What Goes Around Comes Around

(L to R) John Jay Hooker and Charles E. Smith.

As chronicled in my previous post, my selection as Nashville Banner editor was more than a bit bizarre. However, the story of how John Jay Hooker became publisher of the newspaper takes incredulousness to an even higher level. It is a story of what goes around comes around, with a bitter twist.

The Nashville Banner was Hooker’s number one tormenter in the campaign for governor in 1970. Every day for seven months, the Banner served its readers with a heavy dose of negative stories about candidate Hooker. As his press secretary, I was the one who had to deal daily with the Banner’s poison pen reporters. Arguably, the Banner was primarily responsible for Hooker’s narrow loss to Winfield Dunn in the general election.

So, it was with great irony that Hooker and I walked into the Banner newsroom in August of 1979 as publisher and editor, respectively. A strong dose of karma loomed large on that fateful day. As the old saying goes, you simply can’t make this stuff up!

The triumphant march to the takeover of what had been the home of an adversary out of the past began with negotiations in the latter months of 1978 between the Gannett Corporation and Amon Carter Evans, publisher of the rival Nashville Tennessean.

Gannett owned the Nashville Banner, but chairman Allen Neuharth coveted the larger and more profitable Tennessean. Evans signaled his possible interest in selling. Secret talks began. A big hurdle to overcome was an antitrust provision that required Gannett to sell the Banner in order to buy the Tennessean.

The antitrust issue gave Evans considerable leverage in negotiations with Neuharth. The strong-willed Evans took full advantage of the “chips” he held. He set the price at $50 million for the Tennessean. He insisted that longtime Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler be given a lucrative ten year contract with language assuring total editorial control (something unprecedented for Gannett). And he demanded that Hooker be given the sole ticket to buy the Banner.

Neuharth agreed to all three provisions, the latter of which set the stage for Hooker’s takeover of his old nemesis. However, significant hurdles confronted Hooker. He had the ticket to buy, but he lacked the resources to pay for the purchase.

Thus, the hunt began for well-heeled potential investors. In short order, he brought childhood friend Brownlee Currey into the fold, and Currey, among others, pointed Hooker toward a third potential investor, the unknown but wealthy Irby Simpkins, a brash, ambitious, and temperamental fellow.

In short order, particularly by Hooker’s standards, the partnership deal was struck. Hooker played his ticket to buy, and Currey and Simpkins agreed to put up the $25 million for the Banner purchase. So, Evans got what he wanted, Hooker became publisher of the Banner with a one-third ownership, and Currey and Simpkins were suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar public spotlight with their collective two-thirds ownership.

The honeymoon for the partnership effectively ended in the first week of control at the Banner. A 2:00 a.m. phone call to me from our police reporter alerted me that a suspect had been arrested and charged in the long unsolved murder of young Marcia Trimble – Nashville’s most notorious crime case.

Adding to the drama was a scheduled early morning flight to Dallas for the three owners and me to meet with the publisher of the Dallas afternoon newspaper. Simpkins had set it up, and it was a command performance designed to give all of us a full day of substantive discussion with the well-known publisher who had keen insight into the operation of an afternoon newspaper.

I called Hooker immediately, and he in turn patched Simpkins and Currey into the discussion. All three owners quickly agreed that I had to stay behind and oversee the coverage of the arrest. Hooker also wanted to stay, but Simpkins was insistent that Hooker make the trip. As usual, Currey had little to say.

The debate between Hooker and Simpkins erupted into some heated exchanges with me caught in the middle. I honestly told the owners that I was comfortable handling the on-site management of the story, a comment Hooker clearly did not like. The conversation ended without resolution on whether Hooker would go or stay, even though the private plane flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30 a.m.

Within seconds after the conference call ended, my home phone rang. It was an angry Hooker calling to blast me for not siding with him in the debate with Simpkins. I quickly told Hooker that in our long relationship, particularly the 1970 gubernatorial campaign, I had always told him exactly what I thought on any matter.

He acknowledged that and expressed appreciation for my long- standing candor with him. Then he startled me a bit by stating, “Pal, this is different. It was just you and me in the past. Now we have to deal with a strong-willed guy who is tough as nails. I need you with me at all times with him.”

Our painful phone call ended inconclusively. I did not know whether he would stay with me or go to Dallas with his partners. I arrived at the Banner at 5:30 a.m. and learned about an hour later that Hooker had left for Dallas. I never knew what other conversations occurred in the wee hours of that fateful morning, but obviously, Irby’s will had prevailed. Ominous signs were emerging early in new ownership of the Banner.

As August faded into September of 1979, relative calm prevailed. We were receiving increasing praise for publishing a quality product. Simpkins was preoccupied with the start-up business decisions that had to be made. He essentially stayed out of the newsroom.

