the same talking about Luther in the past tense.  But people still love sharing Luther stories.  Lucky for me, and you, I have a few more Luther highlights you might enjoy.

In the days immediately after his passing, I used several of my favorite photos and videos in my TV and website stories, and I’ve had dozens of Luther pics on my Facebook pages for years.  Just in the past few days, while doing some fall organizing, I uncovered some items that had been overlooked.

On June 20, 2007, the Hamilton County Commission honored Luther with their “Distinguished Citizen” award, and then invited him up to say a few words.  Click and watch about two minutes of classic Luther comedy:

I also unearthed a couple of previously unseen photos of Luther from the mid-1950s, when he was on radio in the morning, and on TV each afternoon.  I don’t know where this picture was taken, but he’s posing next to a “Mr. Chickaroonie” sign.  “Chickaroonie,” as Luther fans know, was a favorite exclamation of Luther, and it became the title of a popular children’s show on WDEF-TV in the 1950s, the city’s first kids show.

luther-chickaroonyYes, that’s Luther’s photo in the baby bonnet.  Maybe someone reading this knows more about this photo.  If so, please let me know.

Here’s another one, from the same era, when Luther used to visit schools frequently.  Many folks have told me that Luther visited their school back in the day, which was quite an occasion: he was a big star on the local scene!  As you can see below, he’s leaning into a locker, as several students look on.

luther-locker

Here’s a quick, fun video from my YouTube channel that’s good for a laugh or two.  In 1984, Luther and I co-hosted WDEF-TV’s 30th anniversary special.  We had recorded a promo for the big show, and someone at Channel 12 saved the bloopers.  We enjoyed them so much, we made it part of the anniversary show.  Watch!

A couple of years later, in 1986, WDEF celebrated Luther’s 45th anniversary on the radio by inviting staff members from WDEF’s early years, and a couple of Luther’s great friends.  Thanks to Earl Freudenberg for contributing this cherished photo of Chattanooga radio pioneers.  They’re identified in the caption under the photo.  Most of them, like Luther graduated from Central High School.  (Vann Campbell, standing 2nd from right, was WDEF’s first morning man, and was later partnered with Luther each day.) With the passing of Luther, they’re all gone now, but I’m proud to honor them online.  If you know any of their family members, please share the link to this page!

Luther is seated, along with (L-R) Ernie Feagans, Gaylord McPherson, Abe Zarzour, Bob Bosworth, Tom Nobles, Vann Campbell, and Buddy Houts.

Luther is seated, along with (L-R) Ernie Feagans, Gaylord McPherson, Abe Zarzour, Bob Bosworth, Tom Nobles, Vann Campbell, and Buddy Houts.

I spoke with Mary, Luther’s beloved “first wife,” as he used to joke, earlier this week.  They were married 57 years, “til death do us part.”  She plans to attend the announcement of a new communications scholarship in his honor at Central High School.  She said she appreciates the outpouring of love by the community, and says she is receiving great support from friends, fans, and of course her wonderful family.  I will always remember spending a magical evening with Luther and Mary in Chicago on November 20, 2012 when he was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.  There were thousands of photos taken that night, but this one is my favorite:

Luther & Mary Masingill, National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago, November 10, 2012

Luther & Mary Masingill, National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago, November 10, 2012

What a beautiful couple.  As we finished our conversation, Mary, always elegant, always eloquent said, “He was the love of my life.  I miss him every day.  And I still talk to him every day.”

Saluting a Veteran: Officer Nathan Rogers

November 11, 2014 at 1:15 pm
Officer Nathan Rogers is embraced at Calvary Baptist Church, Nov. 9, 2014

Officer Nathan Rogers is embraced at Calvary Baptist Church, Nov. 9, 2014 (photo by Suzanne Lemery)

Last Sunday, Calvary Baptist Church in Red Bank honored its veterans.  Among the honorees was a Tennessee Valley hero, Nathan Rogers, who has fallen upon hard times.  I was honored to spend some time with Nathan and his wife Sarah recently. If you don’t already know and love him, I think you will by the end of this story.

