School days

Kindergarten class

Miss Reese Templeton's 1939 kindergarten class

Kindergarten reunion in Charleston - 1996

My formal education began in Reece Templeton’s kindergarten on Cumberland Avenue in 1939. There were 11 of us in the class (listed from left to right in the picture above): standing: Lida Margaret Miller, Jimmy Bealle, Madelyn Lowe, Hugh Finley, Doris Ellison, Ed Miller; seated:  Dickie Davenport, Mary Mahan McCall, Emma Jo Vaughan and Billy Ballard. Madelyn Lowe and Mary Mahan left Jellico shortly after that, but the rest of us grew up there and formed the nucleus of a band of friends who have remained close despite time and geography. We got together for the first time since high school in 1981 when our graduating class of 1952 held a reunion in Knoxville. Our little group had its own special reunion. I recall a certain nervousness at re-encountering these childhood friends. Our lives had all taken such different routes since Jellico, and I wondered if we would have anything in common. We didn’t have much except our Jellico upbringing—and that was enough. The years melted away in minutes and we had re-assumed our youthful personae. In 1996, we got together again, this time in Charleston, South Carolina, where Dick Davenport lives. Incredibly eight of the original 11 kindergartners were there. (We posed for a picture in the same order as we appeared in 1939). We were missing only Billy Ballard, who had passed away, Madelyn Lowe and Mary Mahan McCall. It’s the only kindergarten reunion that I’ve ever heard of. We’ve held several more since, but each time mourning the loss of one or more of our friends.

My cousin, Emma Jo Vaughan Salmon, who died May 14, 2009, wrote about that incredible 1996 kindergarten reunion, shortly after it occurred. Here’s her account:

In 1939, as Miss Reece Adams gathered her energetic 4- and 5-year-old kindergarten students for a photograph, she probably never imagined that friendships had been forged that would refuse to allow time or distance to diminish. She could not have foreseen that almost 60 years later this tight-knit group would gather once again for a photograph with all but three present. Yet, there we were, our appearances not quite the same, but the spirit and soul of our love for one another had endured for more than half a century. …
Public schools did not provide a kindergarten in those days, and our parents, being the good parents that they were, had persuaded Miss Reece to do the honors. Our classroom was in a building behind the Templeton family home, and we arrived at school each day full of promise and enthusiasm. At the risk of revealing my interests, I can best remember our musical efforts, snacks, and going to the main house to use the bathroom. One of our favorite stories concerns Dick Davenport who finally got his turn and stayed forever. Miss Reece asked him what was the problem and he replied, “I can’t find it. It was here when I left home this morning.” I have no worries about repeating this story because of all the people I know, Dick has the most delightful sense of humor. As successful as he has been, he has never lost his appreciation for the pure joy of living.
In the fall of 1940, seven of the group who were of school age started the first grade. Dick and Jim Bealle were younger and started the next year. Mary Mahan McCall and Madelyn Lowe left Jellico with their families, but have managed to stay in touch with their kindergarten friends. The first-graders, Alice Ann Tramell, Lida Margaret Miller, Doris Ellison, Hugh Finley, Ed Miller, Billy Ballard and myself were never separated and remained in the same class until we graduated from high school in 1952. …
We grew up in the most innocent of times. Riding our bicycles on the old road to Williamsburg, where later we also  would learn to drive, Saturday movies, swimming at Sandy Beach, (actually, a river called the Clear Fork of the Cumberland), hiking in the mountains, lazy days at Big Ridge Park, rounding up the gang and heading to Cumberland Falls in Kentucky, football and basketball games, our senior trip to Washington, and the “Friday Night Club.” Jellico had few places for us to gather, and our parents realizing our need to congregate, had opened their homes. Now, the first-graders, later teen-agers, never did any serious dating. We would have considered that almost like “kissing your cousin,” which would be fairly accurate because their were three sets of cousins, products of the Ellison, McComb, and Miller families. We had an unfailing loyalty to one another that transcended the usual boy-girl relationships.
Our younger classmates were always a major part of our circle of friends. Bealle later attended McCallie school in Chattanooga, but of course, he was always home in the summer. I think of him even today for his enormous capacity for friendship. Dick was just there, always up to whatever fun he could instigate. Others drifted in over the years, some younger and some older, and soon our group had grown in size. We never thought of ourselves as an exclusive group, but I do believe that our friendship was so unique in character that we had grown to expect certain behavior and perhaps we were unyielding in our assessment of others.
Sadly, Billy Ballard, the only one of our kindergarten friends to die early, lost his battle with cancer in the late 1980s. We will forever remember the radiance of his smile, his sweet and caring personality, and the kindness that was the trademark of his character. Nancy Cross and Joe Bill Brown, joining our group later, have both passed away, also victims of cancer. Joe Bill was our gracious host in 1981 for a high school reunion. On that occasion, Joe Bill was aware that he was ill, but had been particularly anxious to see his friends and never hinted about his illness. Years later, Nancy had been battling cancer for months and had encouraged another reunion. Unfortunately, she did not live until that magical April 1996.
After graduation, we went in different directions. Most were off to college, but in the summer and on breaks, we could be found together eagerly catching up on the latest news. In he fall of 1952, Bob Salmon and his family moved to Jellico. His father was pastor of the Methodist Church, and with me being a member and a next-door neighbor, it was almost inevitable that Bob and I began dating. We fell in love and two years later we were married. After all of those years of closeness and the short-lived romances that our old crowd had enjoyed, Bob and I were the only couple to marry. Forty-three years and four children later, we are not only married, we are best friends [Editor’s note: Bob died of cancer in 2002].
Shortly after Nancy’s death in early 1996, we began to experience an urgency to make plans for a reunion. Although we had never lost touch, it had been too many years since we were all together. We didn’t really consider going back to Jellico because we no longer had family there. Dick was living in Charleston, South Carolina, and we readily agreed to visit this beautiful city. Dick made his plans, and knowing that a woman’s touch would be helpful, Alice Ann was named Madame Chairman. Alice Ann had moved with her family to Atlanta and her husband, Glen Sage, also had died of cancer. Glen was so endearing that we felt that we had lost an old friend.
We never dreamed that we could so successfully have just about everybody present. After months of anticipation the day arrived and eight of the original kindergarten class of 11 were there. Dick had warmly welcomed us to his home, and although many of us were staying at the historic Meeting Street Inn, Dick’s fabulous townhouse on North Adger’s Wharf became the official headquarters and what a perfect place it was! Jim Bealle and his wife, Janice, who live in Atlanta were on hand. Lida, a recognized artist with an impressive list of accomplishments, flew in from California. She and her husband, Austin, with their two daughters, had lived in Raleigh for many years but had recognized what the West Coast had to offer. Ed Miller, now living in Knoxville, came with his wife, Ghislaine, a Brazilian girl he had met and married in Austria while serving in the Armed Forces. Ed has traveled the world and has had a distinguished career in journalism. Prior to our reunion, he had produced a booklet of information pertaining to those attending and it was absolutely devoured.Doris had gone to St. Louis to teach more than 40 years ago, met the love of her life, Jerry Robinson, married and raised her family there. Jerry died much too young, and again, we felt the pain for Doris. Doris arrived in Charleston counting off the months until she could retire. Hugh Finley, who was just Finley to us, drove with his wife, Susan, from Proctor Hollow. Finley, after many years in California, had returned to the family farm just across the line in Kentucky where he had spent his childhood. He had the best of all worlds. He had his friends in Jellico and the solitude and quiet beauty of Proctor, an idyllic atmosphere for growing and learning. His calm and quiet demeanor was reassuring as we struggled to gain maturity as we were growing up. Janice Ausmus Simpson, who spends time in both Jellico and Knoxville, joined Bob and me for the trip. Janice’s eyes twinkle, and she has a smile that can light up the room. She rarely seemed distressed with any situation, but when things were not going well, she had no reluctance to say so.
Barbara McIntyre Dodson and her husband, Jim, drove from Athens, Tennessee. From Carrollton, Ohio, Roy Smith and his wife, Susie, arrived. This story would be incomplete without an explanation about Roy. Most classrooms have a student with an extraordinary brain. This same person usually is rather impressed with his or her ability, and makes certain that others know as well. Not Roy! He seemed almost unaware of his gift, and made an effort to make sure that we didn’t set him apart or treat him any differently. He was the essence of humility, relaxing company, and so easy to like. Sheffy Miller flew in from Texas where he has lived for many years, and he too, had spent several years in California. Although Sheffy had spent his high school years at Tennessee Military Institute, he was never far from our hearts. Dorothy Couk Wierwillie and her husband, George, arrived from Cincinnati, and Jo Ann Ketchersid McKinney came from Sarasota, Florida, a day later. Jo Ann, Barbara, and Dorothy had entered the picture long after the odyssey began. How difficult it must have been to enter a whole different world, to make new friends, and to feel that they belonged. Yet, each made her mark, each in a different way, and we had the delightful experience of new friends that became very dear and permanent. This speaks volumes about the ease and grace of the relationships that seemed to have a life of their own.
As we began to arrive in Charleston on that Friday in April, what a glorious day it was! The moment we caught a glimpse of a each new arrival, the love was evident on our faces. Hugs, smiles, and laughter were the order of the day, and almost instantly we picked up where we had left off so many years before. Not one awkward moment, not one pretentious minute, just old friends enjoying one another’s company. We had gone back in time to those precious days that were such an important part of our history. We knew one another so well, and had established a collective conscience that had not allowed us to stray very far from the fold. We were engulfed in a sense of belonging, being just where we wanted to be.
Dick had such a well-organized plan that we had not one worry while in Charleston. We had a private tour of this lovely city that was to become very dear to us. We dined at The Magnolias with a vocal performance by the chef, (a special birthday greeting for Bealle) and more importantly, we talked, talked, and talked. We remembered events, large and small, that were so delightful that we were almost overwhelmed with memories. We teased, we played, and we loved. At that moment, we understood the depth of our friendship and knew that whatever turns our lives might take, we were soul mates, now and forever.
Very late on Saturday night and into the wee hours of Sunday, we sat together, almost hushed by the thought that we would soon say good-bye. We were pensive, reluctant to let go, and to lighten the mood, we began to consider our next reunion. We first spoke of another reunion in five years, then four years, and it then became apparent rather quickly that many of us believed, although it was an almost unspoken fear, that we had reached an age when we could not count on another five years. Several in our group had experienced health problems, and although they were enjoying good health at the moment, who knew what the coming years would bring. After much discussion, we decided on 1998, two years away and almost not soon enough. Our spirits were somewhat lifted but many tears and emotion played out the evening. …
Is there an explanation for our special friendship? We loved unconditionally, we learned from one another, we shared our joys and our pain, we were compassionate and caring, made few judgments and overlooked mistakes. We were supportive and sometimes counseled as only best friends can. Arguments were almost non-existent and hurt feelings passed quickly. We had an unspoken oath of loyalty and respect that survived the test of time. We understand and appreciate the rarity of our relationship that was seeded so many years ago and has endured for more than 60 years.

