Mac Pickle: A hero to me – and thousands of kids

Betsy PickleBlount, Opinion

My family recently reached a milestone I never envisioned: My eldest sibling retired.

Sure, people retire every day. Some retire at the traditional 65. Some retire early for health reasons. I’ve heard some people retire really early because they’ve made a fortune and want to go enjoy their bounty (call me!).

But having someone reach “retirement age” is unexpectedly mind-blowing. That indicates that siblings – especially with only seven years’ difference between No. 1 and No. 5 – are within hailing distance of retiring, too.


OK, enough about me. Retirement is a special occasion, especially when the person at the center of attention is a hero. The word “hero” is overused, in my opinion, but there’s a certain category of professional that often deserves the accolade but doesn’t seem to get it.

Mac Pickle, the first child born to Mary Eleanor Jones Pickle and Marion M. Pickle Jr., began teaching when he was 23 years old. He’s as much of a Tennessean as one could ever be, even though he was born in New Jersey when his dad was working in New York for a bit.

Eddie, Robert and Betsy came along in short order, followed – after a brief gap – by Joe. As the first child, Mac was the responsible, obedient one. He looked after his younger siblings and tried to set a good example.

The only time I remember Mac getting angry was when we kids were out trying to play golf at Holston Hills Country Club. When it was my turn to attempt a drive, I kept whiffing the ball because I was afraid to make a divot. Mac took a club and started striking the ground, turf flying, as he fumed repeatedly, “It’s OK! You’re supposed to make divots!”

(I stuck to the putting green after that.)

Mac carved the path for all of us Pickles: Chilhowee Elementary, Holston High School, University of Tennessee. He missed out on being named Mr. Holston because he graciously voted for the other guy and lost by one vote.

Golf wasn’t his game. He was into track at both high school and college. And after he earned his teaching degree and began working in schools, coaching track was almost always in the picture.

From 1978 to 1985, he taught social studies at Morristown East and Morristown West high schools. At the same time, he was an assistant track and cross-country coach with high-ranking state, conference and sectional teams.

He moved to Memphis and taught social studies at Memphis Preparatory School; he was assistant football coach his first year and head track coach his second.

After working as a substitute teacher for a year, he was hired by Treadwell High School to teach social studies. During his time there, he served as department chair and athletic director. He was also assistant football coach, freshman girls basketball coach, head cross-country coach and head track coach.

Moving back to East Tennessee in 1995, he joined the faculty at Maryville High School as a social-studies teacher. He developed and taught the Modern East Asian History course 2004-2009. He was an assistant varsity football coach his first year and freshman girls basketball and varsity assistant coach for 13 years. He was also the head boys track coach and guided the team to fourth place in the state in 2009, when he was also the News Sentinel Boys Track Coach of the Year.

Leaving Maryville, Mac returned to Morristown West for a couple of years as a social-studies teacher and head boys track coach. In 2010, his team was Inter-Mountain Conference champions.

Wanting to return to his hometown, he moved his family – wife Maureen, son Kyle and daughter Kathryn – to Knoxville and taught as an interim and substitute for a year until he was hired by the Knoxville Adaptive Education Center as a special-education case manager and social-studies chairperson. KAEC has no track program, so he interviewed for a new coaching job at L&N STEM Academy, starting the school’s track program from scratch. They finished ninth in the state in 2016. He was also L&N’s co-head cross-country coach; they were second in the state in 2017 and third in 2018.

Oh, and along the way, he was Tennessee Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year in 1991, Memphis City Schools Social Studies Teacher of the Year in 1994 and National Council for the Teaching of Asia State Teacher of the Year in 2007. He served in three schools as a forensics-team judge and one as a mock trial judge; coordinated Treadwell’s We the People Competition, with the school triumphing in Memphis’ city championship and placing third in the state competition.

He was faculty sponsor of Maryville High’s forensics team 1996-98; the team had two national champions in 1998. And he was faculty sponsor of MHS’s Young Democrats Club 2003-2009.

He led numerous school history projects and developed course materials. He won several grants. He didn’t win a trip to Disney World, but he was selected for a teacher study program in Japan. And he always had a part-time job to bolster the family finances because, you know, teacher pay.

Mac steadied his children as they grieved the death of his wife, and then he found love with Judy, a hospice nurse from Florida, and married again.

He stuck it out through the pandemic year of craziness, when many couldn’t. And then he retired at the end of this school year, having reached age 66.

Before school ended, he’d already been honored at three events, including a surprise party, but Mac and Judy threw an official retirement party at our church on Sunday. Old classmates, church buddies, colleagues, friends, former students and parents of co-workers came out in droves to thank and honor him.

It was the kind of celebration a hero deserves.

Oh, and I hope this column makes up for me forgetting to buy him a Happy Retirement card.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran reporter and editor who occasionally likes to share her opinions with KnoxTNToday readers.

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