Calvary Baptist youth minister Aaron McGuirt recognizes Officer Nathan Rogers

Calvary Baptist youth minister Aaron McGuirt recognizes Officer Nathan Rogers (photo by Suzanne Lemery)

Eight months ago, Chattanooga Police Officer Nathan Rogers was protecting you and me.  He was chasing a suspect through the woods and fell.  He was slow getting up, and noticed a tingle, some numbness in his right side.  This 30-year-old Marine just shook it off.  Pain is part of the job. It comes with the territory.

But, the pain didn’t go away.  It got worse.  His steps were unsure, his speech became slurred.  He knew he wasn’t up to the job.  In a matter of weeks, this strapping six-footer had gone from one of the city’s fittest cops to a man who needed help getting around the house.  He didn’t want to leave his job, but he knew he had to.  His wife Sarah said, “He knew it was the right thing to do.”

The early diagnosis was hopeful. Sarah said, “We did X-rays, MRI’s, EKG’s, CT scans, you name it.  She was afraid he was having strokes, but there was no evidence of that.  Eventually, an MRI revealed a spot on his brain, but it had shrunk within a week.  “They didn’t find anything serious,” she said, “So we thought it would just fade away.”  When it didn’t, and his mobility declined further, doctors at Vanderbilt performed a brain biopsy.  The new diagnosis: a form of brain cancer,  glioblastoma, Grade 3.  Surgery was not the preferred option.  Instead, there would be immediate, aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and radiation.

Nathan Rogers in Iraq

Nathan Rogers in Iraq

A battle-tested combat veteran of two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Nathan finds comfort in the fellow Marines who surround him to this day.  CPD Officer Curtis Roth is one of them.   Like Nathan, he has pulled many an all-nighter on the streets of Chattanooga.  “We’ve got his back,” Roth said.  “Nathan would die for you.  Among our officers, he was strongest, and most active.  He’s a Marine’s Marine.”

Fellow Officer Jeremiah Cook remembers being a rookie patrolman who was in awe of his colleague’s bravery.  “When other people run away from danger, Nathan is running toward the danger.  Somebody has to do it.  I saw him do that several times.”

Nathan’s days are unlike any he has lived before.  Accustomed to being on the front lines at home and abroad, he now spends most of his time fending off exhaustion from treatments.  He undergoes speech and physical therapy twice a week.  A recent MRI revealed a slight growth in the tumor.  To be on the safe side, doctors have added another chemo treatment, every other week at Vanderbilt. He has been taking chemo pills on a monthly basis.

For relaxation, he enjoys watching sports on TV.  He also appreciates his visitors from the police department and Calvary Baptist Church in Red Bank, where he and his family are members. Faith plays a big role in their lives.  Sarah said, “We’re just taking it one day at a time.  We know God will provide for us.”

Nathan with his parents, Janice and David Rogers

Nathan with his parents, Janice and David Rogers

Nathan’s parents are David and Janice Rogers, both longtime Hamilton County educators.  David told me, “Nathan has always been such a great son, he’s always loved his family, has a big heart, and has always served his country with duty, honor, and respect. ” He speaks with pride of his son’s four years as a heavy machine gunner in the Marines, ending his active duty in the summer of 2006.

Fellow Marine and CPD Officer Curtis Roth summed it up beautifully.  “Nathan’s life has always been about service, overseas and here at home.  It’s all he’s ever known.  Now it’s our turn to serve him.  This community needs to rally around him.  With a lot of prayer and support, and lot of fighting on Nathan’s part, I have no doubt.  He’ll be back.”

Sarah and Nathan Rogers

Sarah and Nathan Rogers

Near the end of our visit, with Sarah speaking on behalf of Nathan, I noticed him fighting back tears when the word “cancer” was mentioned, more than once.  Officer Nathan Rogers is a proud fighter, who has defended our nation’s freedom repeatedly, and has put himself in harm’s way against those who threaten our families and our property.  He won those battles, and I have a feeling he wanted to tell me he wasn’t finished fighting.  Cancer, you better get ready.  You haven’t faced Nathan Rogers yet.

