I didn’t like newspaper publisher Ron Fryar’s assignment.
I recall thinking: “How boring this is going to be … both to our readers, and to me, the writer.”
The assignment came via email: “Whittle, I need you to do a series of stories about historic cemeteries in Cannon County.”
Another initial thought popped in my now feverish, intensely-aggravated mind: “Damn, this is going to be one labor-intensive assignment … taking lots of research and time, not to mention tiring treks in the hot summertime through countless cemeteries, some of which will be over-run with weeds and chiggers that relish invading my trousers.”
However, it wasn’t long before I started seeing the bright side of the assignment.
First positive thought bubbled up that a cemetery series would allow me to recount to readers my special friendship with Cannon County’s overall-wearing vegetable garden growing/whopper story telling legend C.L. Vickers, who is buried in Bradyville Pike’s Thyatira Cemetery, one of the region’s most uniquely-named cemeteries.
C.L. was one my best “sources” for colorful stories, and I still miss him.
Being a veteran newspaperman, I have “sources” planted over multiple states.
Another of the first positives of the assignment that I personally labeled “Whittle’s death beat.” was that I cultivated a new news source, to wit, lifelong Woodbury resident Bobby Womack, who since has evolved into one of my most valued friends for life.
Bobby directed me to a man who turned out to be an authoritative expert on cemeteries in the beautiful meandering rolling hills of Cannon County. Seeing those beautiful country scenes was another positive.
I keyed in the suggested source’s phone number: “Mr. Joe Davenport, this is Dan Whittle. My publisher has ordered me to do a series of stories about cemeteries, Can you help me?”
Bobby had certainly channeled me to the right man, for Mr. Joe Davenport is walking/talking encyclopedia of history.
“Just call me Joe,” retired school superintendent/history teaching professor Mr. Davenport instructed, which put me at ease.
How much history does Joe know? So much, he’s the president of the Cannon County Historical Association.
By the time Joe and I had trekked through a few cemeteries, all negative thoughts about the cemetery assignment had evaporated.
I recall thinking, “Joe must have been an awesome history teacher, for he sure knows how to make cemetery history come alive” as we moseyed from one cemetery to the next.
Now, fast forward to the present: Recently, while wife Pat and I were breaking bread at a public eatery, my phone rang, … “Dan, this you’re your favorite publisher: One of your stories just won first place as the best feature story, as judged by our peers in the Tennessee Press Association.”
“Hey, that’s exciting,” I expressed in joyful shock. “Which story?”
“It was one of your cemetery series,” publisher replied.
As it turned out, the feature was about Melton Cemetery, up on history-laden Short Mountain that gives rest to a bloody, tumultuous past when neighbors stalked neighbors, sometimes in the name of patriotism, sometimes in harsh malice and greed, but all a part of this nation’s inglorious War Between the States.
In Melton Cemetery, on state Route 146 between Woodbury and Smithville, rests the remains of Confederate guerilla fighter Hiram T. “Pomp” Kersey.
A few days later, when sharing a Friday feast of fried catfish at Parsley’s Market, Publisher Fryar asked if I remembered all my “whining and “belly-aching” about the cemetery series’ assignment?
After being reminded of my whining, I thought of another misconception I had going into the cemetery series Courier Editor Mike West and I eventually entitled: “History Lives Here.”
Of all the cemeteries Joe Davenport and I trudged through, not one was over-run with weeds due to neglect, which speaks well of Cannon County folks and their respect for their ancestors.
There was one other big positive from the cemetery series: I didn’t get one chigger bite from the assignment I had so many misgivings about.