The Call: How dramatic phone calls changed Tennesseans' lives

Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 10:05pm

About 20 minutes after 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, I got a phone call. It was from Tom Wood, a former and City Paper reporter, telling me to turn on the news. 

“I think they got bin Laden,” he said. 

Undoubtedly, some of you got that news in a similar way. It was all over television, Facebook and Twitter. You might’ve gotten a text or email. Still, the telephone — that century-plus-old technological invention — was the siren for many. 

The death of Osama bin Laden would become one of those events that stick in the national consciousness. You remember where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing. It will likely wind up in league with similar events of consequence, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the Challenger disaster, moments that are suspended in the amber of your mind forever. 

While the death of bin Laden was a moment shared among the masses, it was different for those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11. Just as it was then, their moment on May 1 was both intensely private and overwhelmingly public. 

One of my most vivid memories of that day was sitting in an office with Rob Naylor, then a co-worker, who is from New York. On that day he sat silently in his office as most of Nashville was glued to televisions. He was waiting for a phone call. His aunt worked on the 85th floor of Tower 1, World Trade Center. 

The call alerting me to bin Laden’s death was the kind of news those who had families at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or on one of the planes that day had been awaiting almost a decade. My attachment to that news basically ends with my American-ness; for people like Rob, it was about family. 

I hadn’t spoken to Rob in at least five years, and that night I got to wonder: What was it like when he finally got the call about his aunt on Sept. 11? 

I wanted to know how it changed him, moved him. I also wanted to get at how one phone call, placed or received, can result in a shared experience for the masses but be deeply personal to a small group. Here are some of those calls. 


The Tennessean links up

Until Feb. 20, 1998, Nashville was divided between those who swore allegiance by subscription to either the Nashville Banner or The Tennessean

In the heyday of both news organizations, there was hard competition to be the first to deliver important breaking news. Be it the death of country star David “Stringbean” Akeman or the troubles of Gov. Blanton, the news-gathering battle was intense. 

The general in charge of The Tennessean at the time was one of the nation’s most-respected journalists, John Seigenthaler. He recalled the battles and a time of transition.

“Gannett bought the Nashville Banner in 1972, substantially turning a right-wing racist paper into a successful middle-of-the-road one. Our competition continued, but Gannett didn’t like to be second, so they decided to buy The Tennessean.

“Given the way estate taxes were, family-owned papers sold to big groups, they were basically forced to sell. Amon Evans [chief executive of The Tennessean from 1961-79] would have had to borrow millions if he wanted to keep the paper in the family — somewhere around $40 to $50 million. The Nashville market was worth about $80 million.”

To buy The Tennessean, though, Gannett would have to sell the Banner. The company began negotiating both deals; ultimately, it sold the Banner to John Jay Hooker Jr., Irby Simpkins and Brownlee Curry for around $25 million. (The Banner operated for another 19 years before folding in February 1998.)

“Al Neuharth, who ran Gannett then, he and I would debate,” Seigenthaler said. “I called these ‘newspaper groups’ newspaper chains, and they would say ‘groups.’ We even debated the merits of group versus family ownership of newspapers before at a convention in Honolulu. 

“There was no surprise. It was obvious that The Tennessean was going to be sold to the newspaper ‘group’ Gannett in 1979, as the Evans were selling because of the estate tax.” 

Neuharth called Seigenthaler on July 3 with the news. “He said, ‘Tomorrow is Independence Day, and that is the day you are being sold into chains,’ ” Seigenthaler said.

Seigenthaler continued working for The Tennessean until his retirement in 1991. He also served as editorial director of Gannett-owned USA Today from 1982 until 1991 and is the founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. 


The forced exit of Gov. Ray Blanton

On the night of Wednesday, Jan. 17, 1979, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Bill Koch — then a deputy for Attorney General Bill Leach — was working with a group of lawyers to find a way to swear-in Gov.-elect Lamar Alexander three days early. 

Koch, a legal adviser to the state’s elected officials, was part of an effort to blunt concerns that in the last hours of Gov. Ray Blanton’s term, he would sign pardons and paroles of some 50 state inmates. The fear was warranted: Several members of Blanton’s inner circle were eventually convicted of selling pardons and paroles. 

Sometime between 5:30 and 6 p.m. on Jan. 17, Koch, along with then-Speaker of the House Ned McWherter, Lt. Gov. John Wilder, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Joe Henry, McWherter chief of staff Jim Kennedy, Secretary of State Gentry Crowell, Treasurer Harlan Mathews, Leach and others, huddled at the Supreme Court chambers.

“The agreement was that oath would take place, with all the constitutionals there so that the public knew it was a consensus decision,” Koch said. 

Then they had to break the news to Blanton. The group decided a phone call would be courteous but didn’t want to give Blanton enough time to make a counterstrike. 