However, by mid-September, Hooker was preaching to me and all who would listen that the Banner was committed to shifting from a Republican leaning newspaper to one that was independent in editorial policy, Simpkins began to drop by my office to chat about his increasingly strong belief that the Banner should be Republican.

So, by the end of September, I was the editor of a newspaper whose publisher said we were independent and whose president was proclaiming that we were Republican. While I was able to steer clear of the independent/Republican conflict by focusing most of the editorial positions on non-partisan issues, I knew I was holding a ticking time bomb that was certain to explode at some point.

By mid-October, the power struggle between Hooker and Simpkins had intensified, while Currey remained essentially on the sidelines. I was increasingly being called into meetings with Hooker and Simpkins, where I was confronted with having to take sides on a wide variety of matters. Fortunately, Hooker permitted me to speak my mind, and by so doing, I was able to walk a delicate line that kept me in good standing with both men. Nonetheless, it was becoming apparent that Hooker was gradually losing the power struggle.

Throughout the September to November period, I agonized over the state of the Banner and my position as editor. I loved what I was doing in the newsroom and had considerable freedom to select the content and editorial tone of the newspaper. However, the endless participation in the behind-the-scenes power struggle between Hooker and Simpkins was taking its toll on me. Also, the pain of watching my hero Hooker being slowly diminished by the overbearing Simpkins was excruciating.

Then in early December, circumstances suddenly changed. The chairman of the chancellor search committee at the University of Tennessee at Martin called me with word that the five finalists for the job I had turned down in July 1979 had been found to be unacceptable. I was asked directly if I had any interest in reconsidering my candidacy. My heart said no, but my head said yes.

Within a few days, I agreed to visit the campus once again to meet with the search committee. Simpkins moved quickly to contact then Governor Lamar Alexander, who called me at the airport while my daughter Tandy and I waited for the UT plane to pick us up. His message was simple: “Charles, speaking as chairman of the UT Board, I want you to know that you have my full support and nothing would make me happier than for you to take the chancellorship at Martin.” It was a nice gesture, but I knew immediately that this was essentially Simpkins pulling some strings to secure my move to Martin and leave Hooker isolated at the Banner.

Editorial published by John Seigenthaler’s Tennessean the day following my announcement to go to UT Martin.

Upon my return to Nashville from the meeting with the UTM search committee, I contacted Hooker and told him that I would be accepting the chancellorship. He was shaken by my pending decision. He did what he always did during our years together. We went for a ride – one that literally extended over a four-day period.

Starting on a Thursday morning, we took the usual routes: Nashville to Lebanon and back, Nashville to Columbia and back, Nashville to Dickson and back, Nashville to Clarksville and back. Then we would repeat the routes, over and over again until late Sunday. It was a four-day running conversation that was vintage Hooker, using his great oratorical skills as an attorney and keen wisdom as a caring human being to make his case that I stay with the Banner. He spoke with strong emotion that tugged at my heartstrings.

Two constant themes emerged from his message. On one hand, he voiced deep concern that he had let me down by not being stronger with Simpkins. On the other hand, he expressed over and over again his great fear that without me there to support him, Simpkins would be overwhelming. I assured him that he in no way had let me down and that with or without me, he was going to lose the battle with Simpkins. My central message, as I remember well, was, “John Jay, Irby has the money, and when the time is right, he will persuade Brownlee to join him in voting you out of the partnership.”

As the fourth day of riding and talking was ending, Hooker suddenly stopped the car, turned to me with tears flowing down his cheeks, and sadly stated that he recognized that he could not talk me out of leaving.

A few months later, my prediction came true. Simpkins won the power struggle. Hooker was bought out and removed as publisher. What began as a beautiful, too-good-to-be-true dream had ended sadly for Hooker and all who loved him.

Simpkins assumed the publisher’s role and used the Banner to reward his friends and punish his enemies, lists that changed with the weather. Hooker and Simpkins remained bitter enemies until Hooker’s death in 2016.

Simpkins eventually bailed out of the Banner and embittered practically everyone who worked there. He quickly lost the power he coveted once he sold the Banner. He often shared with his few remaining friends his puzzlement that no one seemed to want to return his calls anymore. He would often invoke the name of former Tennessean editor and publisher John Seigenthaler and note sadly that he didn’t understand how Seigenthaler continued to be a power broker until the day he died, long after he retired as the Tennessean publisher.

Indeed, Seigenthaler was a power broker, the best I’ve ever seen. However, his power was anchored by his strong intellect, great courage, and demonstrated ability to respect his friends and foes. In short, he had character and principles that earned him respect, exhibited by the thousands who attended his funeral services and related events.

I’m not sure Simpkins ever understood that. What goes around comes around!

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 27, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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Be Careful In What You Wish For

My first day as editor of the Nashville Banner, with owners John Jay Hooker, Brownlee Currey and Irby Simpkins.

One of the questions most often asked of young people is, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Initially, I had a passion to be a play-by-play announcer of sporting events. As an undergraduate, I majored in broadcast journalism and had the opportunity to broadcast the University of Tennessee’s basketball and baseball games on the student radio station.

That dream evaporated upon graduation for two reasons: (1) I quickly found out that the trip to the top of the profession in broadcasting started typically at a small radio station as a disc jockey playing the “top 40,” a role that had no appeal to me, and (2) my best job opportunity after college was the editorship of a weekly newspaper in my hometown.

The “printer’s ink” permeated my system almost immediately upon assuming my role as editor. Within weeks, it became clear to me what I wanted to do with my life. I set my sights on becoming an editor of a major daily newspaper.

My plan was to do the best job I could as a weekly newspaper editor under the watchful eye of my boss, Coleman Harwell. Colie, as he was known, was a well-respected journalist who was connected across the nation with the movers and shakers in the profession. The weekly newspaper was my mechanism to build a foundation of experience.

The next logical step was to parlay the weekly experience and my association with Colie into a promotion to a major daily, preferably the Nashville Tennessean. With Colie’s help, I made it to the Tennessean, where for four years, I received the equivalent of several doctorates as I served in a variety of roles, including news editor.

I concluded that if I really wanted to be an editor, I needed to step out of the newsroom and gain some experience as an insider in other professional worlds. After considerable thought, it occurred to me that the major areas of newspaper coverage were politics, government, and education. With that in mind, I charted the pathway I would take in my journey to an editorship.

My first step was to take a position in 1967 as an administrator with the University of Tennessee, with an eye already focused on step two: serving as press secretary for a major Democratic candidate for governor in the upcoming 1970 campaign, which was a strong possibility because Seigenthaler was the candidate’s best friend and confidante, and he knew of my interest and ambitions.

Indeed, at the beginning of 1970, I received the call to serve as press secretary. The university granted me a leave of absence, and I was off to the races. My candidate won the primary but lost the general election. It was a major setback in my game plan.

However, the university that had granted a leave of absence chose to make me chancellor of one of its campuses, and I was back on track, waiting for the moment of fulfillment. Five years as chancellor passed, when, suddenly, two things happened to open the door.

The university campus where I served as chancellor was knee-deep in a federal desegregation lawsuit that was about to lead to a merger that would put my institution out of existence. On the very day that the Supreme Court chose not to hear our appeal, ending for good any hope that we had to survive, I received a phone call in Washington from Dan Coleman. He advised me that John Hooker – the same John Hooker for whom I had served as press secretary at the beginning of the decade – was poised to buy the Nashville Banner.

As soon as my plane landed back in Nashville, I called Hooker from a pay phone at the airport. He said he wanted to talk with me about becoming editor. All at once, the proverbial dog seemed to have caught the car. I was ecstatic, suddenly realizing that my long-time dream was within reach.

But the last step was not an easy one to take. A couple of complications immediately surfaced. Ed Boling, the president of the University of Tennessee, wanted me to become chancellor of another campus in the system. At the same time, I learned that John Hooker would have two partners, neither of whom I knew.

Initially, it appeared to be a no-brainer for me. Within my grasp was the fulfillment of my dream. Moreover, accepting the offer to become chancellor of another university would require uprooting my family from a city we loved to move to a small rural community in West Tennessee. I was prepared to say no to the president, but he was persistent. He asked that I at least spend a couple of days on the campus for interviews to see if that would generate interest.

I agreed to do that, and after two days of intense interviews with scores of constituents at the campus, I began to waver a bit. The comfort level I achieved during the visits blended with some growing doubt about the partners of John Hooker. Working for Hooker was something I knew would be comfortable for me, but I was not at all sure that he would be in charge. His partners, both wealthy businessmen with no experience in journalism, appeared to be very strong personalities. Conflict between Hooker and his partners seemed inevitable, even before the deal was consummated.

I decided to make another trip to the campus for a second look, which convinced me that the chancellorship was the right choice. All that was left to do – we thought – was to find some way to break the news to my dear friend John Hooker. However, that evening, an incredible, stunning event occurred that changed everything.

My wife and I had been invited to attend what we thought was a routine dinner with the three owners of the Banner and their wives. It was a pleasant evening, with dinner at one of Nashville’s most exclusive restaurants. Everything seemed normal. Then, as we waited for dessert, the three owners left their seats and disappeared into another room, leaving my wife and me and their three wives at the table.

Upon their return, John Hooker took a champagne glass in hand and proposed a toast to the new editor of the Nashville Banner. I looked at Shawna Lea, and she looked at me. My mind was racing. What do I say? What do I do? Should I graciously accept the toast and explain later? Or should I break the news that I am going to West Tennessee?

I decided to respond graciously and hope for the best. As we left that night, Shawna Lea and I knew we were in a dilemma, and there was no good way out. In a sense, circumstances had trumped reason. I was trapped.

After a restless night, we decided that it was meant to be that I become editor. After all, that had been my long-time dream. So, instead of going to Hooker to say no, we drove to Knoxville to say no to Ed Boling. What a turn of events, the strangest moment of my life.

The editorship of the Banner was an incredible roller coaster ride. As envisioned, Hooker and his partners disagreed on practically every matter. All three tried to win me to their way of thinking, and I could see that I was caught in the middle of a tremendous power struggle that Hooker would eventually lose.

I was miserable.

Then fate intervened once again. I received a call from the chairman of the search committee for the new chancellor in West Tennessee. His question to me was very simple: “Would you be willing to take a second look?”

To make a long story short, I made another trip to West Tennessee, and in a matter of days I was once again a chancellor. Behind me was a brief four months of doing what I thought was a fulfillment of a life-long dream.

The lesson is very simple: Be careful what you wish for, or as the proverbial dog learned the hard way, make sure you know what you are going to do when you catch the car.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 26, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “Be Careful In What You Wish For”

  1. I would love to read this book… seems as I read the introductory remarks his style of writing agreed with my style of reading. I remember Charles Smith because I was in state government at the time and I had the opportunity to meet him several times.
    I asked him to speak at a school program in Ripley and he graciously accepted and did a great job… some folks in Ripley are still trying to figure out how I pulled that off. That being said I am looking forward to get a copy

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Work at Making Friends of Adversaries

As the commissioner of education for the state of Tennessee, I had the privilege of joining Governor Ned Ray McWherter in a press conference issuing our state’s first-ever state education report card.

I had the opportunity to work with and for seven Tennessee governors during my time of leadership in government and education. Each brought a unique skill set to the office. I was fortunate to have a positive relationship with each one.

Among the seven, Ned Ray McWherter was my favorite. I got to know him well during my six years as chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Martin, a time when he was representing the Martin area in the Legislature and serving as speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Not once in all my years at Martin did he ever ask me to do anything, to hire anyone, or to second-guess my decisions. We developed a strong friendship.

A few months after I left Martin to become vice president for administration for the University of Tennessee system in Knoxville, McWherter was elected governor. Within days, he asked me to be his commissioner of education. It was the beginning of a fascinating ride to the top of state government with a man who knew from day one why he wanted to be governor and precisely what he wanted to accomplish.

Shortly after he began his first term as governor, I received a call directly from McWherter, asking if I could come to his office. When I walked in, McWherter was seated alone in his rocking chair, and the trademark unlit cigar was dangling from his mouth. He asked me to be seated. It was obviously going to be a one-on-one meeting.

After exchanging a few minutes of small talk, the governor asked if I knew Nelson Andrews, a prominent Nashville businessman with strong Republican ties and, at that time, the chairman of the State Board of Education.

I responded yes, and then a curious line of questioning began.

“How well do you know him,” the governor asked.

I told him that Andrews had been a member of my support council when I was chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Nashville and that I had worked with Andrews in creating a group known as Leadership Nashville.

“Do you like him?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

After each exchange, McWherter paused for several seconds, nodding from time to time, and chewing on his cigar. “Has he been a good chairman of the State Board of Education?” he asked.

I noted that I couldn’t answer that question from personal knowledge, because my previous roles in higher education had not included participation with the state board. However, I had no reason to doubt his effectiveness.

“Could you work with him if we kept him as chairman?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

At that point, again with long pauses, McWherter shifted from questions to comments. “Commissioner,” he said, “let me tell you my concern. As you may not know, Nelson was a close adviser to Winfield Dunn (the Republican nominee), and I can’t get out of my mind that it was Nelson who was standing over Winfield, coaching him prior to each of our debates.”

I responded that I understood.

At that point, the governor leaned back in his chair and began to rock, saying nothing for many seconds. Then, suddenly, he began asking me the same questions in the same order in which he had asked them earlier. Long pauses again punctuated each question and my responses.

When the second round ended, McWherter again leaned back in his rocking chair, and the seconds ticked off. He was clearly in deep thought, seriously weighing the options. I sat quietly.

Then came the verdict, clearly articulated. “Commissioner, if you are comfortable with Nelson, so am I. Let’s keep him,” he said.

With that, the meeting ended, and I left. To me, it was a defining moment. Political statesmanship was on clear display. I had just participated in a process that convinced me that I was working for a man who truly cared about people, practiced fair play, and respected the political process. Moreover, I saw firsthand that this governor was committed to putting the good of the state above partisan politics.

The rest of the story is simply this: Nelson Andrews was retained, and he served as chairman of the State Board of Education during McWherter’s two terms as governor. Throughout that time, they had a positive relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and open communication without regard for party affiliation.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 24, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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If You Have to Eat Crow, Eat It While It’s Hot

My wife Shawna Lea, son Chip, daughter Tandy and myself in a feature story in the UT Martin alumni publication.

One of the great lessons to be learned from the infamous Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration is that human beings tend to forgive acknowledged mistakes. However, obstinate refusal to admit mistakes or, even worse, an attempt to cover up mistakes is a sure-fire recipe for failure. In literally hundreds of examples over my career, “eating crow while it was hot” made the penalty of mistakes much less painful.

One such mistake occurred during my chancellorship at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Historically, our campus had been a leader in providing interns for members of Tennessee General Assembly. The bulk of our interns had traditionally been assigned, for logical reasons, to West Tennessee Democrats who dominated the legislative seats in the Martin campus service area.

One day I received an early morning call from Jim Kennedy, the chief of staff of the Speaker of the House, alerting me that I had been the topic of discussion at that morning’s Democratic caucus breakfast. He further advised that I would be receiving a call from the caucus leader, Frank Lashlee, a temperamental senator from a small town near the campus. The problem was that somehow one of our interns had been assigned to a prominent Republican House member from Memphis.

This came as news to me, and I recognized immediately that we had a problem. I thanked the Speaker’s chief of staff and moved quickly to determine what had gone wrong. Within minutes, I discovered that the faculty member who staffed the intern program was on leave of absence and that his stand-in had decided to assign an intern to the Memphis Republican, unaware of the long tradition that had provided rural West Tennessee Democrats with this service.

Recognizing the error of his way, the faculty member was receptive to corrective action. In short, we made a quick decision to fund an additional internship and assign that individual to the Democratic caucus.

Without waiting for the caucus leader to call me, I placed a call to him. The initiative clearly startled him. Without hesitation, I told the senator that my daddy had always told me that if you had to eat crow, you should eat it while it is hot. “We’ve screwed up,” I told the senator, “and we apologize. Moreover, here is what we plan to do to rectify the situation.”  

When I finished talking, I held my breath and waited for his response. I will never forget his words. “Mr. Chancellor, thank you and have a good day.” That was all he said, and I never heard another word from him or any other member of the caucus.

We had dodged a bullet. Had we tried to defend or cover up the indefensible, we would have paid a huge price. Mistakes had been made and corrected. Proper apologies had been issued. The crow had been eaten while it was hot.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 13, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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Seize those “Bernard King Moments” and Enjoy

I had the honor of speaking with Bernard King in NYC the night he broke the Madison Square Garden single-game scoring record of 54 points.

Given that UT’s basketball team is now ranked number one in the nation, it occurred to me that an excerpt from my new book about the previously untold story of my involvement in saving Bernard King’s college basketball career might be of interest to my readers . . .

Over the years, I have experienced many proud moments, but none greater than the rescue of an eighteen-year-old kid from the clutches of incompetent school administrators, misguided investigators from the National Collegiate Athletics Association, and unscrupulous basketball coaches smarting over the loss of a star athlete in a recruiting battle.

The story of Bernard King is a classic tale of a poor kid who used his exceptional talents as a basketball player as his ticket out of a New York City housing project in the heart of a ghetto. Even in his early years in high school, King became a magnet, drawing the attention of scores of college recruiters. Tennessee’s Stu Aberdeen was relentless in his attempts to persuade King to sign with the Volunteers, and he ultimately prevailed, much to the chagrin of the other recruiters.

King entered UT in the fall and made a smashing debut as a freshman starter with 40-plus points in the first game of the season. While the rising star was attracting great attention in Tennessee, some of the disgruntled recruiters who had lost the battle were quietly trying to convince the NCAA that King did not have the high school grades to be eligible to play at a Division I school. Somehow, they were able to secure a transcript that actually showed a grade point average below the required 2.0.

With that transcript in hand, the NCAA informed Tennessee officials, and the university’s president immediately directed that King be pulled from the lineup and that Howard Aldmon and I immediately go to New York to investigate. It was quickly a classic NCAA case of a star athlete being guilty until proven innocent.

Aldmon and I knew we were up against tremendous odds, given the presence of a transcript, the power of the NCAA, and the persistence of aggrieved recruiters from a couple of major colleges. We also knew we were walking into the lion’s den of public scrutiny, particularly with the New York City media. We took several precautions, tape recording every conversation with high school officials, working in tandem so that we had two witnesses to every action and conversation, and taking copious notes about everything we saw or did.

My background as a journalist was a great asset. While cooperative and friendly, the school officials were extremely cautious, volunteering nothing and qualifying answers with little detail. They knew that an aggressive media was also watching them. It typically took multiple follow-up questions to get even the most elementary fact on the table.

Such was the case with one of the major and most pivotal disclosures we were able to uncover in the three-day investigation. In answer to a direct question as to whether King had taken any evening or summer courses that may not have been reflected in the transcript that had been bootlegged to the NCAA, the high school officials looked at one another and then one of them stated that King had taken nine hours of courses over the summer between his junior and senior years. When asked why the passing grades in summer school had not been reflected on the transcript, they responded that it had apparently been an oversight. Never mind that the high school had previously certified to Tennessee officials that King had the requisite 2.0 average.

During our visit, we also discovered that some of King’s grades in the school’s official records had not been accurately reflected in the transcript. Some were higher, and some were lower. The net result was that at the end of the three days, school officials handed us an official, certified transcript reflecting exactly a 2.0 average. With tape recorders rolling, we asked repeatedly if the school officials were certain that the transcript being handed to us was a true reflection of King’s academic record. Yes, it was, they assured us.

Throughout the three days in New York City, we maintained close contact with Dr. Earl Ramer, the university’s longtime faculty chairman of the athletics board and a well-respected former two- time president of the NCAA. He advised us on every step we took, particularly on documentation that would be needed.

We left New York City for the return trip to Tennessee with mixed emotions, relieved yet anxious about the ordeal we had just experienced. Several times on the flight home, I was tempted to do my own calculations on the cumulative grade point average, but each time I decided to wait. Only after I was at home did I pull out a calculator and punch in the grades of all the courses taken by King. Then, as I hit the “total” button on the calculator, I held my breath for the result. When the screen displayed a 2.000000, I wanted to scream with joy. The next day a full, written report was hand carried to Dr. Ramer for submission to the NCAA. King returned to the basketball court, and immediately he again lit up the scoreboard.

King went on to become an All-American basketball star at the university and then became one of the dominant National Basketball Association players of his era. Aldmon and I were relentless in our search for the truth, and to this day I steadfastly believe that justice was done.

Over the years, members of our family have often heard the words “Bernard King moment” to describe a personal achievement. At age fifteen, grandson Blake exceeded expectations and made the varsity basketball team as a freshman. A few weeks later, our then eighteen-year-old grandson, Harris, was awarded a free trip to Yokohama, Japan, by winning a national competition in the popular card game Magic. Both succeeded against all odds. And in my retirement years, I have had the opportunity to watch grandson Ben achieve the 1,000-point club during his high school basketball career, to take pride in granddaughter Nicole earning her college degree and gaining multiple promotions in her first job, and marvel at youngest grandson Brady emerging as a starter offensively and defensively on his school football team.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 13, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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Always Do what You Say You’re Going to Do

Without any question, I strongly believe that integrity is the cornerstone of successful leadership in any environment. Would-be leaders who lack integrity are ticking time bombs. Their credibility is certain to crumble. They are destined to self-destruct.

My official chancellor picture on the UT Martin website.

However, there is another dimension of integrity that is often overlooked in leadership training. Stated simply, it is not enough for the leader alone to be a person of impeccable integrity; the entire organization must function in a way that supports and reinforces the leader’s commitment to integrity.

The importance of this point was brought home to me in a startling and revealing way in the early days of my second chancellorship, at UT Martin. At one of my weekly “dutch treat” luncheons –which I used to maintain open communications with faculty, students, alumni, and staff – a faculty member asked me a relatively simple question.

He wanted to know whether a faculty member who was promoted in rank would receive both a merit increase in salary and the promotion stipend that I had just instituted. (That campus had never given faculty any financial reward for promotion in rank.)

My answer was simply yes, with the added observation that anyone worthy of promotion in rank would clearly deserve a merit increase.

That luncheon occurred in June, shortly before our governing board acted on salaries for the next fiscal year. Seven months later, I received a long, hand-written letter from the faculty member who had asked me the question at the “dutch treat” luncheon. It was a letter I shall never forget.

In the very first paragraph the faculty member reminded me of his question and my answer and then quickly informed me that I had not done what I said the administration would do. He had been promoted but had received only the newly implemented promotion stipend. Not one cent of merit pay increase had been given to him.

I was shocked, dismayed, disappointed. My reaction was quick and forceful. A meeting of senior staff was promptly convened. The letter was shared with each staff member. I asked how it was possible that this could have happened, since every one of the senior staff had heard my response to the faculty member’s question.

The response I received from the senior administrator responsible for faculty raises shook me. I shall never forget his words: “Chancellor, we heard what you said, but we simply assumed that was just rhetoric at the podium.”

I was livid. My response was swift and clear. “Folks,” I said, “I am relatively new on this campus. You may not know me as you should. But let’s be clear about one thing: no matter how I say it – via policy, memo, or informally at the podium – I mean what I say, and I expect actions to be taken by staff that comply.”

The senior administrator then asked what I wanted done.

Should he direct the dean to correct the error and award the faculty member who wrote the letter the merit increase?

“The first thing I want you to do,” I told him, “is to provide me with a printout of all faculty who received promotions so that we may determine if additional faculty members were treated the same way as the one who wrote me.”

The printout revealed that seven faculty members had received promotion supplements but no merit increase – seven men and women, who for seven months had believed that their chancellor had not done what he said he would do.

The frightening part of this story is that had the faculty member not written the letter, I would have never known, and to this day my integrity would be questioned in the hearts of those who had been denied what I had promised.

My directive to change all seven salaries sent shock waves across the campus, strengthening the credibility of the administration and making clear to senior staff that we were going to do what we said we would do.

From that day forward, I was ever alert to breakdowns in the organization that might damage credibility. Monitoring systems were put in place to ensure that promises were kept and commitments were fulfilled. The lesson I learned was that keeping your word is not a solo act in a large organization.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 8, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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True Friends are Hard to Find in Politics

  John Jay Hooker (L) and myself on my first day as editor of the Nashville Banner.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen firsthand several true friendships formed and sustained relationships in the corridors of power. One stands out as a gold standard of what can be achieved when mutual trust, respect, and open communications are alive and well in a relationship. My reference point is the friendship of Winfield Dunn and John Jay Hooker, which lasted over four decades. It was a most unlikely alliance, forged between two men who waged a tough and competitive fight for the governorship of Tennessee in 1970. Dunn won, and in doing so, shattered a storybook dream for Hooker.

Dunn’s name was not on the political horizon when I met with Hooker and his campaign team in January 1970. At that time, Hooker was the odds-on favorite to win the governor’s race. No Democrat appeared likely to launch a competitive challenge in the primary. On the Republican side, shoe magnate Maxey Jarman was the presumed nominee-to-be. Thus, when I accepted the offer to become Hooker’s press secretary in early 1970, the campaign focus was on Jarman.

The plan was to run a personality contest, pitting the youthful and charismatic Hooker against the aging senior citizen Jarman. All seemed to be in order to deliver Hooker to the governor’s office. Then in April of 1970, the relatively unknown Dunn threw his hat into the Republican primary. His entry attracted very little attention. The smart money was still on a Hooker-Jarman general election. The polls at that time supported that notion.

In the meantime, Dunn had other ideas. In his memoir, he wrote that his initial impression of Hooker was that the Democratic candidate was a charismatic and intelligent individual who would be a tough adversary if both made it to the general election. However, he was not intimidated.

                                                   Governor Winnfield Dunn

In those early days of the primary campaign, Hooker was clearly impressed with Dunn, even noting more than once on the record to reporters that Dunn was an impressive candidate with a great chance at winning. In retrospect, there is great irony in Hooker’s prognosis. Still, inside our campaign tent, Jarman was the one we expected to win the GOP primary.
Suddenly, on primary election night in August of 1970, lightning struck. While Hooker won the Democratic primary convincingly, Dunn upset the favorite Jarman by piling up a huge vote advantage in Memphis and Shelby County, his home area.

I shall never forget the ride with Hooker from our campaign headquarters to the Nashville hotel where the victory celebration was scheduled. The new Democratic nominee for governor was despondent, telling me with great candor that he knew in his bones that we were going lose to Dunn. His few words on that short ride in downtown Nashville proved prophetic: “Pal, Winfield’s win has taken away the greatest advantage we had. Like me, he’s young, charismatic, and articulate, but he doesn’t have my baggage.” By the time we made it to the victory celebration, he had regained his composure and delivered his typical rousing speech.

Clouds of concern, however, continued to hang over our campaign as we moved into the fall of 1970. The critical moment came in October when Hooker and Dunn engaged in three back-to-back debates, starting in Nashville in the wee hours of the morning, moving to Springfield courthouse in mid-day, and concluding at the Jackson courthouse in late afternoon. It was obviously an exhausting day, particularly for the candidates.

For reasons I never understood, our schedulers had booked Hooker to speak at a union event in Memphis that night. I was designated to fly alone with Hooker from Jackson to Memphis. It was a moment I will never forget. For most of the flight, Hooker was totally silent, deep in thought, with a serious look of concern on his face.

Shortly before we landed, he leaned toward me and slapped me gently on the knee. “Pal,” he said, “the debates today confirmed what I’ve believed for several weeks. Winfield is tough, a very strong debater. I tried my best today, but I couldn’t put him away. We are going to lose, my friend.”
Less than a month later, Hooker’s prediction came true. He lost by less than a percentage point, but the dream had been shattered.

Hooker was crushed, but when he took the podium to concede to Dunn, he regained his composure and delivered a gracious and memorable salute to Dunn. It was the end of a very tough and emotional campaign but the beginning of a respectful and genuine friendship between two heavyweights that would span more than four decades.

The true strength of their friendship became more visible in Hooker’s final year of life. In June 2015, Hooker was scheduled to make what would be his final public appearance at a committee hearing before the Tennessee General Assembly. Confined to a wheel chair and grappling with terminal cancer, Hooker still was able to display his trademark tenacity and his ability to articulate clear and emphatic constitutional arguments, this time about the right to die.

The Hooker family had invited my son, Chip, and me to join them for the event. When we arrived, we noted that Hooker’s former wife, Tish, and their children were seated on the front row. Seated next to Tish was Winfield Dunn. For Chip and me, it was a defining moment, a moment that spoke volumes about the value and joy of a true friendship. It was a moment we shall never forget.

In opening his testimony that day, Hooker acknowledged Dunn’s presence at the hearing and thanked him for his friendship over the years. He had warm praise for Dunn and called his administration the most honest he had witnessed in his lifetime. He also half- jokingly noted that he (Hooker) deserved credit for creating the Republican Party in Tennessee by losing to Dunn.

Following the hearing, Dunn rushed over to Hooker’s wheelchair and leaned over to give him a long embrace. Watching that moment was heartwarming and brought tears to my eyes.

Seven months later, Hooker died. Preparatory to a public memorial service, a private, invitation-only event was held at the home of Hooker’s brother Henry. About twenty-five close friends gathered to pay their respects. When I walked into the home, the first guests I saw were Winfield and Betty Dunn. As we embraced, tears were flowing from his eyes, as they were from mine.

I’ve known every governor of Tennessee since Frank Clement. While all of them had many good qualities and successes, I don’t believe any one of those other governors ever developed or maintained a friendship relationship with the general election nominee they defeated.

That’s what made the friendship something special, something worthy of praise, respect, and replication.

I was deeply grateful and touched to see Governor Winfield Dunn attend my book signing party at Parnassus Books last September. He walked in just as I was telling the crowd this story about him from my book. This picture was taken right after I presented him with an autographed copy. Thank you, Governor! (photo courtesy of Dana Coleman)

That’s what made the friendship something special, something worthy of praise, respect, and replication.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 25, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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Avoid the Mulberry Bush at All Cost

Here I am autographing a copy of Journal of a Fast Track Life for our grandson, Ronnie. Chapter 23 chronicles an unforgettable incident that occurred during my basic training at Lackland Air Force base in 1961. Because it’s his favorite chapter, Ronnie and I always greet each other with the final words of that chapter: “Never ever quit.” See the excerpt below for the full story.

The year was 1961. The place was boot camp at Lackland Air ForceBase in San Antonio, Texas, in the summer. The specific incident was part of a rigorous daylong obstacle course exercise.

Midway through the obstacle course, my fellow troops and I were sent into a burning house with no gas mask, challenged to find ourway out safely. After a few desperate minutes, I found my way out. Somewhat disoriented, I stumbled outside only to hear some male voices singing, “Here we go around the mulberry bush.”

At first, I thought I was hallucinating. Then I saw three very tall, athletic guys holding hands and singing the mulberry bush song as a rough looking drill sergeant barked his orders. The sergeant was unrelenting and harsh.

I quickly realized that the problem was that these three guys had failed to scale the two-story cliff that was the next step on the obstacle course. I looked at the rope that was the key to scaling the cliff and glanced back at the three poor athletes who were holding hands.

All of this caused me to approach the cliff with strong determination. I was not about to let myself fail and have to hold hands with those guys and sing around the mulberry bush. Fortunately, my determination prevailed, and I scaled the cliff successfully.

For reasons I have never really understood, the image of those three athletes being humiliated by a drill sergeant has been imbedded in my mind for what is now more than half a century. It’s an image that has flashed to the forefront every time I have faced a difficult decision or challenge. It has consistently provided me with the will and determination to make bold and tough decisions at times when the odds have seemed stacked against me.

Throughout my book, I have chronicled many barriers that I have had to confront in my fifty-plus years on the firing line in the public arena. The voices of those three athletes singing about the mulberry bush resonated in my mind as I probed the Bernard King eligibility issue, as I plowed ahead with the “impossible” plan to merge the two community colleges in Memphis, as I fought to keep UT Nashville alive and relevant when the federal court case clouded its future, and as I raced uphill against all odds in the gubernatorial campaign. The list goes on and on outside the pages of this book, and ever present in every case was the memory of those three guys holding hands and singing.

Bottom line: Stand strong against all odds, steer clear of that dreaded mulberry bush, and never ever quit.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 23, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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Chapter One Podcast

My recently published book received a major boost this week when the widely respected Chapter One Podcast released a 40-minute interview with me. Demethius Jackson is a skilled interviewer, and I enjoyed it very much.

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Delta Tau Delta Alumni Mention

The national Delta Tau Delta fraternity alumni magazine, Rainbow, features my book on pages 40-41, of the Winter 2019 issue.

Here is the link: to the entire issue online:


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