For more than 50 of her 57 years at the Knoxville News Sentinel, Lucy Curtis Templeton penned her column, “The Country Calendar.” The column was mostly about the birds and flowers of East Tennessee, especially the birds and flowers at her home on the rim of Black Oak Ridge.
However, her wide-ranging interests, reflected in her stories, encompassed everything from World War II history to entertainment radio, book reviews to local politics, semi-precious jewels to alligators and much more. Many News Sentinel subscribers read her column even before they read Bert Vincent’s and everyone read “Strolling.” For many years Fountain Citian Lucy Templeton made a positive difference in our daily lives.
Lucy McDaniel Curtis, the only daughter of Gay Street jeweler Henry William Curtis and Ida Whitlow Curtis, was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Aug. 31, 1878, but came to Knoxville as an infant. Lucy attended the private schools of Miss Fannie Humes and Miss Lida M. Lee in Knoxville and Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Philadelphia. She graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1901 with a liberal arts degree.
In 1904, she joined the staff of the Knoxville Sentinel, the predecessor to the News Sentinel, to learn proofreading at a salary of $5 per week. At that time, she was the only woman who had ever worked on the second floor of the newspaper. The printers considered this a feminine invasion of their all-male territory. She soon won them over with the characteristics that made friends for her the rest of her life – a thoroughly independent spirit, frankness to express it and, above all, her ladylike qualities. Her birthday soon came and the men presented her with an umbrella and lauded her in a speech. She had been accepted.
June Adamson’s article, “Lucy Templeton: A Lady in A Man’s World,” (The Tennessee Alumnus, June 1972), describes how her persona fit that early 1900 workplace:
The special aura that surrounded the soft-spoken drawls that even hid the bitterness following the War Between the States, may have been a factor in the success of Tennessee newspaper women who preceded Mrs. Templeton.
Even while having strong historical feelings herself, Mrs. Templeton moved out of the mythical South. She, like her predecessors, could not entirely discard her Confederate heritage. In her pieces about old Knoxville and its history, she helped pass along some of the feeling for the land of magnolias that preceded industrial and social changes.
She was a dignified Southern lady and the men responded by respecting her. Her ability to handle any situation contributed to her winning over her male cohorts at the paper. This resourcefulness is reflected in a story. Once in pre-Prohibition days, one of the printers became ill and fainted. Lucy raced to her father’s jewelry store a block or two away and got a bottle of whiskey and administered a dose. The “medication” soon restored the printer’s health.
Her status as a member of the paper’s team was enhanced when an emergency pitchforked her into the post of telegraph editor, the only woman in the South to hold such a post at the time. Adamson quoted Lucy Templeton’s description of the how this came about:
… I had been working only a few weeks when someone came and asked if I supposed I could handle the telegraph copy for a few weeks. I must be kin to the man who said he had never tried to play the violin but felt he could, because I said, ‘Yes.’ Imagine it! I had never handled any copy in my life. I had never written a headline. I had never known one sort of type from another.
… I shall never forget my first day on the telegraph desk. Somebody made me a style sheet, wished me well and left me to it. There were times that day when I was tempted to steal downstairs and never come back. … Well, the newspaper looked as usual when it came out and I was almost too proud to speak. I stayed on the telegraph desk for two or three weeks and then went back to reading proof. But they had found I could handle copy, so I sat at various desks, and when I came back to the Sentinel, a widow, three years after my marriage, it was to the telegraph desk, which position I held for many years.
George Mabry Templeton (1878-1909), son of Jerome and Belle P. Mabry Templeton, a Knoxville attorney in the firm of Templeton and Templeton (Second Floor, 612 South Gay Street) was the love of Lucy’s life. George was born in Knoxville on March 17, 1878, and christened for Colonel George Mabry, an early Knoxville citizen.
He was a graduate of the University of Tennessee (Class of 1899) and Cumberland University Law School. They were married on Oct. 17, 1906, at Cedarcroft, her parents’ home on Black Oak Ridge. The wedding was a highlight of the social season with the beautiful bride dressed in a white lingerie gown, embroidered with lilies of the valley and trimmed with the lace worn by her mother upon her own wedding day. She wore a veil and orange blossoms with a bouquet of lilies of the valley. The Rev. Samuel Ringgold, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, performed the ceremony.
Lucy interrupted her newspaper career to become a homemaker. Three years later her husband died in Morrow, Ohio, on Aug. 18, 1909, while on a business trip. The widowed Lucy Templeton soon returned to the telegraph desk.
Her niece, Anne Curtis Johnson, told of one of the stories she received by telegraph and how she reacted, “(It was) in the wee hours of a summer night when over the wire came the news of the sinking of the Titanic (April 14, 1912). Alone in the newsroom, she scurried to get out an extra edition. Unable to find a headline type large enough in the news fonts, she swiped some from a toothpaste advertisement, and made up the page.”
In 1926, the Sentinel merged with the News Sentinel. The editor, Edward J. Meeman, encouraged Mrs. Templeton to begin her nature column (first titled, “Outdoors,” but soon re-named “A Country Calendar”) and later to edit the book page (“Books, Old and New”). She had mastered the description of the sights and sounds and the quiet beauty of nature. Her wide-ranging interests and knowledge in so many subjects, extending even to classical Latin and Greek mythology, made her stories must reading for many Knox Countians. Local history and travel would also appear in her column at times.
When World War II (1939-1945) came, she went back to the telegraph desk one day a week. During one crisis she received a call to come in to assist. Her home on Black Oak Ridge was two miles from the bus stop in Fountain City. She did not own a car and a taxi was not to be had. Mrs. Templeton got up hours before dawn, walked in the pitch-black night to the bus stop and caught a bus to the office. When duty called, she responded. Carson Brewer would later write, “In a profession peopled largely by men, this remarkable woman did two men’s work … and then went blithely on to outlive most of her contemporaries.”
Even in her early 80s, recurrent illnesses rarely interrupted her book reviews and column writing. She continued to write “Country Calendar” for some time, sending the articles into the office by the mail or sometimes calling them in by telephone. She formally retired in 1961 but maintained her interest in the outdoors. On a January day shortly after her retirement she called a colleague to report a small cabbage butterfly flitting about her dooryard, a possible harbinger of spring.
Mrs. Lucy Curtis Templeton died at age 92 on Jan. 14, 1971, at Brakebill Nursing Home. She lived on Curtis Road on Black Oak Ridge for many years in an Eden of flowers and shrubs. The road had been named for her father. Her newspaper closed an editorial honoring her memory with these words, “We think Lucy will welcome the opportunity to go to a new garden and to find more subjects for her Country Calendar.”
Her life was filled with accomplishment. In 1912 she was appointed a charter member of the Lawson-McGhee Library Board and served effectively until her resignation 22 years later. She was also a charter member of the University of Tennessee Pi Chapter of Chi Omega sorority, the local branch of Colonial Dames, the Knoxville Newspaper Guild and the local Red Cross chapter, which she helped to found with her cousin, Mrs. N.E. Logan. At one time she and Eleanor Roosevelt were the only persons belonging to both the Newspaper Guild and the Colonial Dames. A long-time member of St. John’s Episcopal Church, she is interred in Greenwood Cemetery.
Her close friend and local historian, Mary U. Rothrock, wrote a tribute to her departed friend of 50 years:
Intensely sensitive to natural beauty, she loved the unspoiled remoteness of her Black Oak Ridge home; she reveled in mountain weekends. Many of her Country Calendars reflected life on the Ridge and in the Smokies through the passing seasons. In other columns she depicted Old Knoxville, its customs and events, the elders and youth of the early 1900s. She was widely inclusive in her friendships. Always spirited, observant and incisive, she contributed greatly to her time.
Jim Tumblin, retired optometrist and active historian, writes a monthly series called “Fountain City: Places That Made a Difference” for KnoxTNToday.com.