I didn’t like newspaper publisher Ron Fryar’s assignment.
I recall thinking: “How boring this is going to be … both to our readers, and to me, the writer.”
The assignment came via email: “Whittle, I need you to do a series of stories about historic cemeteries in Cannon County.”
Another initial thought popped in my now feverish, intensely-aggravated mind: “Damn, this is going to be one labor-intensive assignment … taking lots of research and time, not to mention tiring treks in the hot summertime through countless cemeteries, some of which will be over-run with weeds and chiggers that relish invading my trousers.”
In frustration, I labeled my new assignment: “I’m on the death beat now!”
However, it wasn’t long before I started seeing the bright side of the assignment.
First positive thought bubbled up that a cemetery series would allow me to recount to readers my special friendship with Cannon County’s overall-wearing vegetable garden growing/whopper story telling legend C.L. Vickers, who is buried in Bradyville Pike’s Thyatira Cemetery, one of the region’s most unique-named cemeteries.
C.L. was one my best sources for colorful stories, and I still miss him.
Being a veteran newspaperman, I have sources planted over multiple states.
Subsequent research helped me cultivate a new source, to wit, lifelong Woodbury resident Bobby Womack, who has evolved into one of my most valued friends for life.
Bobby directed me to a man who turned out to be an authoritative expert on cemeteries in the beautiful meandering rolling hills of Cannon County. Seeing those beautiful country scenes became another positive.
I keyed in the suggested source’s phone number: “Mr. Joe Davenport, this is Dan Whittle. My publisher has ordered me to do a series of stories about cemeteries … can you help me?”
Bobby had certainly channeled me to the right man, for Mr. Joe Davenport is walking/talking encyclopedia of history.
“Just call me Joe,” retired school superintendent/history teaching professor Mr. Davenport instructed, which put me at ease.
How much history does “Joe” know? So much, he’s the president of the Cannon County Historical Association.
By the time Joe and I had trekked through a few cemeteries, all negative thoughts about the cemetery assignment had evaporated.
I recall thinking, “Joe must have been an awesome history teacher, for he sure knows how to make cemetery history come alive” as we moseyed through numerous cemeteries.
Now, fast forward to the present: Last week, while wife Pat and I were breaking bread at a public eatery, my phone rang … “Dan, this you’re your favorite publisher: One of your stories just won first place as the best feature story, as judged by our peers in the Tennessee Press Association.”
“Hey, that’s exciting,” I expressed in joyful shock. “Which story?”
“It was one of your cemetery series,” publisher confirmed.
“Why yes, Mr. Publisher, and I might add that was one of the best assignments you ever gave me,” I whimpered lamely.
“Whittle, your suck up attempt won’t work,” Publisher Fryar confirmed. “I remember all of your whining and belly-aching.”
As it turned out, the feature was about Melton Cemetery, up on history-laden Short Mountain that gives rest to a bloody, tumultuous past when neighbors stalked neighbors, sometimes in the name of patriotism, sometimes in harsh malice and greed, but all a part of this nation’s inglorious War Between the States.
In Melton Cemetery, on state Route 146 between Woodbury and Smithville, rests the remains of Confederate Guerilla Fighter Hiram T. “Pomp” Kersey.
After publisher had reminded me of my whining, I thought of another misconception I had going into the cemetery series Courier Editor Mike West and I eventually entitled: “History Lives Here.”
Of all the cemeteries Joe Davenport and I trudged through, not one was over-run with weeds due to neglect, which speaks well of Cannon County folks and their respect for ancestors.
Plus, there was one other BIG POSITIVE from the cemetery series: I received not one CHIGGER BITE in all our treks in cemeteries from one end of Cannon County to the other.