Oftentimes people who become notable or notorious come to your attention in unusual ways.
It was September 1956. Honey and I had been married for a year. I was a lieutenant in a tank unit stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. We went to the state fair in Louisville. We’d both grown up on farms in Mississippi. I enjoyed the livestock exhibits, especially the colorful chickens. Honey said she’d seen enough farm animals and did not want to look at any 800-pound hogs.
The big attraction at that year’s fair was a pro football exhibition (now preseason) game. We’d never seen a pro game, so we got tickets. It was played in a baseball park. Our seats were in a rickety set of temporary wooden bleachers in left field with the hot sun in our eyes.
During the third quarter, our set of bleachers seemed to give a big sigh and collapsed to the right. Everybody just rode them to the ground and walked away. There were no injuries.
For me, the most noteworthy aspect of the game was the debut of one of the players. A local boy from the University of Louisville started as quarterback for the Baltimore Colts. I’d never heard of him, but one loud-mouthed spectator near us gave his evaluation: “They’re just starting him because he’s local. He’ll probably be cut before the real season starts.”
How wrong he was. And in subsequent years, I’ve gotten to tell people that I was there to see Johnny Unitas make his first start in pro football. (A longer version of this event appeared in Keith Sharon’s column, “The Type Set,” in the Tennessean on Aug. 1, 2021, p. 7c.)
In the 1960s, I was teaching at a boys’ boarding school in Tennessee. One of our students, named Tom, was just a run-of-the-mill kid — a normal teenager in every respect. His parents often came to visit, and when they did, Tom’s younger sister, Mary, was with them. She was a nice-looking, spirited little girl. Tom often bragged about her, saying that she was getting some acting roles. We didn’t think too much about it until Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was made into a movie. And there on the big screen was Mary Badham in the role of “Scout” — some acting roles, indeed.
In 1968, I was doing doctoral work and teaching at UT Knoxville. That summer, Tartan Tuft, the first artificial surface for Neyland Stadium, was being installed. That was a big deal in those days. My route to class took me by the stadium one day while this was in progress. The gates were open, and people were wandering in and out. I joined them.
There were several clusters of folks, totaling about 40, on one sideline watching the process. I noticed a fellow in one group kept looking at me. Something about him was vaguely familiar, but I did not think I knew him. Soon, he walked over to me. His first words were, “You went to Ole Miss, didn’t you?” When I said I had, he said, “I was a freshman running back in 1954 when you were a senior.” Since I had been one of the team’s equipment managers, our paths had crossed.
In our ensuing conversation, I asked him about his line of work. He said, “I’m now selling textbooks. I started in coaching, but you know how it is in these small schools. If you have one or two good players, you’re lucky. Three years ago, I had a great player. We were undefeated until he broke his leg, and then we didn’t win another game. The fans got all upset, and I got into something more stable. By the way, that boy is now a freshman at Ole Miss. I think you’ll hear good things about him before long. His name is Archie Manning.”
That was my introduction to the person who was to become the patriarch of the Manning football dynasty: quarterbacks Archie and Peyton and Eli, Archie’s sons. Another son, Cooper, did not get to play beyond high school because of an injury, but his son, Arch, who is still in high school, is presently one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the country.
And the next year I got to watch Archie play on that new turf in Neyland Stadium.
Now, for the notorious.
During the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s, Byron De La Beckwith became infamous as the assassin of Medgar Evers, one of the Black leaders. Beckwith lay in wait in the bushes near Evans’ home in Jackson, Mississippi, with a rifle and shot him in the back as he came home. He left the rifle behind with his prints on it.
When the story hit the papers, it was reported that Beckwith had gone to high school at a small boys’ boarding school in Tennessee. Since I was teaching at one that fit that description, I asked our alumni director if it was ours. She said it was. I asked if there was anything of interest in his school records. She replied with pursed lips, “I don’t know. I was told to burn them and I did.”
I was dismayed. I could see the historical gap my school had just created for historical researchers and told her so. She responded, “We don’t care. We don’t want anyone to know that a man like that went to our school.”
As Beckwith’s trial approached, I was talking to a relative of mine who had been “sent away” to a military academy in Tennessee. He said, “Yeah, I went to school with ole De La. One day he saw a Black man go into an outdoor privy, so he jammed the door shut with a two-by-four and set it on fire. He was expelled for that. He hasn’t changed any. He’s as guilty as he can be.” Apparently, Beckwith had gone to another school before he’d come to ours.
At his trial, witnesses swore he was with them in Vicksburg at the time of the murder. When the result was a hung jury, the courtroom erupted in cheers. Knowing he could not get a guilty verdict, the DA did not retry the case, and ole De La walked free, becoming a hero to white supremacists.
But times and people change. Some years later, a new DA decided it was time for justice and reopened the case. Beckwith’s Vicksburg friends had memory losses, and he died in prison.
It’s always good to see truth come out on top.