(Special thanks to Suzanne Lemery Photography for the photos from Calvary Baptist Church)

John Redman: “I was determined to come back”

November 9, 2014 at 7:04 pm

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the Dalton State College basketball offices.

Six months earlier, I had written about John Redman, the 24-year-old assistant coach who was critically injured in the April 28 car accident that took the life of his fiancee Brittany Huber.  John was then in a coma for 17 days, under heavy sedation for weeks after that, and eventually endured several months of painful rehab and therapy exercises.

In mid-October, his head coach Tony Ingle called: “It’s time. John wants to tell his story.” Basketball season was approaching, and the young assistant was back on the court.

I’d heard the stories going around in early May, that John may not survive. Once it became apparent he would live, there was talk about his quality of life. Would he able to function normally? His parents were told his brain activity level was a “2” on a 1-10 scale. Anything below a “4” usually meant severe, often irreversible damage. They were told John would likely spend his remaining years under full-time care, in a nursing home environment. A return to coaching seemed impossible.

David Carroll and John Redman

David Carroll and John Redman

Exactly six months after the tragic accident, I am greeted by a friendly young man with a firm handshake. He walks briskly, and pauses to find the right word now and then, but no worse than you and me. “John is a walking miracle,” Coach Ingle says. “He gets a little fatigued sometime, so I encourage him to pace himself. Other than that, I treat him like everybody else. That’s what he wants, and that’s what he needs.”

John takes me through his six-month journey.  “I still cry every day,” he said.  There are reminders of Brittany everywhere.  In his office are handwritten notes from Brittany, and plenty of photos.  You see Brittany on the wall of his desktop computer, and on the actual wall of his office.  “I still live in the same house we lived in.  I haven’t touched her closet or anything.”  As we spoke, shortly before October 31, which would have been Brittany’s 25th birthday, she is still a big part of his life. “I’m going down to Mobile this weekend to see her family.  They have been so good to me. We’ll visit her grave, and release some balloons.  She would have loved that.”

Brittany Huber and John Redman

Brittany Huber and John Redman

Like John, Brittany was from south Alabama, and both moved to north Georgia last year to follow their dreams.  She was an artist and teacher, starting her career at Dalton’s City Park Elementary School as an educational assistant.  At 23, John said he “somehow convinced a great coach to give me a chance.”  He’s talking about Tony Ingle, a hometown hero who grew up in Dalton, and coached in the “big time” for a while before returning to build a program at DSC.  The charismatic Ingle, who knows a little something about overcoming adversity, was as excited as anyone about John and Brittany’s wedding plans.  “They’re like family to my wife and me,” Ingle said.

On Monday, April 28, as John and Brittany headed south to prepare for their weekend wedding, a tire blew out, sending their car out of control on I-85 south of Atlanta.  Speed was not a factor, nor were any distractions or illegal substances.  Brittany died instantly, and John barely survived.  He has no recollection of the accident.

Accident scene, I-85 near Newnan, GA, April 28, 2014

Accident scene, I-85 near Newnan, GA, April 28, 2014

A passing motorist stopped to help, and after observing Brittany’s lifeless body, prayed for John while help could be summoned.  Rescue workers couldn’t find John’s contact information; it was in his backpack.  He was wearing a Dalton State shirt, and eventually someone got word to Coach Ingle about a young couple who appeared to be from his school.  His heart sank.

Coach Ingle recalled, “I’m rushing down to Grady Hospital in Atlanta, and at the same time, trying to figure out how to contact their family.  They were hundreds of miles from Dalton, and also hundreds of miles from Mobile, and I don’t carry around the phone number of my assistant coach’s fiancee’s parents.  And all of that time, we didn’t know if John was gonna make it.  It didn’t look good.”

