You want to know what’s fun? Writing about great people…while they are alive! In the news business, we don’t get to do a lot of that. I’ve written countless tribute stories about some of my favorite people, but most of them included details about visitation and such matters.
Not this time. Marcia Kling has announced that she is retiring from WTVC on May 30. Most of us who have had any contact with her in recent years have already told her how much we love and appreciate her, so this will come as no surprise to her. But having a blog (thank you for visiting, by the way) gives me an opportunity to share my love for “Miss Marcia” with you.
Our relationship began, unbeknownst to her, when I was a wee lad. I hadn’t even started first grade. You see, in ancient times, we didn’t have Head Start, we didn’t have pre-K, and in rural Alabama we didn’t have kindergarten. If you were lucky (as was I), you had parents or older siblings who would teach you the basics before you started school. Still, they couldn’t cover everything. So it fell to Miss Marcia to show me how to tie my shoes, mind my manners and tell time. Oh yes, tell time. Clocks were foreign to me until I figured out that when the big hand was on the 12, and the little hand was on the 9, that was 9 o’clock: Funtime!
Miss Marcia’s morning kiddie show featured games and songs with actual children in the studio (lucky them!). She would often talk about her own son, John David (even luckier!). The highlight of each day was when she sang her own “Happy Birthday” song. As Chattanooga area baby boomers know, this wasn’t the traditional birthday song. It was unique to Miss Marcia, and featured high notes most humans can’t hope to reach. It doesn’t keep us from trying, but we learned quickly that Miss Marcia was often imitated but never duplicated.
A New York native, she came to Maryville, Tennessee for her education in the late 1950s, moving to Chattanooga a few years later taking a job at a church, then as a school teacher. In 1962, the original host of WTVC’s “Romper Room” left the show, and Marcia was recruited to try out. She was an immediate hit, and a year later the show was renamed “Funtime,” enduring for fifteen years.
If this sounds like a fairy tale, just know that there were some rough spots along the way. In the early 1970s, Miss Marcia was diagnosed with oral cancer. Her absence was noticeable to her young audience. WTVC knew she was irreplaceable. Rather than try to come up with an interim host, the station ran nonstop cartoons on the show during her illness. Entertaining, yes. Educational, no. Fortunately, she was back at the piano several months later, good as new.
What few people knew at the time was, this was no ordinary illness, the kind where you just need a few months of rest and recuperation. Miss Marcia had to learn to speak again, from word one. This extraordinary hostess, teacher and entertainer, who had spoken so clearly and sang so beautifully, would have to work hard to return one of the most visible jobs any person could have; a daily television show. Obviously, she overcame this huge obstacle and soon resumed life as our eloquent Miss Marcia.
She remained at WTVC after the children’s show ended, and has continued to produce and host shows for slightly older kids (“Nifty Nine”) and in recent years, older adults (“Lifewatch” and appearances on Don Welch’s “This n That” midday program). On May 30, she’s hanging up the microphone one final time.
Not without some remembrances, though. I finally got to meet my childhood sweetheart when I was all grown up. One day at the mall, I was doing the dad thing with Chris and Vince, who were about 5 and 2 at the time. I saw Miss Marcia, and said, “Guys, you’ve got to meet this lady! I grew up watching her on TV!” She gave me a hug, and I introduced the boys to her. She made the appropriate fuss over them. I didn’t see her in person again until about five years later, and this time I was by myself. “Hi Marcia,” I said. “Well, hello David, how are you?” she responded. “And how are those fine boys of yours, Chris and Vince?” As I’ve told and retold that story over the years, I’ve learned, that my experience was not uncommon. She remembers names like no one else. You can call it a gift, I call it being thoughtful and caring.
Two years ago, when my book was published, I wanted to attract a crowd at my first book signing at Northgate Mall. I figured I’d have a better chance of reaching that goal if I asked the two most famous people in the book to accompany me. Radio legend Luther Masingill quickly accepted the invitation, and Miss Marcia graciously did the same. (I wanted to call the event “Two and a Half Celebrities,” but somebody nixed that idea.) Mission accomplished: Chattanooga’s two most famous residents drew quite the crowd.
