Monday, November 9, 2009

Our Back Pages: This Week in Print Over the Years

Posted By on Mon, Nov 9, 2009 at 3:50 PM

Our Back Pages brings you tidbits of this week in Nashville history from near and far, chronologically speaking.

This edition: Remembering an agent of change at one of the city's most old-fashioned institutions, Montgomery Bell Academy. Also: Stern words for Baptist Hospital, and a new source of tales about Old Nashville.
click to enlarge Clinton_2BPaschall_sm.jpg
1993: To love that well which thou must leave ere long

This week 16 years ago, the students and faculty of Montgomery Bell Academy were abruptly thrust into a tutorial on how to live--and how to die.

Under the leadership of Headmaster Douglas D. Paschall for the past six years, MBA had embarked on a dramatic transformation of its educational mission. The all-boys school, founded in 1867, had gone through an identity crisis in the late 1970s and early 1980s amid dissonance between its staunch traditionalist ways and changes in the outside world. When Paschall arrived in 1986, it had barely begun to admit minority students, much less to encourage applications from them. The prevailing academic environment seemed to devalue the pursuit of any activities beyond the core subjects. And the initiation of younger students into the MBA system, with its exacting standards of behavior and performance, amounted at times to a sort of emotional hazing.

With support from new board of trustees Chairman Ridley Wills II, Paschall set about reinvigorating MBA. The arts, music and public service all became central to students' experience alongside the traditional disciplines. Enhanced financial aid programs and recruitment efforts began to make the student body more diverse both racially and socially. The first African-American faculty members were hired. More generally, Paschall tried to set a nurturing tone on campus. By most accounts, he was succeeding in turning MBA into a very different place from what it had been throughout its first 120 years.

His work aside, Paschall was just a fun guy to be around. He had seemed to collect friends and admirers throughout his life--as a football star at the University of the South, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, as a popular professor back at Sewanee, and then in Nashville. It was a measure of his breadth of interests and influence that his personal network encompassed the likes of poet Reynolds Price, country singer Radney Foster and President Bill Clinton.

A 1996 article in Nashville Life recounted a moment on the Nashville party circuit that was followed by a moment nobody then present at MBA will ever forget:
At a dinner party in October 1993, guests prevailed on Paschall to recite a poem, as they so often did in such situations. He smiled at the ceiling, searching his mind for the right verse. He looked slightly drained that Sunday night, but did not mention that he had not been feeling well for several weeks. Following some chin-scratching, Paschall announced he would recite "the most perfect poem in the English language," Shakespeare's 73rd Sonnet:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold...

He made it about halfway through, past image after image of mortality. Then, to the great surprise of all present, he paused and said he had forgotten a line. A former student supplied it, and Paschall moved on to the final couplet:

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

About two weeks later, the headmaster summoned Wills to his office. "Ridley, I'm a dead man," Paschall said.

On Sunday, November 14, as faculty members arrived on campus to host an open house for prospective students, they found a note requesting their presence at a meeting after the guests had left. Paschall stood before the faculty in the library's audio-visual room.

"I am resigning as headmaster, effective June 30 of next year," he began. "I have been definitely diagnosed with an inoperable and incurable cancer."
The next morning, Paschall told a hushed student assembly of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He said he would keep working as long as he could and take each day as it came. He repeated what he had told the faculty the day before: "Perhaps we'll all learn more this year than the textbooks have to offer."

Douglas Paschall lived to preside over an emotional commencement ceremony the following May. He died on December 23, 1994. On the morning after Christmas, an overflow crowd packed downtown's Christ Church for his funeral. Ridley Wills read from a letter the family had received:
Dear Rosie, Rachel and Andrew,
Though I have known for some time that this day would come, I am so sad and so sorry to see Doug go.
From the days of our first meeting at Oxford, I always felt a special bond with him and loved being with him.
If ever a man were more than the sum of his parts, it was Doug. He was a fine athlete, a great scholar, and he looked like a movie star, but no one could ever resent him. His hardy laugh, dancing eyes, and constant concern for others lifted all of us who were fortunate enough to be his friends.
I will always be grateful for the good times we shared as young men, the good advice he gave, the profound impact he had on his students, the wonderful visit we all had when your family came to stay at the White House, and most of all, for the enduring strength, reassurance, and joy of his friendship.
How we all wish there had been more years, but what a life he had, by the grace of God, and has still, in God's embrace.
Sincerely, Bill Clinton
1998: Endgame at Baptist Hospital

Eleven years ago, the Scene's Willy Stern had the bastion of "King David" Stringfield squarely in his sights. A November 12 story followed up on Stern's devastating 1997 exposé of Stringfield's misrule at the helm of Baptist Hospital, revealing that an executive who doled out building contracts there had bought a piece of real estate from a construction firm for a fraction of its appraised value. Stringfield had ceded operational control of the hospital a month earlier, but he remained chairman.
The charges are yet one more controversy at Baptist Hospital, where a new president was brought in only last month to replace the former president and chief executive officer, C. David Stringfield. One of the largest non-profit hospitals in the city, with hospitals in several other Middle Tennessee cities, Baptist Hospital has struggled in recent years. As first reported by the Scene in July 1997, the hospital has been the focus of an Internal Revenue Service audit. Documents filed in U.S. Tax Court in 1996 show IRS officials have "reviewed evidence that indicated that the hospital failed to operate exclusively for charitable purposes and that portions of the hospital's net earnings inured to the benefit of private individuals."
Maybe Stern's piece was the last straw, or maybe it was just coincidence that Baptist's trustees removed Stringfield as chairman the following week.

Only years later would news emerge of the goodbye kiss the board planted on Stringfield as it ushered him out the door:
In addition to a lifetime monthly pension of $4,820, Baptist paid Stringfield about $14,600 a month for three years after its board forced him from his position in November 1998. The hospital then paid him a lump sum of $3.5 million, making the severance deal worth roughly $4 million in total.
History happenings:

George Zepp, who writes the excellent "Learn Nashville" column for The Tennessean, will sign copies of his new book Hidden History of Nashville at the Metro Archives in Green Hills this Wednesday Thursday, Nov. 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The book compiles some of Zepp's best columns, which often bring to light neglected personalities from Nashville's past -- folks like Cortelia Clark, the blind bluesman who continued to perform on street corners after winning a Grammy award, and Heaven Lee, the '70s stripper who stole the city's heart.

Zepp will also have a signing in Clarksville next week.

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