John Redman in the hospital

John Redman in the hospital

John had five broken ribs, eight broken teeth, brain trauma, and 21 fractures in his skull. He regained consciousness about a month after the crash.  A few days later, he was coherent enough to ask questions.  Specifically, he wanted to know why Brittany hadn’t come to see him.  For doctors, it was a delicate balancing act.  John was making progress,  but what would happen when he learned the sad truth? “It was tough, I’m not gonna lie to you,” he said.  “At first I couldn’t believe it. But I realized I had to get better, I had to get out of the hospital.  I didn’t want to be one of those people who just gives up.”  He had to learn to talk again, and to walk again.  “My dream, Brittany’s dream was for me to become a Division I head coach,” he said.  “Everything those therapists told me to do, I did double.  I was determined to get back to Dalton for basketball season.”

Brittany Huber

Brittany Huber

John soon learned that Brittany’s funeral had been held on Friday May 2, the day before the date of their scheduled wedding, in the same church in which they were to be married.  The minister who was to officiate their wedding, instead presided over her funeral.  She was buried in her beautiful wedding dress, as her best friends stood by in their bridesmaid dresses.  Her groom was in a hospital 300 miles away, quietly fighting for his life.

Six months later, life is as normal as it can be for John Redman.  “It used to seem like a dream.  I know it isn’t a dream now.  This is real.”  He’s still far away from his real family, but his Dalton family helps fill the void. “The people in Dalton have been unbelievable,” he said.  “Once I realized this story had been on the news, and people were waiting on me to come back, people I don’t even know come up and tell me they love me.” Motioning toward his mentor, he said, “Coach Ingle is like a dad, or maybe more like a big brother, because we pick at each other all the time.  I couldn’t have a better role model.”

Coach Ingle said, “This is where he needs to be.  Our players need him.  One of them will miss a couple of shots, and think he’s having a bad day.  All he’s got to do is look at Coach Redman, and realize, life is good.  I can come back from anything.”

Brittany Huber and John Redman

Brittany Huber and John Redman

Brittany and John were the couple you loved to look at while they were posing for pictures in the park.  The tall, handsome jock, and the slender, stylish artist.  It seemed like they just stepped out of a magazine.  Their love is preserved in photographs, those fleeting moments captured in life’s passing parade.

John Redman knows he’s here for a reason.  “Please thank everyone for their prayers,” he told me as we parted company.  “Tell them I’m going to be all right.  Brittany and I had goals, and there’s no reason I can’t reach them.  That’s what she wants me to do.”

“And one more thing,” he said. “If you know someone who thinks there’s no hope, tell them about me.  You can come back, you really can.”

To follow the Dalton State Roadrunners basketball team, click here.

Here is the WRCB video story, featuring Coach John Redman and Coach Tony Ingle:

 

 

 

 

Let’s tell the truth about schools

November 5, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I’ve been reporting on schools for about twenty years, and probably visit more schools each year than anybody except the milk delivery guy.  I have formed some strong opinions.

Yes, there are ineffective teachers, weak principals, and poor superintendents, but they’re heavily outnumbered by the really good ones.  It’s just like any other profession.

Yes, there are questionable learning programs.  I’m not a fan of Common Core math, and probably never will be.

Teachers tell me that some of those out-of-town consultants are truly enlightening, while others are a waste of time and money.

sleeping

Any school that starts before 8:00 a.m. just to save money on transportation issues is doing children a disservice.

Any school with a population of 98% of a single race can’t possibly prepare students for their adult life.  And if you’re so focused on “teaching to the test” that you can’t spend a little time on cursive writing or Black History Month, something’s out of alignment.

I see some dress codes that go way too far, and others that don’t go far enough.  I am puzzled that schools on extreme ends of the financial spectrum seem to get all the technology: rich schools benefit from wealthy community members, and poor schools get much-needed help from the government.  But schools “in the middle,” those that fall just short of the poverty level, get nothing, from anybody.  And don’t get me started on how some students have full access to great arts programs, musical instruments and athletic facilities, while others get by on duct tape and hand-me-downs.

politician

Having said that, it makes me cringe when I see a politician wearing a thousand-dollar suit, promising to “fix” schools.  Truth # 1:  He probably didn’t attend public school.  Truth # 2:  His children will never attend a public school.  Truth # 3: He will never support a funding increase for public schools, because his aging voters aren’t interested.

Still, Mr. Candidate will rant and rave about bad teachers, poor morale, ineffective curriculum materials, and every other failing, real or imagined.  It’s an American tradition.  Go to the library and grab a newspaper from fifty years ago.   You’ll see that the same issues politicians are harping about today, were on the front page in 1964.

So it was a real treat to read a column last week by Lane Filler, a terrific writer for Newsday.  He imagined a world in which politicians would tell the truth, on issues like immigration, Social Security, and government fraud. The best “truth-telling” was about schools.  Read this, from Mr. Filler: “What if politicians really told the truth about education.”

“I’ve been promising to fix the schools, but they’re mostly not broken. It’s just that the failing ones serve poor kids who fell so far behind between birth and age 6 that they mostly can’t catch up. For them, the hours they spend at school are the safest, most structured parts of their day. They get fed, have heat and air conditioning and deal with adults trying to help them grow and learn. We need kids to stop having babies. We need to ensure a comfortable, stimulating and loving infancy for poor tots. Without that, increasing spending on schools is like setting money on fire.”

There it is.  In about 100 words, he wrote what I’ve been thinking for a long time.

Mark Smith

Mark Smith

We just lost a good principal, Mark Smith of Tyner Middle Academy to a sudden heart attack, at the age of 53.  Last month, he told me the same thing, basically.  He had vowed not to let any 8th grader advance from his school without knowing how to read.  “We’re not doing social promotions, that’s in the past,” he told me.  “By the time we get through with them, they’ll be ready for high school, or they’re not crossing that street,” he said, pointing to Tyner High.  When he arrived at Tyner Middle last year, he was alarmed at the high percentage of 6th graders who had been promoted from elementary school with a 3rd grade reading level.

Go ahead, politicians, blame teachers.  Then, walk a mile in their shoes.  Go into one of our lower-scoring elementary schools.  Take a child who has had ZERO educational training at home.  Start from scratch.  Deal with all the other distractions in that child’s life.  If you can squeeze in 3 years worth of education during those 5 turbulent years, with no support from home, the child being shuffled around to different family members, and oh yes, occasionally dodging bullets…give yourself a pat on the back.

Mark Smith did the best he could, and he was off to a flying start.  Believe me, those teachers at Tyner Middle will carry on his work. But his message needs to be echoed.  The schools can only do so much, and should accept only so much blame.  It starts in the home.  It starts with a family.

Finally: Chattanooga gets an ice skating rink!

November 3, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Tilted natural version, ice skates with reflection

Well, here’s the best news I’ve heard in a while (and there hasn’t been much of that lately).  Chattanooga will get that long-overdue ice skating rink that so many of us have been asking for.  It’s only temporary: November 28 through January 4.  It’s not very big, 50 x 70 feet, slightly smaller than a high school basketball court.  But, it’s a start!

Chattanooga Presents executive director Carla Pritchard has been working hard on the project for several months, and says, “It’s an expensive proposition.”  Volkswagen of Chattanooga is a presenting sponsor, helping keep the admission price to a minimum: ten dollars, including skate rental.

The location is in the heart of Chattanooga’s tourist district, on the “green” space area in front of the Blue Plate restaurant at Ross’s Landing.  The rink will open on the evening of the Lighted Boat Parade, the day after Thanksgiving.

It is being modeled after similar open-air rinks in the Southeast, which have proven successful in recent years.  Although temperatures are rarely frigid in Chattanooga in December, a company called Magic Ice USA has experience in creating the technology to keep the skating surface at the proper level.

