Alex Haley left us an uncountable number of pithy quotes, but nothing he ever said rang truer than this: “Every time an old person dies, it’s like a library burning down.”
I thought of that saying last week when Marshall Walker died at the age of 75, which doesn’t seem quite as old as it used to. He wasn’t a lifelong friend – we’d only met in 2007, after I’d written a football story in a local weekly publication that mentioned his brother, Jackie, the late Fulton High School superstar who’d gone on to break records and make gridiron history at the University of Tennessee. But we had quickly become friends and forged a lasting relationship, primarily because we shared a common cause:
We’d both lost brothers, and we didn’t want them forgotten. Marshall’s younger brother, Jackie Walker, was one of greatest football players ever to wear Tennessee orange, but he had been nearly blanked out of the program’s history – most probably because he was gay – and Marshall wanted to remedy that. I had written more stories than I can count about my brother John, and won’t belabor his history beyond saying that a lot of flat-footed imitators grew fat feasting on his quicksilver wit.
Quite separately, Marshall and I had become the guardians of our brothers’ memories. He was a plain-spoken man who sounded gruffer than he meant to be, and when I got a message that he was trying to get in touch with me about mentioning his brother’s name in a Fulton High football story, I expected to get chewed out. Instead, he thanked me for remembering Jackie. That got us talking, and then we got to collaborating. He introduced me to unforgettable people like Lon Herzbrun and Ralph Boston, and the story grew into a saga that became a half-year project. I never worked harder, and never wrote anything I loved more.
Once it came out, it had legs. It was linked, reprinted, discussed, refuted and plagiarized all over the internet. We forced some uncomfortable conversations and hurt some feelings. But we got some results.
There’ve been other stories and other issues that I’ve worked hard on over the nearly 40 years I’ve been doing this work, but if I had to pick one story as my favorite, it would be Jackie Walker.
And I have Marshall to thank for it, which is why it seems right that I’d use Jackie’s story to sign off. I am grateful for all I’ve learned and for all the friends I’ve made doing this work. And not ungrateful to poke a couple of fingers in the eyes of some others.
What I’m building up to saying is that this will be my last weekly column for KnoxTNToday. Life is moving on and there are just so many Thursdays to be had, although the world is full of stories, so I’ll probably drop by with a tale to tell once in a while. In the meantime, y’all need to eat a lot of peaches, hang around in libraries, ask hard questions and do some business with Sandra Clark’s advertisers.
See you on the flip side.
Betty Bean has written a weekly opinion column since the founding of KnoxTNToday in May 2017.