Big John Tate
Big John Tate died in early spring, a victim of a bad heart, drug abuse, a pick-up truck wreck, and the modern age. Tate reigned for a brief moment in the '70s as the World Heavyweight Boxing champ, but by 1998, he had been down so long he didn't know which way was up. Homeless, penniless and having run through a fortune and most all the friends he knew, Tate was trying to re-create himself as "the Hardest-Working Man in the Cleanup Business," and trudged all over town in muddy work boots, with rakes and shovels thrown over his shoulder. He had a bright smile and good intentions, of which he generally fell short. His last "address" was an abandoned Cadillac. He always did like Cadillacs.
Cas Walker was 96 when he died this early fall. Walker's presence helped make Knoxville what it was for half of the 20th century. Whether that's good or bad depends on who you talk to. Was he a mean old man who had a vise grip on the city's working class and used them for his own crabbed ends? Or was he a champion of the common citizen who gave voice to their fears and their needs, fearlessly facing down the Silk Stocking Crowd as he hawked his groceries and punished his enemies? Once again, depends on who you talk to. Councilman, mayor, TV personality, grocery store baron, he was doing infomercials before anybody invented themand he introduced the world to Dolly Parton.
Philanthropist Monica Cole died in Knoxville on December 17. Widow of the founder of Cole Drug Stores, she was a major benefactor of the Knoxville Opera Company, neuroscience-related research, and many other causes. The Cole Neuroscience Center at the UT Medical Center was named in her honor.
Wilderness activist Ernest Dickerman died at his remote cabin in the mountains of western Virginia. The longtime Knoxvillianhe lived for years at the downtown YMCAco-founded the influential Wilderness Society in the 1930s, and as a persuasive lobbyist, helped pass the Wilderness Act of 1964. By the time he left Knoxville, he thought the Smokies had already been too compromised by man's intrusion.
One of Knoxville's most prominent businessmen, Baxter Lee died here last summer. His janitorial services company, which did business globally, had more employees than any other Knoxville-based business. He was also a major benefactor of Maryville College and the Knoxville Symphony, among other philanthropies.
Presbyterian minister Merrill Proudfoot was a professor at Knoxville College when he wrote Diary of a Sit-In, the best-known account of the civil-rights struggle in Knoxville in 1960, and one of the most vivid accounts of that era anywhere. He died in Kansas City, where he had spent his later years.
Labor activist Lucille Thornburgh died in Knoxville. In 1934, she was the 26-year-old employee of Cherokee Mills who became a local leader of the regional textile-industry strike legendary as the Uprising of '34. Blacklisted from her chosen trade, Thornburgh became longtime editor of the East Tennessee Labor News and a friend to underdog causes.
The lady who lived in the big house behind the brick wall on Lyons View for most of the century died this year; divorced and childless, the reclusive and sometimes controversial 99-year-old heiress left most of her enormous houseappraised as the most valuable one in Knoxville in the 1950sto the university.