Here is the press release from Chattanooga Presents: Chattanooga Presents has partnered with Volkswagen Chattanooga to offer Chattanooga’s first riverfront ice skating rink, to call Ice on the Landing. A new holiday attraction, the ice rink will be located under the open sky in the beautiful waterfront setting on the Chattanooga Green. People of all ages will now be able to experience a classic winter tradition – outdoor ice skating – as a new seasonal festivity in Chattanooga’s bustling downtown.
The 50’ x 70’ rink will open the same night as the popular Lighted Boat Parade, November 28, 2014 and will remain in place through January 4, 2015.
With no other ice skating option offered either indoors or outdoors in Chattanooga, Ice on the Landing presented by Volkswagen Chattanooga will represent a unique, wintertime recreational experience to highlight Chattanooga during the holiday season. A schedule to accommodate general skating for the public, as well as, special themes and events, music and promotions, appearances by Santa and certain nights to benefit local charities will keep the rink lively and well-used during the six-week schedule. Hot chocolate and other snack vendors will also be on hand for everyone’s enjoyment.
Tickets will be $10 for adults and $8 for children 12 and under. This includes skate rental and skating for two hours.
“Volkswagen is very pleased that we can be a part of establishing this exciting new activity in Downtown Chattanooga,” said Scott Wilson, Head of Communications for Volkswagen Chattanooga. “Outdoor activities in our city normally focus on summer sports, and Ice On The Landing will be a great opportunity for Chattanoogans to be active during the Holidays,” Wilson said.
Equipment will be provided through Magic Ice USA, based in Orlando, FL. Magic Ice USA specializes as a provider of outdoor, seasonal, temporary and portable Holiday Ice Skating. Internationally acclaimed, Magic Ice USA has a definite edge on the ice skating industry with venues in South America, the Caribbean and Mexico, as well as the US.
Carla Pritchard, owner of Chattanooga Presents, says “the concept of Ice on the Landing is inspired by successful outdoor ice rinks in Huntsville, AL, Charlotte, NC, Greenville and Columbia, SC all of which have similar climates and have several years of positive results by the company Magic Ice USA. An outdoor ice rink is an amenity we’ve long felt would have strong appeal for this community, and we are thrilled to now bring it to Chattanooga’s riverfront!”

Let’s hear it for James Howard: a Chattanooga hero

November 2, 2014 at 2:26 am

jameshoward-2

Whenever James Howard and I are in the same room, he tells this story:  in 1990, he was a student at Tyner High School.  It was Career Day, and I was at Tyner representing my TV station.  As James tells it, “I was 16, and went up to David to ask him how to get into radio.  He told me to do whatever it takes to get my foot in the door, even it meant working for free.” He said he took my advice, and that I’m the reason he got into radio.

Now 40, James has proven to be a radio “lifer,” and a very good one. If I played any part in getting him into radio, I am extremely proud of that.

James is best known for his longtime spot next to Luther Masingill on Sunny 92.3 (WDEF) each morning.  He started out doing traffic reports twenty years ago. “Dean Tobler was doing traffic from an airplane when I was a kid. I wrote him a letter once, and he wrote me back! I thought he had the coolest job in the world.”

James was just as fascinated with flight as he was radio.  After graduating from Tyner, he attended Chattanooga State and UTC, but says he spent most of his time studying radio and airplanes.  He went to flight school, and earned his commercial pilot’s license.  Meanwhile, he got married, started a family, and quickly moved up the ladder at WDEF.  While in his early 20′s, he got the post-Luther midday show, and then became Luther’s co-host in 2001.

jameshoward-luther

Their radio partnership became secondary to their off-air friendship.  As Luther got older and more fragile, James was like a protective grandson.  In the last week of Luther’s life, James helped him make it up the steps to his studio, noticing his shortness of breath.  He encouraged him to go home, and get some rest.  James was with Luther as he took his last breath a few days later, and was visibly shaken when he informed his listeners about Luther’s passing.  It was the end of an era, and James wanted to make his mentor proud.  “I’ve had the best seat in the house for twenty years,” he said.  “He was the most amazing person I’ve ever met, or ever will meet.”  James spoke eloquently at Luther’s memorial service, remembering Luther’s concern for James’ wife Christy, and daughters Gracie (14) and Lucy (6).  “He taught me a lot about radio,” James told the audience.  “But more importantly, he taught me how to be a good husband and father.”