I often show people this photo of us prior to the book signing, fresh-faced, enthusiastic and smiling. Then I show them the next one, four hours and a few hundred nonstop autographs later:
Sure, it’s staged, but Luther and Marcia are great sports and it’s good for some laughs. And as Luther would tell you, it’s not too far from reality.
I’m thrilled that Miss Marcia can step away from the daily grind while she’s healthy, and no doubt she’ll continue her impressive record of helping every charity that comes her way. It’s what she’s made of. I don’t have many regrets about my own career, but here’s one of them: I never got to work with her on a daily basis. Unlike my friends Bill Race, Darrell Patterson and Bob Johnson, I didn’t get that daily dose of Miss Marcia sunshine in person. (I should point out however, that when I was little, I thought she could see me through the TV camera. I later told her that, and she laughed and said, “Oh yes, I could see you.” She was joking. I hope.)
Here’s wishing many fun times ahead for Miss Marcia, with her husband David, her children and grandchildren. She’s earned every minute of an enjoyable retirement.
A final thought: for some odd reason in Tennessee, with its various Halls of Fame, no one has established a Broadcasting Hall of Fame. We finally have a Radio Hall of Fame, but there isn’t one that recognizes TV folks. We need to make that happen. When we do, this all-time great TV teacher, who has worked fifty-one years at the same TV station should be among the first honorees.
Not a day goes by. Sometimes it’s a man in line at Burger King. The next time it’s a woman in the mall. Most often it’s an e-mail. “I saw you in that Bully movie,” they’ll say. “Thanks for trying to help.”
I never thought I’d be in the movies. In fact, when you see me in that film, while you’re looking at me, ending up on a big screen was the furthest thing from my mind.
Some background: I had met Tina and David Long at their home in Chatsworth, Georgia in October 2009, just days after their son Tyler had hanged himself in his bedroom. He was 17. He had a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. His parents described his affliction as one in which his social skills were often misunderstood or mocked by his peers. He might laugh at inappropriate times, or not understand when someone was making a joke. They told me he was mocked and taunted throughout middle school, and into his high school years. They had complained early and often to Murray County school officials, they said, to no avail. I tried to get the school district’s side of the story, but they would not comment. Not even, “We’re trying, we’re doing what we can.”
I had been introduced to the Longs by a family member, who surprised me with an unusual request: the Longs wanted to do a TV interview about their son’s suicide. That’s generally a taboo topic on the news, for two reasons. First, most families don’t want to talk about it. There’s a definite stigma attached. And second, many news organizations are reluctant to “glamorize” suicide, fearing others, particularly teens might get ideas. I’ve never felt that way. I know this tragedy happens far more than it is reported. Certainly every death by suicide doesn’t need to be identified as such, but the root causes such as depression and yes, bullying need not be swept under the rug.
I did the interview, the story ran, and the response was surprisingly sudden and vocal. Other media outlets joined in as well. With each day, I would hear new stories of bullying, many from Murray County. Each time, I attempted to contact the Superintendent. The results were always the same. No response.
It seemed like someone should say something. If bullying was rampant in Murray County schools, let’s get it out in the open. Or if the charges were overblown, and the school district was taking the right steps to combat the problems, we should let everyone know that too. So I hatched a plan. Let’s hold a town meeting on bullying, right there in Chatsworth, and air it out. Invite everyone. If folks wanted to complain, give them a forum to do so. And if school officials had a response, or a plan, what better way to get their message out to the public?
The date was set: December 1st, a Tuesday. Two weeks before the event, the invitations went out to every School Board member, the Superintendent and the principals. Included in that message, we urged them to include any school district employee. I envisioned a well-moderated meeting, in which parents or students who had concerns, could voice them. In turn, school district folks could show they care, take notes, and pledge to find solutions.
I reached fifty percent of my goal. The parents and students showed up, a healthy number of them. They had stories to tell, of kids being terrorized on the bus, humiliated in bathrooms or pushed around in the cafeteria. Yes, they had complained through the proper channels, and were too often told, “Oh well, boys will be boys.”
