An unexpected epilogue to the story of an accidental hero
by Jack Neely
I had a strong suspicion that I'd left something out, a couple of weeks ago, when I wrote the column about the toppled stone monument to junkman William Walker, who died in 1964 trying to prevent a truck accident. A couple of downtown folks are old enough to remember how that monument, on a Randolph Street sidewalk near Magnolia, got there. I never guessed that I'd learn the full story from Randy Tyree's scrapbook.
Walker was pushing his handcart one Friday morning when he attempted to prevent a runaway tractor-trailor truck from crashing into another; he was crushed between the two trucks. Both trucks were owned by Harrison's ProduceAKA Harrison's Chicken Citywhich is still located nearby. I figured Harrison's had sprung for the monument out of gratitude. They apparently didn't have anything to do with it.
As it turns out, the man whose efforts led to the installation of the monument was a young law-school student from Lebanon, Tenn., who had read about the story in the paper. His name was Randy Tyree.
It was more than a decade before we elected him mayor. If you'd heard of Randy Tyree at all in 1964, it was because you'd read that he and a friend had saved a man who appeared to be drowning in the river near UT. Tyree was then a counselor in the old South Stadium dormitory when one afternoon he and some others heard cries for help. Outside, they saw a man far out in the water, struggling near the railroad-bridge pier as four policemen watched him helplessly. Tyree and his friend Dave Long jumped into the cold water and pulled the man back to shore.
The story got some press, Tyree earned commendations from UT's administration and the governor's office. About a month later, when Tyree read about Walker, he wondered whether a pushcart junkman would get a load of honors comparable to those accorded to a young college student. Tyree wrote a letter to the paper calling Walker a "genuine hero...Will the fact that he was a junk dealer pushing a cart instead of a UT student pushing a pen have any bearing on what action will be taken?"
Tyree's letter caught the attention of the venerable Bert Vincent. I first started reading the News-Sentinel when I was about nine,for exactly two reasons: the funnies and Bert Vincent's "Strolling" column. Bert always had a story to tell that was funny or strange or touching, usually about something right around the corner. I started reading it because my grandparents were always paraphrasing his stories, and I wanted to keep up. Vincent's trade seemed to me like a pretty good way to make a living.
Anyway, I found in Randy Tyree's scrapbook a series of columns that Bert Vincent had written before I was able to read them. They were all about the junkman Walker and the young student's efforts to commemorate his life and death. Vincent sponsored an informal contest to come up with the best epitaph for Walker. (The winner was Mrs. Merritt Moore of West Hills, who had come up with the apt phrase, "He lived humbly, but died nobly.")
The story got around. Scores of citizens, some as far away as Las Vegas, contributed money to the effort, but in the end, Padgett Marble Co. contributed the monument, inscribed and installed, and donations were returned. Mayor Leonard Rogers dedicated the monument on a rainy Friday morning in March, 1965, with a speech. Rogers said he hoped that for many years to come each passerby who saw the marker would "be inspired to make sacrifices on behalf of his fellow man."
Now, of course, it's lying on its back. Tyree says the marker was originally at the site of the accident, on Hudson Avenue at Randolph. A year or so after it was erected, Tyree had plenty of opportunity to check on it. Still a law student, Tyree was moonlighting as a KPD patrolman, and Magnolia Avenue was his beat. It was always in good shape, in a place where lots of pedestrians saw it every day.
A few years later, improvements to the Business Loop freeway connection erased Hudson Street altogether. Bereft of a street, the marker migrated south down Randolph toward Magnolia.
Considering that move, and the fact that the monument's now toppled on its side, it's interesting that there was a little controversy about siting the monument on a downtown street. A woman wrote Vincent recalling a memorial to a drowned girl that once stood in old Emory Park, which was just three or four blocks west of this site, at the north end of Gay Street. The monument disappeared in the '50s when that old park became a parking lot. Downtown was just too capricious, she seemed to say, no place for anything permanent.
Tyree, who's now a lawyer with a firm on Market Street, still keeps that scrapbook pasted with Bert Vincent's columns about William Walker along with a news photo of the new marker with Mayor Rogers standing in a long raincoat, and the dead man's elderly mother, Myrtle Walker, in a shawland, between them, a boyish young man named Randy.
I also got a correction on that column. I alleged that Smoky's Hen House, which is on Randolph just across the street from the Walker monument, is a barbecue joint, and it is not. I was thrown off by the orange-and-white trailer in the parking lot that says SMOKY'S BAR-B-Q. I also, for some reason, called it a "windowless" place. I don't know what got into me. Smoky's has three windows, in fact, though they tend to keep their blinds closed. Smoky's is open weekdays for lunch only, and is especially proud of its cheeseburgers. I mean to drop in sometime.