That's right: Bob Battle was a newspaperman, practically born one.
There remain fewer and fewer daily newspapers, as they struggle to survive in a digital age. And there remain even fewer newsroom figures the likes of Battle, who died Jan. 22, 2010, at age 82. He was as throwback, as colorful and competitive and feisty as the times when newspapers were must-reads — morning, noon and night — and when working for the newspaper above all meant giving a damn about your city — morning, noon and night.
Early in his long career at the afternoon Nashville Banner, Battle once accompanied a police officer to a stakeout just outside town.
"Here, Bob," said the cop, handing the wide-eyed Battle a shotgun. "I'll take the front of the house. You've got the back."
Then there was the time Battle, by then a top Banner editor, toured the Governor's Mansion with a press group. As the cluster moved from room to room and had just left the governor's office, a straggler fell behind.
That would be Bob Battle, quickly rifling the governor's desktop Rolodex in search of phone numbers to add to his roster of high-powered news sources.
Battle's newspaper folded in February 1998. Grown men wept when Battle departed the city room on the afternoon paper's last day. "I'm gone," he declared, with a theatrical wave of his arm, head bowed to his high-waisted belt buckle, in an emotion-choked, Southern-fried drawl.
Some of those dabbing tears were public relations figures, who revered Battle as an editor who never met a news release he couldn't find a way to shoehorn into the business section, sometimes with his byline attached. What the hell. He'd trained many a PR flack. Might as well have been his copy.
"Bring the hay down to where the goats can eat it," was a favored Battle description for clear, readable writing when guiding a young reporter. Battle was born and raised on a farm and eventually retired to rural College Grove with his beloved wife, Libby.
Upon the Banner's death, then-editor Ted Power of the rival Tennessean off-shoot Williamson AM wisely added much-needed soul to the heavily formatted section by taking on Battle's farm-flecked weekly column. The prose focused on country life and easier times, on homegrown tomatoes and judging barbecue cook-offs.
Battle's stories and columns were never going to win a Pulitzer Prize. But he damn well knew how to spell Joseph Pulitzer. And if he'd lived and worked during that bygone time, he damn sure would have known Pulitzer's favorite bottle of scotch. Godspeed, Doc-tuh.
ARTHUR H. "MIKE" BUHL III
Teacher, University School of Nashville
You think you know a guy. But when the assembled crowd at Mike Buhl's memorial service last September started sharing stories over the sounds of a jazz trio, clinking glasses between laughter and tears, everyone in attendance learned something new about the man by the end of the evening. Most people knew Mike as a longtime teacher at University School of Nashville, where his beloved curmudgeon shtick frightened a generation of high school students into a new level of commitment to intellectual curiosity. Woe be unto a senior who entered into a philosophical debate with Big Mike without first developing a thoughtful argument. You'd better bring your A game.
Others crossed paths with Mike in his role as a founding member of the Buddhist Temple in Nashville or as a member of the Community Advisory Council of the Legal Aid Society. He was also an active volunteer for Nashville Cares and the YMCA Youth in Government and Model United Nations programs. As a donor, Mike provided the assistance to bring a Buddhist monk to visit Nashville's temple for the first time. The USN library overflows with books bearing his "ex libris" stamp, and he and his wife Iris literally gave the roof over the heads to their son Michael's alma mater so that USN's headmaster can now and forever live in The Buhl House.
A true renaissance man, Mike was the wrench-holder, chief cook and bottle washer for a vintage auto racing team, and he held the distinction of being the only customer of Bongo Java to merit his own button on the cash register for his regular order, The Morning Mike. In the months since he passed away after an accident last summer, I swear I have seen him or men who share his wry smile 20 times on the street, in restaurants, libraries or in coffee shops. Even though I realize it's not really him, I know why I still see Mike everywhere.
I find it telling that Sigourney wrote in present tense. Because that's how she lived her life. Not for her the distance, the finality imposed by past tense. For Sigourney — don't dare accent the second syllable like that Weaver woman — every day was an adventure in immediacy, a work in progress. And her sharp-edged personality sliced right through it all.
I came to know that personality during my five years as museum curator at Cheekwood in the early '90s. These were unsettled years, with lots of staff turnover. As chair of the institution's board and its virtual — and unpaid — president, Sigourney attacked piles of problems with a relish.
I came to know the face she presented when she'd determined on a course of action: that direct, horizontal gaze, the mouth a thin line creased by a smile at the corners. And I learned that once she'd fixed on a plan, it was hard as hell to un-fix her. Fortunately, she batted better than .500 in the idea department. And I recognized the upside to her stubbornness, the mortar of boundless energy and positive thinking holding Cheekwood together during trying times. So we were friends.
Sigourney had a gift for friendship. Many were forged through the rigors of work: the A-list fundraisers she chaired, the leading roles she played at Belmont University, Christ Church Cathedral, Magdalene House, Vanderbilt's Kennedy Center, the YWCA and additional organizations too numerous to list. Other friends she gathered through her passions for gardening, bridge, needlepoint, travel, the fine arts and interior design.
Still more came with the diagnosis of leukemia in 2005. At first Sigourney gave email medical updates to a small circle of friends. The circle grew as those friends forwarded her messages to others, who asked to be added to the list. What Sigourney wrote expanded from news bites to a highly personal journal. The result was a community and a book, Patient Siggy: Hope and Healing in Cyberspace, in which she describes the wrenching times (chemo hell) and the exhilarating times (the full-fleshed taste of an August tomato) with equal acuteness.
My father had a phrase to describe horses — and, by analogy, people — who negotiate obstacles bravely, precisely, with no shying or refusals: They take their fences cleanly. That was Sigourney Cheek.
DOLPH "BUNNY" HONICKER
Journalist, longtime news editor, The Tennessean
Bunny Honicker's death on Feb. 11, 2010, didn't rate a news story (that I could find) in The Tennessean, the paper where he'd worked for 37 years. It's probably just as well. They didn't part on very good terms.
Dolph Honicker, known to everyone as "Bunny," spent most of his life in daily journalism, working at papers in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and, after retirement, in Georgia. In Montgomery, Ala., at age 24, he covered the court hearing in 1955 where Rosa Parks was fined $10 for not giving up her whites-only seat on a city bus. He started at The Tennessean in 1959 and worked first as a copy editor, then for 25 years as the paper's news editor.
Although Honicker loved what he described as the "wild, turbulent, zany newspaper days" in Nashville, a time he later called "the happiest days of my life," his growing interest and eventual fixation on TVA and the dangers of nuclear power plants led to repeated conflicts with the paper's management.
After numerous warnings about "not letting your work be influenced unprofessionally by your views," Honicker was suspended for three days (about a $600 fine) in late 1995 for using Tennessean stationery to ask for some TVA records under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The problem, according to the paper, was that Honicker was acting on his own, not working on a news story. After a couple of TVA flacks contacted editor Frank Sutherland about the letter, managing editor Dave Green called Honicker out of a news meeting and, according to Bunny, "berated [me] like a naughty school kid and made [me] feel like a criminal." Honicker, who was scheduled to retire soon anyway, wrote Sutherland that he was quitting the paper. Sutherland, to his credit, persuaded Bunny to stay a few more weeks until his retirement date.
Many will remember Bunny for his anti-nuclear views, an obsession he shared with his wife, Jeannine. I worked with him before that started and recall instead the funny, irreverent man who sat behind the copy desk and was very much a part of every "wild, turbulent, zany" day at 1100 Broadway.
I recall early mornings on the tennis court with Bunny, my father, and assorted bleary-eyed Tennessean staffers. I recall the Honickers' happy, kid-filled house on Harding Place, where we would sometimes gather for after-tennis beer and conversation. I recall that Bunny always had an encouraging word for a young reporter or, when I got into trouble, a sympathetic eye roll. He epitomized the "don't let the bastards get you down" attitude that, it seemed to me, everyone in the newsroom shared.
If not quite Camelot, the Tennessean newsroom in the '60s and '70s was, as Honicker wrote, a happy, memorable place for anyone lucky enough to be there. Bunny was one of those who made it that way.
Outsider artist, controversial litigator, collector, Confederate
To most Nashvillians, Jack Kershaw is known simply as the man who created the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest off I-65 surrounded by the flags of the Confederacy. Erected in 1998, the statue has become the butt of jokes, a lightning rod for scorn and, to some, a gleeful symbol that Southern partisans still exist. Most say it's just bad art.
By the time he died at age 96, Kershaw had been whittled down by life. When the new century turned, he was already missing one eye, a thumb and his wife of 50 years. He had also lost the way of life he loved, where races are separate, schools are segregated and white Southern heroes like Forrest and Robert E. Lee are deified. He spoke softly but well, a product of Vanderbilt University (where he earned an undergraduate degree in geology) and Nashville School of Law (where he received his jurisprudence).
Yet he remained an avowed segregationist who believed that blacks had "dumbed down" the public schools and immigrants had threatened the very fabric of America. In the 1950s, as a litigator, Kershaw helped lead the charge against integration of the state's public schools. He represented the men who bombed the Clinton High School in 1957. In the 1970s, he represented James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr. "He needed the best lawyer he could find," Kershaw said, in an interview more than a decade ago. He laughed.
But art was his first love. In the 1940s, as an acquaintance of then-Mayor Ben West, he was instrumental in having art displayed in the Parthenon. "Some people didn't want it," he remembered. "They were fuddy-duddies. But they couldn't close it after we opened it." At the end of his tumultuous life, art remained his only solace — a grave avocation, filled with fecund visions of lost love, martyrdom, and the conflagration he called the War of Southern Independence.
His house near Lipscomb University was a haunted castle of the Confederacy. Hidden by overgrown shrubbery, guarded by dogs and a rusted iron gate, it stood in stark contrast to the well-groomed homes and lawns surrounding it, in the heart of the area where the Battle of Nashville raged. Inside, in his sculpture, paintings and drawings, the battle was still being fought. Visitors were greeted at the front door by the image of a Rebel soldier clad only in the Battle Flag, run through with a bloody sword.
The rambling, rundown mansion was filled with his work. Massive sculptures of burning Southern plantations. Six–foot tree trunks carved and polished into twisting, vaginal forms. An oversized oil painting of his wife, Mary Noel. Nudes. Soldiers. Barren landscapes. The war.
One of his most recent works was a soaring sculpture of Joan of Arc being burned at the stake, a 15-foot inferno of foam and fiberglass painted silver, gray and gold. Many of Kershaw's works involve flame — burning mansions, burning women, images of fire in wood. In life as well as art, it may have been his medium.
"Anything that's fire, I do well," he said.
JAMES T. LEESON JR.
Protean sage, scourge and curmudgeon
E. Thomas Wood
If you never heard of Jim Leeson, that's just how he wanted things.
Ask him about his role in the civil rights movement, and he would steer the conversation from his own activities to the tragicomic foibles of people on all sides of it, white and black.
Ask him about the neurotics, cranks, paupers and princes he mentored in Vanderbilt's Sarratt Tunnel as adult supervisor of the university's student journalists in the 1970s and '80s, and he could cite an instance when just about every one of them had shown his or her (usually his) ass.
In his later years, though, he would go on to speak with paternal pride about the journalistic and literary accomplishments of his former charges. In recent years, for example, three ex-Tunnel Rats (Eric Etheridge, Alex Heard and Charlie Euchner) have published critically acclaimed books about aspects of the civil rights movement.
Ask Jim about this wealthy Franklin pooh-bah or that one, and he would tell you who the guy was sleeping with at the moment. Ask for his praline recipe, and he would change the subject.
Thing is, when you could get Leeson to speak of the civil rights days, his accounts were consistently laced with understanding and even affection toward the racist whites, confused liberals, power-hungry black preachers and corrupt officials of both races that he had in his sights. As editor of the Ford Foundation-backed Southern Education Reporting Service and its successor, the Race Relations Reporter, in the 1960s and '70s, he presided over a non-commercial news operation that sought no public glory but carried influence in high places — following something of a pattern for his later life.
The same ambiguity held when he talked about the people he had mentored at Vanderbilt. His devotion to them was clearly the life's work of this lifelong bachelor. Yet his friendship was often most valuable when he was calling out lapses by those he liked.
Of the many who mourned Jim after he killed himself in May, Nashville author John Egerton may have gotten to his core most effectively:
He was a singular figure, a man virtually unknown publicly yet loved and hated, admired and feared by a broad swath of the rich and famous, poor and anonymous multitude. In the 45 years I knew him, he never did anything except on his own terms. That was his way, no exceptions. I guess death was no different. It would have been out of character for him to go the way most of us go — quietly, with all the unspoken protocols and formalities predictably observed.
Months after Jim's passing, the Williamson County Sheriff's Department gave his executor a handwritten obituary found in his truck:
Jim Leeson died Sunday from a self-inflicted gunshot. He would have been 80 later this month. Leeson has been a real estate broker, writer and editor, a teacher and a cattle farmer. He is survived by 2 nieces.
Below that paragraph, he wrote: "Tom Wood City Paper" and my telephone number.
This Christmas season is the first in more than 20 years that my family has celebrated without a bag of Jim's New Orleans-style pralines at hand. When I hear a big pickup truck coming up the street, I still expect it to lumber into our driveway and Jim to dismount with a grocery bag full of secondhand New Yorkers and Grantas to give us, the way he did most every month. As our daughter goes to bed every night, she turns off a lamp Jim made for her.
And yet, through the works of those he mentored, pestered, cussed and loved, the light he brought into this world still shines.
Veteran copy editor, Nashville Banner
From a Nashville perspective, the last living direct link to the glory days of American sportswriting ended when Bill Roberts died last summer at age 91.
Roberts — a diminutive, tireless, inspiring, eternally cheerful fellow who knew neither strangers nor enemies — never shook the Brooklyn of his youth out of that high-pitched voice, nor his love of the Dodgers. We knew him by "Left-Hander," a nod to his baseball fanaticism and to how he deftly handled a pencil.
And, as every fan of the National Pastime knows, left-handers are special indeed.
Not long after flying on combat missions over Europe as a tail-gunner during World War II, Roberts manned the sports department's copy desk throughout the late Fred Russell's tenure as vice president, sports editor and columnist for the Nashville Banner. Russell's nationally renowned career began in the 1920s and ended only with the Banner's folding in 1998.
Russell's mentor was a national icon, Grantland Rice, the Murfreesboro native and Vanderbilt graduate whose elegant prose gave life to the exploits of Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey and the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame football.
That's a century of sportswriting, for those of you scoring at home. If you had never heard of Bill Roberts before now, that's only because copy editors are the unsung heroes of journalism. In sports parlance, they're utility men who make everyone else look good.
Safe to say that few, if any, in the history of Nashville newpapering edited more copy than Bill Roberts.
After leaving sports, he served as chief of the news copy desk, transitioning effortlessly from the days of manual typewriters and hot type to the latest computers and constantly feeding the Internet beast. Roberts remained one of the best, well into his 70s.
We refused to let him retire, coaxing him into the office for fill-in duty time after time with a 4 a.m. phone call, knowing he'd unfailingly make the drive from his home on Duncanwood to a perch in the newspaper's 1100 Broadway offices within 20 minutes or so.
His beloved wife of 53 years, Mary Anne, finally made us promise to quit calling. We did, with great reluctance.
Until Roberts' death, he still subscribed to the once-essential Sporting News, still exasperatedly circled typos in the newspaper, still watched a baseball or football or basketball or hockey game on TV while simultaneously listening to another on the radio.
Upon the end of his funeral service at a Green Hills church, one of his granddaughters stood up, turned to the crowd, and in a halting voice, asked us to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in honor of her beloved grandpa.
It sounded beautiful. Like it always does. Like it always will.
Founder, American Artisan Festival; cancer's mortal foe
Among the many variations of the traditional welcome to the Jewish Sabbath, there is one, part of a lyric written by Juliet I. Spitzer, that best describes my dearest friend, Nancy Saturn:
"A good woman, so hard to find.
She is more precious than rubies.
Her circle cast with friendships deep,
Full of love and graceful ease —
She is a woman of valor.
She opens her hands to the poor
She does not fear the other,
Extends her heart to those in need,
Encourages her friends to succeed —
She is a woman of valor."
Nancy Saturn was the founder of the American Artisan gallery and American Artisan Festival. The festival was in its 40th year when Nancy died from complications of breast cancer that had been diagnosed in 1995. From the moment of her diagnosis, Nancy's focus moved from her work on myriad nonprofit boards and commissions to helping others with cancer — with a degree of passion that was, indeed, extending "her heart to those in need."
Nancy held auctions and events in her gallery and at her festivals to raise the money needed to open the doors of Gilda's Club Nashville in 1998. Not stopping there, she continued her work to help raise close to $1 million for both Gilda's Club and the launch of The Tennessee Breast Cancer Coalition.
Along with her adoring husband, Alan Saturn, who preceded her in death by just eight months, Nancy was an extraordinary collector of art, of lifelong friendships and of a loving closeness with her daughters, grandchildren and other family members.
She was a woman of valor.
ARTS & LETTERS REMEMBERED
Vanderbilt German professor, author, pianist and scholar
GERALD LYNN MOORE
Founder and director of the Nashville Early Music Ensemble, professor of music at Lipscomb University for 32 years
HAL REED RAMER
Founding president of Volunteer State Community College, a position he held for 33 years
Journalist, longtime managing editor,
In his heyday, the Tennessean's legendary managing editor was proof that if you wanted to run a city, running a newspaper topped running for office. A 1965 Time magazine article featured him as an example of influential City Hall columnists, and his "Metro Beat" column and coverage were instrumental in shaping support for the Metro Charter that created Metropolitan Nashville. "When I was working on a story and trying to call all the members of the Metro Council to ask each one how he was going to vote on an upcoming bill," Henry Walker wrote on a Post Politics comment thread after Whitt's death, "the city editor finally said, 'Never mind. Just call Whitt and ask him how he's going to tell them to vote.' "
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