A downtown shooting

In spite of my frequent paddlings and other punishments for disruptive behavior in elementary school, I remember all my teachers fondly, and I think I learned a lot. My grades weren’t outstanding, probably because of my behavior, but I got by OK.

I was pretty independent as a child. When the doctor decided that I needed to have my tonsils and adenoids removed, I insisted on going to the hospital by myself, even though I was only 8 years old.

Jellico, in spite of its veneer of civility, was a pretty rough place in those years. Disgruntled coal miners would dump loads of coal in front of businesses they thought were not supporting them in a strike. Stabbings and shootings occurred in the beer joints just outside of town every weekend. One episode that stands out in memory came when I was in the eighth grade, not yet 12 years old. It was the lunch hour and for some reason I had gone to town instead of eating lunch at school, as I usually did. I had just about reached Blankenship’s store on South Main when I heard shots and saw a man fly across the sidewalk. I learned later that the two men, Alonzo Cox and McKinley Blankenship, had been in an argument, apparently over some sort of love triangle. As I recall, the shooter claimed he fired in self-defense. The men, according to witnesses quoted in press accounts at the time, scuffled, then Cox pulled a pistol and fired four times, three of the bullets hitting Blankenship and killing him almost instantly. A woman bystander also was slightly injured by a stray bullet.

Sheriff Rose Kitts was quoted in an AP story published in the Knoxville Journal as saying, “Cox told me Blankenship started the fight and threatened to kill him.” Blankenship, described as a former Elk Valley merchant, had just had lunch with his brother, H.D. Blankenship, owner of a small dry goods, when the shooting occurred.

The press accounts didn’t mention it, but people in Jellico who recall the shooting say that Blankenship was not armed. