A heart bigger than a Coupe de Ville: Memories of Big John Tate

Betty BeanKnox Scene

The first time I met John Tate he was looking to buy his girlfriend a Christmas present. I’m not sure of the year, but it was probably 1977 – after he’d won a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics but before his brief reign as World Heavyweight Champion. He had established himself as a local celebrity and I wasn’t a boxing fan, but I recognized him instantly when he walked through the front door of the clothing store on the Strip where I was working. Everybody in Knoxville knew Big John Tate.

It was his size that made him a startling sight. My first thought was that he looked big enough to eclipse the sun. Then I wondered why he wasn’t shopping in a higher dollar establishment. But I was happy to help him find a gift and showed him some of the most expensive items in the shop. He settled on a stylish denim jumpsuit. He asked me how much it cost and I turned the price tag over so he could see it. He asked me to read it to him. I’m thinking it was $50 or $60 – a bit pricey by mid-seventies standards.

He handed me the exact amount on the tag, and I told him it would be a little more than that with the sales tax. He gave me a look that made me glad there was a counter between us. He thought I was trying to cheat him and was furious. I backed down immediately and told him he could have it for listed price and held my breath while he considered his options. Then he smiled. I started breathing again, wrapped the gift and paid the tax out of my pocket after he left. My hands were still shaking as I dropped the coins in the till. I remember thinking this must be what it’s like to try to argue with a grizzly bear.

His girlfriend became his wife not long after that and I watched his meteoric rise and fall from afar, measuring what was in the news against the memory of the huge, scary man who seemed ready to break me in half because he didn’t understand sales tax. His fall from grace was quicker than his rise to fame.

There was no reason for John to remember me when he and I met again a decade later. We were both working downtown – I was a reporter at the Knoxville Journal and he was doing odd jobs for downtown business owners. He had hit rock bottom: sold his championship belt to Hugh Ray Wilson, who put it on display at his popular Old City bar, Hoo-Rays, and was living in his car. But he was always polite, always smiling and not the least bit scary.

I wrote about one of our encounters in an obituary for our mutual friend Jess Campbell, one of Knoxville’s most successful lawyers and someone who had done a lot to help John:

One hot day in the early ’90s, I saw Big John Tate laboring up Ft. Hill carrying a bucket full of squeegees, a mop and a broom. I asked if he needed a ride and he got in my car, stashing his gear in the back. In those days, the former heavyweight champion of the world was billing himself as The Hardest Working Man in the Cleaning Business. He told me he needed to cash a check that his lawyer had written him for janitorial work.

He directed me to Sun Trust’s East Knoxville branch and when we got to the drive-through window, he pulled a check out of his pocket, endorsed it with a fancy X (John was functionally illiterate, or close to it) and handed it to me to put in the teller’s box.

I was shocked when I saw the amount – $300 – but then I noticed it was signed by Jess Campbell, who shared an office down on the corner of Summit Hill and Central with his partner, Gary Dawson. Jess was a kind and generous man and one of the growing list of people whom I dearly miss.

After I handed Big John his envelope full of cash, he tried to give it back to me and told me to take what I needed. I said I was in pretty good shape and asked if he needed a ride home. He said yes and directed me out Martin Luther King Boulevard to a corner store with what looked like a bunch of junked cars parked in front. One was his. He got out of my car, gathered his gear and told me that if I ever wrote about him sleeping in his car to make sure I mentioned that it was a Cadillac.

My last clear memory of John was October 27, 1996. I can be precise about this because it was the morning after the Alabama game, and I was saying good-bye to my in-laws, Rinny and Patrick, who had come down from D.C. for the game, which the Vols ended up winning 20-13 after a bad start in the pouring rain. It was a bittersweet victory for Rinny and me because we’d gotten tired of sitting in the rain watching ’Bama whip us for the ’leventy-millionth time and we’d gone home to build a fire and watch the rest of the sorry affair on TV. The rain stopped as soon as we left Neyland Stadium and we got home just in time to see the Vols pull ahead. We braced for the horse laughs soon as the menfolk got home.

You just don’t forget a thing like that.

We met for breakfast in the Old City the next morning, and we were standing around chatting at the Murder Weigel up by the I-40 Interstate ramp while Patrick filled up their tank for the trip home when Big John Tate came limping around the corner barefoot.

He’d spotted us at the gas pumps and came over to tell us that he needed $20 to get some new shoes because somebody’d stolen his the night before while he was sleeping. I figured he’d probably ditched his shoes behind the store, but I admired his creativity enough to give him the money. He rewarded me with that big old Big John smile and told me he’d pay me back.

I probably saw John some after that, but I don’t have a clear memory of it. What I do remember is that he’d acquired a truck and wrecked it out in east Knox County in the spring of 1998 and was dead when they pulled him out of the wreckage. The coroner said he’d had a massive stroke. I’m not sure what lesson there is to be drawn from all this except to tell you that Big John Tate slept a Cadillac and had a heart bigger than a Coupe de Ville.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.


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