Although I’d heard rumors that no school district employees would show up, I discounted them. Surely, I thought, the Superintendent, the principals, the teachers would want to tell their side of the story. I knew they couldn’t address specific complaints for legal reasons, especially the Long case, and I would shield them from that. But I thought they, or a representative would be on hand just to say, “Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We will take the necessary steps to ensure this type of behavior does not continue.”
It turned out the rumors were true. One school employee said to me in confidence, “We were told not to go, that it would be a mob scene against the school system.” Although I had pledged to not let that happen, that was their story, and they stuck with it.
That’s why I’m in the “Bully” film. Documentary producer Lee Hirsch attended the town meeting. The Longs had told me he was working on a bullying film, and was traveling the country interviewing families and kids who had been victimized in various ways. Since I was in charge of the Chatsworth meeting, the Longs wanted to make sure it was okay for Hirsch to capture the event on video. I didn’t mind, and really didn’t give it much thought. I figured at best, it might show up on PBS someday, to a relatively limited audience.
Frankly, if anyone from Murray County schools had shown up, we would have had a more productive meeting, and the “Bully” film would have been quite different. I certainly would have had very little to complain about, wouldn’t I?
Murray County school officials would have saved face, and not been the subject of scorn from moviegoers and DVD renters nationwide. (Not that it hurt them. The Superintendent is still in place, as are most of the School Board members, and they’re largely as quiet on the topic now as they were in 2009).
The resulting film got great reviews when it hit theaters in March 2012, and greatly increased its audience when the DVD was released several months later. I think it should be required viewing in every middle school. The content is disturbing, and some of the language is rough, although nothing middle schoolers haven’t heard. The film isn’t easy to watch. The emotions are raw. When the credits roll, you realize you’ve seen something that will stick with you for a while, as any good documentary should. It is, to use a well-worn phrase, a call to action. It has already done some good. Tina and David Long, and others involved in the film, have spoken at the White House, in New York City, Los Angeles, and many points in between, sharing their story. They’ve appeared on “Ellen,” CNN and Fox News to name a few, taking their crusade to an audience of millions. They headlined a local public affairs show, “The Bully Battle,” which has been awarded multiple times.
It’s a battle worth fighting, and I’m proud to be in that film.
Mother’s Day should never be routine, but despite our best intentions, it happens.
If you’re fortunate enough to live in the same zip code, you visit Mom. You go to church with her, take her out to eat, buy her something that looks nice or smells good.
If you live out of town, you order a corsage, or you send flowers. And always a card of course. Since my mom was nearby, the routine was church, lunch (Western Sizzlin! The buffet!) and a white corsage- her own mother died young. I used the same florist every year. Yes, it was a routine, but one that both mom and son enjoyed. It was comfortable, it was consistent.
Now, two years after my mother died at the age of 90, I miss that routine. I see the commercials, I hear the reminders: “Don’t forget Mom!” “Be sure to call your Mom!” (How quaint in 2013. Shouldn’t we be texting or Skyping her by now?) I feel a little like Bear Bryant did in those Southern Bell commercials. “Have you called your Mama today? I sure wish I could.”
Since my mother gave birth to me at the relatively advanced age of 36, and lived to be 90, I was fortunate she was nearby for such a long time. I have friends who lost their mother at an early age, and I always felt sad for them when they would hear see those cheery Mother’s Day commercials. (By the way, how many moms do you know who look like the women in those JCPenney ads? Do they ever eat? Just sayin’)
On this Mother’s Day 2013, I’m remembering two stories about Virginia Ruth Norris Carroll, or as my dad called her, “Ruthie.” One is kind of funny, the other one still makes me sad. Let’s do funny first.
During my KZ-106 radio days in the late 70s, I had just broken up with a girl, or maybe she had broken up with me. Either way, I was feeling down. Like many “newly single” guys, I started over. I grew a beard. It was “The New David.” Mom didn’t like it. She missed my face, she said. For the next 14 years, she would frequently remind me how much she disliked my facial hair. “When are you going to shave that beard?” she would say. But I kept it, even into my TV news career. The beard was part of me, and my wife and kids wouldn’t know me without it.
One summer day in 1993, my wife and kids were away visiting her family in Pennsylvania, and I had a week to myself. I was bored one day, looked in the mirror, got out the razor, and away it went. I thought, “What the heck, I’m gonna make Mom happy. When I go out to see her this weekend, her son’s face will be back, and she’ll be thrilled.” You can probably guess the rest of this story. Mom took a close look at my clean-shaven face, scrunched her cute little nose and said, “You should grow that beard back.” Ah, mothers.
Now the sad one. I like to think I’m a decent enough guy, but every now and then, I fail at basic human behavior.
Mom was one of those Depression babies, who grew up cherishing every bit of food she owned. (Those of us who came later had no idea: food was in the stores, it was in our pantries, and it was plentiful.) Mom was reluctant to toss anything out of the refrigerator. One evening during the holidays, with a family audience in the kitchen, the smart-aleck jokester in me came out. One by one, I would take a jar or box out of the refrigerator and make some wisecrack about the expiration date. “This one goes back to the Eisenhower administration.” “There’s something growing in this one.” And other knee-slapping insults. Anything for a laugh, that David Carroll.
Then I noticed a tear or two on my mother’s face. Her favorite (okay, only) son, the broadcaster of whom she was so proud, was making jokes at her expense. Attempting to get some laughs by making her the target of cheap humor. As soon as I realized what I had done, I felt very small. I had made my mother cry. I offered an awkward apology. “I was just trying to be funny, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
She got over my alleged comedy show. As I said, she survived the Depression. But I never quite recovered. It still resides in my memory like a fungus. She never knew it, but I spent the rest of her life trying to make that up to her. Long after Alzheimer’s Disease robbed her of her memory, I still felt like I owed her one. A big one. I could never do enough to make it right, but I gave it my best shot.
We, my sisters and I, as her children were fortunate during her ten-year journey with Alzheimer’s. She was cheerful and pleasant during her twilight years, just as she had been in her prime. My dad was a patient caretaker until he suddenly became ill, and died in 2005. As a new chapter in our lives began, I actually looked forward to my weekend visits with her, taking her to church, going out to eat or just sitting at home watching the Braves (she liked Chipper Jones and John Smoltz the best). Later, my visits to her nursing home were just as pleasant. She always smiled as I entered the cafeteria. I have not been greeted with as sweet a smile before or since. I doubt I ever will again.
We all strive for a long, healthy life. Although my mother’s mind was foggy during her last decade, she still seemed to enjoy herself and her family. I felt blessed that she knew who I was, and that I was among a dwindling number of people, a handful at best. Most of her acquaintances didn’t realize that. She pretended to know everyone.
Still, when you live to the age of 90, most of your peers, the people who knew you when you were a kid, a teen, a young adult, or even a middle-ager are gone. By living into her golden years, most of those who saw her at church, or even casually, knew an elderly woman who used a walker. A woman with a ready smile, but no real personality beyond that smile. A woman who would respond to greetings, but could not start a conversation. They didn’t know her when she was someone’s little sister, someone’s girlfriend, a wife, a mom, a co-worker.
For her funeral, I thought it would be nice to put together a little video, featuring some classic photographs. It was a way to introduce “Ruthie” to those who didn’t -really- know her. It was a way to help them understand why I’ll always miss that smile.
I hope Mother’s Day was never routine for her. I hope it was special. No doubt about it, I owed her that much, and a lot more.
57 years ago today, Chattanoogans doubled their TV viewing pleasure. With the flip of a switch, that miraculous picture box in the living room suddenly had not one, but TWO channels to choose from. Could it possibly get any better? Now there was no monopoly on entertainment and news programming. For the previous two years, WDEF Channel 12 had been the only game in town, carrying local programs plus an assortment of network shows from both CBS and NBC. When WRGP Channel 3 (named for owner Ramon G. Patterson) signed on, it lined up with NBC, leaving CBS in the hands of Channel 12. Channel 9 came along in 1958, affiliating with ABC. Unlike many markets, all three original stations are still affiliated with their original networks.
Channel 3 has changed hands a few times over the years. In fact one of the previous owners, Rust Craft Broadcasting, renamed the station WRCB in 1963, and the station retains those call letters today. Now owned by Sarkes Tarzian, Inc., Channel 3 is proud of a few firsts over the years: first to do live remote broadcasts (back in the early 1960s, when such an event would take days to set up) and first to do live breaking news shots (via microwave signals).
Channel 3 was first to purchase a satellite truck, enabling the news division to go live from pretty much anywhere) and most memorably, the first to broadcast network programs in color.
When I was a kid, very few people had those expensive color sets, and it was a real treat to see anything in color, without going to a movie theater. Our preacher (!) was the only person we knew with a color TV, so I would often find excuses to go home with his family (they had kids around my age) and watch “Bonanza” in color on Sunday nights on Channel 3 and NBC. Let’s just say Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe sold a LOT of color TV’s for RCA, which was the whole idea. At that time there were only a handful of shows broadcast in color. Within a few years, that would change. Then came cable, satellite, the internet, and all the choices we have today. But thankfully, there’s still a Channel 3, doing local news, weather, sports, and yes, providing me with a job for the past 26 years.
There are still a handful of “old-timers” around who remember that very first day. One is my friend Wayne Abercrombie, whose memories of helping sign on a new television station are still razor-sharp. Here’s an interview I did with Wayne, and early Channel 3 personality Roy Morris, who had worked for Mr. Patterson at WAPO Radio, then followed him over to the TV station.
Those early days were broadcast from 1214 McCallie Avenue, across from Warner Park. I visited the old studio, long converted into an electrical supply building, back in 2006 for the station’s 50th anniversary. It was a pleasure to see the old dressing rooms where Dolly Parton would don her giant wig for the Porter Wagoner Show, and the studio where Harry Thornton was ringmaster for Saturday Live Wresting and Mort Lloyd read the news in that incredibly deep voice. And where they posed for classic pictures like this one:
Through the years, the people have come and gone, but Channel 3 is fortunate to have some folks both in front of, and behind the camera who have made the station their home for most of their careers. Tommy Eason, featured in the Live Eye video above, shot film and video for the newscasts for almost fifty years before retiring in 2009. Wayne Jackson started directing the 6:00 p.m. news in the mid-1970s, and still calls the shots each evening to this day. Tom Tolar has been station manager for going on thirty years, easily a record in Chattanooga. Cindy Sexton and Paul Barys each began in the summer of 1985, and are thankfully still there making me look good every night. And as you’ll see here, they just keep getting better with age.
In fact, Cindy reminded me the other day, that we’ve co-anchored the news together since 1992, and are now the longest-running anchor team in the state. I’m very proud of that, and thankful to work with people like Cindy, who I look forward to seeing each day. So Happy 57th, Channel 3! And thanks to those of you who have supported “my favorite channel” for so many years.
As a diehard Atlanta Braves fan since the day my Uncle John took me to my first game (July 14, 1966, Astros, over the Braves, 6-5, not that I remember much about it), I’ve been connected to the announcers as much as the players. In the early years it was mostly on radio. A local TV station carried a 20-game Braves package each year. But the Saturday NBC “Game of the Week” was usually Yankees-Red Sox. (My, how nothing has changed.) Now of course, games are everywhere, and the cable networks are kind enough to beam the Bravos into our homes when the overlords at Fox and ESPN are not carrying said Yankees and friends.
So here’s my tribute to the best of the Braves announcers of the Atlanta era, to my ears anyway. Some didn’t stick around long enough to make an impression. Others did, but the impression wasn’t that good. As Casey Kasem would say, on with the countdown!
10. MILO HAMILTON: The first play-by-play voice of the Atlanta Braves, from 1966 until 1975. Obviously he was good at his craft, working for seven big league teams for six decades until retiring last year. I was never a huge fan, because he often over-emoted, acting as if he was bigger than the game. I saw him in the WSB-TV Fourth of July Parade in 1967. He seemed cranky that day, in no mood to interact with the crowd. Not the best face to present to a ten-year-old fan.
9. CHIP CARAY: Some will no doubt be surprised to see Chip’s name on an all-time best list. Come to think of it, I’m surprised myself. I’m as tough on him as anyone. Yes, he’s the heir to the family business. No, I doubt he would have landed in the majors so early in his career had his last name been well, just about anything else. But considering the unreachable expectations that go with his last name (remember Pete Rose Jr.?), he’s done okay. In fact, he’s getting better. I’ll admit his eyesight, his depth perception (deep fly balls that are actually pop-ups, home runs that start out as a “fly ball to left field”) and his cracking voice still make me kick the TV now and then. But he seems to really love the Braves, and I like that.
8. ERNIE JOHNSON JR.: I like everything EJ Jr. does. His stint with the Braves was fairly brief, but he was a consummate pro. Unlike his dad, this guy’s a natural broadcaster. It comes easy to Ernie Jr., and he was a smooth listen.
7. DON SUTTON: A natural talker for sure. Natural broadcaster? Not so much. He played in LA for many years, and was a media darling for good reason. Self-deprecating, charming, quick with a quip. I wish I could rank him higher. I just don’t learn as much from him as I would like. He’s long on cliches and timeworn stories, but comes up short on meaningful game analysis. He’s a comfortable radio companion on a warm summer night, just not as informative as he could be.
6. JON “BOOG” SCIAMBI: The one that got away. Man, I miss this guy. From 2007-09, he and Joe Simpson had a chemistry that was thoroughly enjoyable. Simpson was never better, and “Boog” gets much of the credit. With a near-perfect voice, sharp sense of humor, deep knowledge of baseball and obvious big-time potential, we should have known the Braves couldn’t keep him for long. ESPN came calling, and Sciambi scooted to the national scene. We were lucky to have him for three years.
5. JOE SIMPSON: He’s come a long way since the early 90s, starting as a soft-spoken rookie fresh from the playing field. It took him a while to establish his own voice and style, working in the shadow of the Ernie-Pete-Skip dynasty. As mentioned earlier, he peaked during his pairing with Boog Sciambi, and may never reach those heights again. I often get the feeling he’s holding back, especially when a Brave needs a good public scolding. Occasionally his honesty seeps through, and that’s when I learn something about the inner workings of the game. Joe’s at his best when he’s unplugged, and since Sciambi left, he’s been a little too buttoned-down. Still, for a former player who is not a natural broadcaster, he’s put together a solid career in the booth.
4. JIM POWELL: A few years ago, the Braves broadcasting team took a double whammy: the death of Skip Caray and the retirement of Pete Van Wieren. Talk about big shoes to fill. This could have easily been a Dan Uggla-level misplay. Thankfully Georgia native Jim Powell was lured away from the Milwaukee Brewers to join the Braves. He’s got it all: the Braves background, the Bob Uecker-influenced lightness, the voice, the wit, the Twitter-era interaction with fans. He genuinely respects Sutton, and has subtly made his partner a better broadcaster. If we’re lucky, Powell will retire as a Brave many, many years from now.
3. SKIP CARAY: No one could make a bad game, being played by a bad team, more entertaining. For most of the 1980s, this is how Skip Caray earned his living. Lopsided routs gave Skip ample opportunity to riff on cartoons, B-movies, food and drink. By the way, he knew baseball inside and out. He isn’t ranked higher because of one miscue: his pre-game radio call-in show. He seemed irritated by the simplicity of fan questions, which in turn irritated me to no end. Most days, his disgust for the gig was impossible to conceal. Evidently, sponsors were willing to keep the show alive, but it wasn’t Skip’s finest hour. That came in 1991 when Sid Bream slid into home plate, ending the Braves seemingly endless run of bad baseball. Skip’s enthusiasm was real, and contagious.
2. PETE VAN WIEREN: Some might argue longevity alone puts him near the top of the list. There were no signature play calls, no self-promotion, or catch-phrases that makes one think of Pete. But that lack of ego, especially alongside the acerbic Caray, was a breath of fresh air. The Professor’s pre-game “Diamond Notes” was the pre-internet roundup of everything we needed to know around the majors. Pete provided the stats and facts you couldn’t find elsewhere. When Pete spoke, you knew that some thought had gone into it first. One post-retirement moment stands out: he visited the broadcast booth the year after he retired, and was asked to do a little play-by-play. He modestly declined, sort of a “been there, done that” moment. I can’t think of another sportscaster who would have turned down a chance to ham it up one more time. Pete is comfortable with who he is, and what he’s done. So am I.
1. ERNIE JOHNSON SR. : He’ll probably never get into the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, and that’s a shame. His accomplishments are underrated and understated, like the man himself. The onetime Braves reliever, never a star, was a middle-inning guy for a few years in Milwaukee. He was an odd choice for the broadcast team. He didn’t have the ideal voice, or the background for it. By the time the team moved to Atlanta, he was the #3 guy, behind Milo Hamilton and Larry Munson, two show horses battling over the microphone. By comparison Ernie was a timid-sounding guy who could barely be heard over the crowd. His modest Vermont upbringing, and slight Swedish accent combined to give him the tone of a small-town pastor. He did much of his work behind the scenes, recruiting local radio affiliates, eventually building the massive Braves Radio Network that thrives to this day. When Ted Turner bought the team in 1975, beaming the games nationally on his cable superstation, Ernie grew into a lead role. His folksiness and gee-whiz likability meshed well with the no-frills Van Wieren and the prickly Caray. He was the more approachable part of the 3-headed “Voice of the Braves.” Having suffered through many losing seasons, no one was more thrilled when the Braves became America’s team in the 1990s, due in part to TV exposure, but also a string of pennants. As game-winning home runs and Cy Young pitching performances became commonplace, Ernie’s once-soft voice became louder and more buoyant. “Drilled! Back toward that wall! It’s outta here! Braves win!” So did the fans, with Ernie Johnson at the microphone.
This Saturday a silver-haired man with stylish shades and a ring on every finger will saunter to the podium at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Murfreesboro. He’ll thank his family, his radio listeners, his God, and no doubt his “close personal friends.” Hopefully, he won’t name each of those friends because it could take a long, long time. In a lifetime that has spanned 72 years, with 52 of them on the air, radio legend Tommy Jett has amassed a loyal following like few others.
His upcoming induction into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame almost didn’t happen, at least not with Tommy alive to witness it. When the organization’s first round of inductees was announced last year, Tommy was disappointed, though not surprised that he didn’t quite make the cut. Only six living radio legends were elected, including nationally known broadcasters like Ralph Emery, Wink Martindale and John Ward, and Chattanooga icon Luther Masingill. Maybe next year, Tommy thought. In the meantime, he gathered his memorabilia, including his bright red 1960s-era WFLI “Jet-FLI” blazer and planned a trip to the ceremony to reminisce and mingle.
Fate intervened just days before the banquet one April afternoon. Tommy, a longtime diabetic, apparently lost consciousness while driving along a rural north Georgia road. His car went airborne, flipping a half-dozen times before landing in a ditch out of the view of most drivers. Fortunately, another motorist was nearby and saw it happen. Emergency workers were called to the scene, and spent the next four hours carefully removing Tommy from the wreckage, using the tools known as the “Jaws of Life.” Walker County Deputy Bruce Coker, who had worked alongside the deejay during numerous “Stocking Full of Love” Christmas charity events, led the rescue effort. “I thought there was no way we could get him out alive,” Coker said later.
Yet within days, Tommy Jett was holding court in his hospital room, recovering from neck surgery and other procedures. He was determined to make his annual commitments to the Corn Bread Festival in South Pittsburg and his own Entertainers Reunion, both scheduled during the next month. Plus he’d been asked to introduce oldies acts like the Turtles and Gary Puckett at the Riverbend Festival in June. For Tommy, if he was breathing, the show must go on. He made every date, looking more gaunt and gray by the day. He was losing weight at an alarming rate. The once robust, rosy-cheeked rock-and-roller just didn’t have much of an appetite, and he didn’t know why.
It all came to a head in late June. His wife Charlene, who had tried mightily to get him to eat more, called 911. He had lapsed into a coma, and she didn’t know what to do. He was rushed to a Chattanooga hospital on that Friday afternoon, and friends and neighbors started spreading the word: this didn’t look good.
On Sunday, July 1st, the phone calls and e-mails went out. “If you want to see Tommy Jett one more time, you’d better hurry over to the hospital.” He was being kept alive on a respirator, and doctors told Charlene the bad news: he was totally unresponsive. “He will never get better,” they said. Some grave decisions had to be made. That afternoon, she told friends she was beginning to accept the inevitable. By the next morning, his family members should all be in town. Those closest to Tommy could say goodbye. Funeral arrangements were made, a church was chosen, pallbearers were notified.
What happened next has yet to be explained, scientifically anyway. Some longtime radio friends, led by Chip Chapman and Ben Cagle hatched an idea. Yes, Tommy is lying in a hospital bed. He doesn’t seem to hear us, he shows no signs of life, he probably doesn’t even know we’re here telling him how much we love him. But what did Tommy enjoy more than anything else in the world? Being on the radio, playing the hits of course. So the radio guys rounded up a boombox, loaded in some CD recordings of Tommy’s classic WFLI “Night Train” call-in request shows from the 1960s, and cranked it up near the head of Tommy’s bed. All day, all night. When one disc ran out, a new one was put in. Elvis, the Supremes, the Four Seasons, all introduced by Tommy’s familiar “Hey Now” greeting. Budweiser commercials, 1963 news flashes and hit songs, just as they aired on AM transistor radios fifty years earlier.
Monday morning arrived, and to everyone’s surprise and relief, they did not “pull the plug.” Doctors told the family that Tommy had shown slight signs of improvement. Those were visible only to doctors. To the rest of us, Tommy was still in a deep sleep, with no movement. The music played on. “Come on and be my little…good luck charm,” Elvis crooned. Tommy Jett’s lively voice would interrupt between songs: “Nineteen minutes after midnight, you’re movin’ and grooving, with Super-Jett, your ever-lovin’ leader!” ending on a high note few men over thirty could ever hope to reach.
The next day, Tommy began to move his fingers just a bit. By Wednesday, he was blinking his eyes as James Brown yelped in the background. Later that day his eyes began following the movements of his wife and grandkids in the hospital room. Message received: Tommy wasn’t ready to “check out” just yet. He still had some living to do.
By Friday, five days after his old deejay pals came by to say goodbye, they returned to witness what can only be described as a miracle. There was Tommy Jett, still listening to his old radio shows, but now able to speak, laugh, and express his thanks. Was he able to hear the music while doctors and family were discussing his planned exit from this life? No one, not even Tommy can be sure about that. One thing is for sure: it didn’t hurt. And if anyone wants to attach a little healing power to the sounds of rock and roll, so be it.
Ten months later, he’s driving, still appearing at Corn Bread Festivals and Entertainers Reunions, and putting together what is sure to be an eye-catching outfit for his induction into the 2013 class of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame on Saturday May 4. He’s determined to make it this time, and deliver the acceptance speech his friends thought would never take place. Yes, his appearance will be accompanied by sound clips and music from his old radio shows. After all, it’s his lifeblood.
Tommy is quick to credit his faith and his doctors for bringing him back from the brink of death’s door. Charlene says, “We give much credit to the doctors, like David Denman. And Tommy and I know the real reason he is here is God.” But the man who loves his fans like no other radio personality can’t hide a smile when it’s suggested that maybe rock and roll had something to do with it. “There’s nothing like music,” he says. “It’s been a big part of my whole life.”
As for me, I’m instructing my family to keep some Tommy Jett CDs handy, just in case I’m ever the subject of those serious hospital conversations. Crank up “TJ the DJ” for me. That might make me want to stick around a while longer too.