James is also widely known for an annual trip for which we should all be thankful.  Since 2003, he has used his vacation time (and a lot of his own money) to visit our troops in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.  Why?  He had done a radio report as the “Mike Battery” Marines were leaving the training center on Amnicola Highway, destined for battle.  He saw the hugs, the tears, the parents, the spouses, and the children.  “I thought to myself, the only time we see these heroes are when they leave town, and when they come back.  I thought the public should see what they’re doing, and where they are.  This is a patriotic town that supports its troops.  We play the interviews on local TV and radio, so their families can see them.”

James interviewing the troops in Kuwait, 2011

James interviewing the troops in Kuwait, 2011

Let this sink in.  The first time he made the trip, the destination was the city of Fallujah in Iraq.  The action was hot and heavy.  Remember the last time you flew anywhere?  The security checks, long lines and weather delays?  That’s nothing.  Listen to what James dealt with.  “You fly 6,600 miles, and then it gets difficult.  The scary part is getting to the troops in a war zone.  You get stuck in the airport.  Everything that can go wrong, usually does.  Security issues, combat, waiting on the convoys.  You get past all that, and you wait three days for a helicopter flight.  And get this, I had asked my listeners to write letters to the troops, and I’d carry them over there.  So I’m loaded down like Santa Claus with this bag of five-hundred letters the whole time.  I never did that again!”

But he did go back, eight more times, so far.  Some of the recent trips haven’t been as scary “since the coalition troops took out a lot of the bad guys,” he said, but it’s never easy.  “This is what I’m supposed to do,” he said.  “Christy supports it, although some people say I should just talk to the troops via Skype.  But seeing their reaction, when I unfurl a banner signed by people from back home, it’s all worth it.  They’re our neighbors.  They work at Cigna, Blue Cross, Erlanger, you name it.  It’s a real morale booster, for them and their families.”

This is why he’s going back this year, to Kuwait during Thanksgiving week.  “I’ll be visiting the 252nd Military Police Company, out of Chattanooga,  Cleveland and Polk County.  These men and women are National Guard, and I can’t wait to see their faces.”

One face he’ll miss this year is Luther.  “He was always first at the airport to see me off,”  James said.  “Every year, he’d wait until some people gathered around, and he’d ask me where I was going.  I’d tell him Iraq, and he’d say “They’re fighting over there, right?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes they are.’  Then he’d pause and say, ‘That money you owe me….can you go ahead and pay me now?”

“He always said that at just the right time, breaking the tension.  He had such great timing.  I sure do miss him.”

James worked alongside a Hall of Fame legend; a man who was rightfully honored many times.  Someday soon, I believe, we’ll see James Howard take a bow too.  I hope I’m there to lead the standing ovation.  He’s one of Chattanooga’s hometown heroes.

(James and Kim Carson can be heard each morning from 6-9 a.m. on Sunny 92.3.)

“Luther, can you find my cat?”

October 28, 2014 at 11:07 pm

luther-mic

Nobody loved a good laugh more than Luther Masingill.  Since he passed away, I’ve received many nice responses from his fans.  People love the photos, the videos, and stories about Chattanooga’s legendary radio man.  Here’s a video I forgot about, until someone requested it.  It’s from our annual radio deejay reunion, and this clip is from December 2013.  Luther’s presence was a highlight of the annual event, and we always gave him a standing ovation.  We didn’t know this would be Luther’s last visit with us, but we sent him out with a smile.

Take a minute to listen to a funny, true story told by former WFLI morning DJ Dale Anthony.  For many years, he competed with the great finder of lost animals.  Sometimes, listeners would get confused, and call the wrong station.  Then, this happened.  (Thanks to my friend Ben Cagle for sharing)  Just click and watch. Luther’s reaction at the end is priceless: