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.

Now available in paperback!

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.

Now available in paperback!