“McWherter asked Kennedy if he had Blanton’s new number at his private home,” Koch said. Kennedy dials, then hands the phone to McWherter. “Betty Blanton answers the phone, and she and McWherter exchange pleasantries. Ned then says, ‘May I speak to the governor?’ ” After he explained what happened next, Koch showed me documentary footage of McWherter, who died in April, recounting the story. 

“About the time [Blanton] came to the phone and I hear the word, ‘Hello,’ [Attorney General] Leach was standing there right by me,” McWherter said. “And I just passed the phone to Leach and said, ‘Here Bill, you tell him.’ And so Leach told him, I could hear what he said. He said ‘Gov. Blanton, we are here with the speaker of the Senate, the speaker of the House, Wilder is here, McWherter is here, the Supreme Court is here, and we are about to swear Gov. Alexander in early. He is here at present, and within five minutes he will be the new governor of the state of Tennessee officially.’ ”

Blanton screamed “The hell you say!” loud enough that others in the room heard him through the receiver. Then Leach hung up the phone. 


Conceding defeat

Phil Bredesen served as mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999 and as governor of Tennessee from 2003 to 2011. He’s been credited with bringing the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators to town, as well as guiding the state through precarious financial times. 

While Bredesen is known more today for his political victories, there were losses along the way. In 1987, he lost a mayor’s race to then-Congressman Bill Boner. The next year, he lost a congressional race to Bob Clement, the son of a former governor.

But for Bredesen, none was as crippling as the loss on Nov. 6, 1994. That night, he made a phone call that would come to define his political career: conceding to Gov.-elect Don Sundquist. 

“I stepped into a hallway, just with [longtime political adviser] Dave Cooley, and we talked about it was time to make the call. He [Sundquist] was pretty cool toward me — he wasn’t obnoxious toward me, just cool and proper. The call lasted about 30 seconds.

“I knew at the time it was a major juncture. I regard that as the single biggest shortfall, the time I got hit the hardest, the biggest blow. 

“I stepped back into the room for family time. It was fairly quiet — somber would be too strong a word. There was a relief that it was over.” 

Had Bredesen won, of course, Nashville probably wouldn’t have the Titans or the Predators, as he wouldn’t have been mayor when those opportunities arose. Nor would Bredesen have been as successful a governor at that time in his life, he suggested. Still, the loss stung. 

“When I ended up losing that race, it was a sore loss,” he said. “It pretty much put an end to a lot of possibilities — national office … a national career, losing that race slammed that door. 

“That call was the major fork in the road in my political life.” 


The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Kelly Miller Smith Jr. is the pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill. The church has long been recognized as a beacon for the city during the turbulent years of the civil rights movement. Smith assumed his pastoral duties there in 2010, after serving as pastor at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Knoxville.

When Smith walked through the doors to deliver his first sermon as full-time pastor last year, it was in some ways a step back in time. From 1951 until his death in 1984, Smith’s father, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Sr. led the church. Working with the NAACP and Nashville Christian Leadership Council — as well as his stand during the student sit-in movement that led to the desegregation of Nashville lunch counters — Smith Sr. became one of Nashville’s most important figures in the fight for equality. 

He was also a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. The King and Smith families dined together when in the same city, and the two men shared the same philosophy of nonviolence in the battle for civil rights. 

On April 4, 1968, the phone rang at the Smith home. 

Smith Jr., 14, came in from playing ball. “My mother was just hanging up the phone with my father, who was still at the church office. Someone had called him there,” Smith Jr. said. “I remember her telling me and the shock I felt. We knew him well, and he was a household name. It was a tremendous blow.

“My father came home that night at his normal time. He was hurt. There was so much work to be done. We knew the difficulty ahead and knew the impact and the import of the moment. It was a great shock — what happens now? I remember watching my father on the phone with people, telling them to follow the course of nonviolence.” 

Smith Sr. drove his family to Atlanta for King’s funeral, on April 9, 1968. 


Coming home from death row

For 22 years, Paul House of Crossville, Tenn., sat on death row in a Tennessee prison, convicted of the rape and murder of neighbor Carolyn Muncey in 1985. Through it all, he proclaimed his innocence. And for the entire two-plus decades, his mother, Joyce, believed the same. 

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that new DNA evidence could have led a jury to acquit Paul. That decision vacated the death sentence, and he was up for a new trial, should prosecutors decide to pursue the case. 

While the House family was in limbo over a new trial, they also awaited word on whether he could come home for the first time in decades. Confined to a wheelchair after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while in prison, Paul could be placed under house arrest with the aid of a monitoring device. 

On the afternoon of July 1, 2008, Joyce got the call she had been waiting for. It came from attorney Dale Potter, who said Paul would be released the next day. 

“My knees buckled, I was crying, having waited so long for justice to be served,” she said. “I was on cloud nine, actually, and stayed up for three days. I called all the family and told them.”

Joyce said she’s been told before that Paul would get out, only to be crushed when he didn’t. But sure enough, when she got off her night-shift job at 6 a.m. the next morning, Potter picked her up and they drove to Riverbend, the maximum-security prison in Nashville. Paul was in the special-needs unit. 

“When we got there, they let us in and we changed his clothes,” she said. “It was the happiest day of my life, other than the day my children were born. The whole ride home he had a big smile. He was so excited, saying over and over again while looking out the window, ‘It is so pretty out there … so pretty.’ ” 

On May 12, 2009, Union County District Attorney Paul Phillips filed a petition to drop all charges against Paul House. In the petition, Phillips said he still believes House was involved in Muncey’s death, but acknowledged the DNA evidence presented significant reasonable doubt.


A dream on the line

For Jake Locker, the NFL draft was a numbers game.

“The only numbers I was worried about were the ones from the teams,” he said. “I knew the area codes basically. So I knew when ‘615’ popped up, I knew it was probably a good thing.”

He was right. In April, the Tennessee Titans called to tell him he was the eighth overall selection and the second quarterback taken.

The call ultimately will mean millions in the bank but also immediately saddled him with expectations and a bit of pressure.

The University of Washington product said he ignored many of the calls he received that day as he waited with family and friends at the home of an aunt and uncle in Ferndale, Wash.

When Locker did answer the one from the “615” area code, the voice was a woman’s, that of Alesia Schulz, general manager Mike Reinfeldt’s executive assistant. The phone was soon passed to many members of the coaching staff.

“It did kind of blur together,” Locker said. “There was just a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm about having the opportunity to work with them.”

Many believe the call came later than needed. Had Locker declared himself eligible for the draft in 2010, following his junior season, analysts felt he might have been the first player taken overall.

For his part, though, Locker never counted the draft as any sort of certainty.

“It was a dream come true,” he said. “For me, at least, I never thought it would happen until it did.”

David Boclair

Rob Naylor and Sept. 11 

On Sept. 11, 2001, Rob Naylor worked as an account executive for the public relations firm McNeely Pigott & Fox. His aunt, Gail Ritzert, was a partner in the law firm Ohrenstein & Brown LLP, with offices on the 85th floor of Tower 1, World Trade Center.

Naylor was driving on Interstate 40 listening to NPR on the pleasant Tuesday morning. He was at White Bridge Road when he heard the first (inaccurate, as we later learned) report that a Cessna had collided with a World Trade Center tower. By the time he arrived at his office, the second plane had hit. He searched the Web for anything more up-to-the-minute than TV, but to no avail: Sites were crashing under the traffic load. 

As he sat in his office, he heard someone say the first tower collapsed. He called his parents, but they were also in the dark as to his aunt’s status. 

“Time stood still. There was a ratcheted-up sense of urgency when the second tower fell,” Naylor said. “I finally got the call from my mom around 1:30. My aunt had decided to go work out of an office in Garden City, Long Island, that day — before anything had happened. 

“It was a total relief, and I was drained. All that tension that built up, every ounce of energy I had went with it.”

Naylor got through to his aunt the next day; three people from her office were killed. 

“At family gatherings we have talked some, but if can you believe it, we choose not to talk much about that day,” he said.  

5 Comments on this post:

By: drusie on 7/11/11 at 5:55

Nice Ken! Thanks for recalling these history-making phone calls for us...

By: treehugger7 on 7/11/11 at 6:08

Interesting stuff! I moved here in '79, just in time for the Blanton fiasco. I was amazed that this was happening. My thoughts were "what kind of crazy place have I ended up in?" My thoughts haven't changed much. WE had a couple good governors, and now we have Haslam. Makes me long for the good old days...pre Tea partry.

By: pswindle on 7/11/11 at 8:45

I feel that by removing Gov. Blanton three days early was just another dirty trick by the GOP. There was no reason to remove him early. He did not do anything that other governors had done, but the GOP just wanted to make a statement. I agree, look where we are now. We now have an a governor that is in over his head and a House and Senate of TN that is only interested in removing our rights to their own social issues that they believe in.

By: localboy on 7/11/11 at 9:11

"n the heyday of both news organizations, there was hard competition to be the first to deliver important breaking news. Be it the death of country star David “Stringbean” Akeman or the troubles of Gov. Blanton, the news-gathering battle was intense.

The general in charge of The Tennessean at the time was one of the nation’s most-respected journalists, John Seigenthaler."
Ah, back when men were men, women were women, and The Tennessean regularly beat that society-page loving facist rag like a Confederate mule. Under Mr. Seigenthaler the paper had direction and purpose and you knew where they stood on an issue...not the piece of milquetoast it's become in this day and age. Although now we do get more baseball box scores since they decided to directly lift part of the sports section from USA TODAY.

By: govskeptic on 7/11/11 at 10:00

So, pswindle thinks Blanton was tricked and treated unfairly. What a joke of a Governor
he was: Sold late model fairly new vehicles to his secretary & friends at salvage prices, only closest of friends or supporters got new retail liquor store license, and then wound up selling prison pardons. The rush to swear in someone else was
because of rumors of many more pardons about to be issued. What a thinker!