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Brentwood historian leaves legacy of love for his hometown

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John Oden

Brentwood native and historian John Oden died June 21.

John Massenburg Oden, a fifth-generation native of Brentwood, died June 21, at the age of 87. 

Mr. Oden was preceded in death by his parents, Marion Francis Sr. and Edith Oden, brothers Marion Francis Jr. (Katherine) and Robert “Harry” (Yauteva) and his wife of 66 years, Sue Barton Oden. He is survived by his daughter Mary Elizabeth “Beth” (Nelson) Owen, son John Massenburg Jr. (Ellen) Oden and grandchildren Travis and Annaliese Owen. 

Mr. Oden was a veteran, banker, farmer, author, avid golfer and a man of deep faith. He was dedicated to helping the homeless and serving at the Room in the Inn ministry. According to family members, he often sat with the men during their meals and talked about God.  

Born and raised on the edge of the Hardscuffle section of East Brentwood, Mr. Oden always referred to the city as his hometown, even though he hadn’t lived there since he was in his early 20s. He remained in contact with several people he grew up with from the Hardscuffle community. 

Brentwood native Alex Noble considered Mr. Oden a first cousin since their families became intertwined in numerous ways. It started when Mr. Oden’s Uncle Robert returned to Brentwood after several years in Georgia, where he married Ethelyn. They “sort of adopted my mother,” young Iva Lee Lott in the late 1920s.  

“They brought her back here and put her in Franklin High School,” Noble said.  

Meanwhile, in 1929 Noble’s grandfather, Dr. Albert Noble and Mr. Oden’s father, Marion Sr., a pharmacist, opened Noble’s Pharmacy in Brentwood. The pharmacy operated until the late 1940s.  

A few years later, Noble’s father, Glenn, and Mr. Oden’s oldest brother, Marion, went into the construction business together. 

“John was a (heck) of a good guy,” Noble said. “I remember he played baseball as a kid.” 

Friends introduced Mr. Oden to his future wife, Sue, in 1950. After he and Sue graduated from their high schools in 1951, they spent a year as students at Belmont College. Mr. Oden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1952 and served three years with the U.S. Army Security Agency. For almost two years, he was stationed at Camp Gordon in Georgia. Before Mr. Oden was sent to Germany for 13 months, he and Sue were married on Jan. 30, 1954. He deployed after their one-week honeymoon and Sue remained with her parents in Nashville, where she worked as a typist. 

When Mr. Oden returned to his bride, he entered the banking business with First American National Bank (now Regions Bank) at the Melrose Branch on Franklin Road in Nashville. In the 22 years in that location, Mr. Oden worked his way up to branch manager. 

He and Sue purchased 10 acres in Thompson’s Station in 1964, created a farm and built a home where their two children flourished along with the cattle, horses, goats, chickens and other critters as well as the field and cash crops they raised. 

Mr. Oden was transferred to the bank’s main branch in Nashville in 1977 and promoted to loan officer, specializing in large commercial loans.  

At the age of 75, he embarked on a four-year project documenting the people, places, businesses, churches, events and memories that produced the Brentwood of today. He also learned the history of his own family, which arrived from Virginia in 1813. His book, “The Brentwood I Remember: A History of the Brentwood Community 1850-1950,” was finally published in 2012 and reprinted in time for the city’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2019. 

Ashley McAnulty, vice chairman of the Brentwood Historic Commission, worked with Mr. Oden to reprint his book and organize the sale of the book and book signings.  

The book “serves as an excellent reference on the city’s early businesses, churches, sports and local personalities through the 1950s, McAnulty said. “Mr. Oden was particularly fond of the Hardscuffle community and shared many of previously unpublished stories of the hard-working families who lived there. Mr. Oden loved growing up in Brentwood and was always willing to share his fond memories of early Brentwood with others.”  

City Commissioner Anne Dunn, who is also a member of the Brentwood Historic Commission, met Mr. Oden during preparations for Brentwood’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2019.  

“His love for Brentwood was so obvious,” she said.  

Dunn recalled Mr. Oden’s involvement with the Owen-Moore family cemetery historic marker dedication in the fall of 2019, soon after Sue’s death. 

“He’d recently lost his wife, but the dedication meant so much to him,” Dunn said. “I was touched by his dedication to this area. Not many people would come out after such a tough loss.” 

Visitation for Mr. Oden was 9-11 a.m. Wednesday in The Atrium at Brentwood Baptist Church. Celebration of Life services were held immediately after in Baskin Chapel with Jim Harvey officiating. Interment followed at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens on Thompson Lane in Nashville. 

Honorary pallbearers were members of the From Here to Eternity Sunday school class at Brentwood Baptist Church. 

Memorial contributions in honor of Mr. Oden’s life can be made to Room in the Inn, 705 Drexel Street, Nashville, 37203. 

Anyone interested in purchasing a copy of Mr. Oden’s book can go online to www.brentwoodtn.gov/about-us/history/historic-commission.

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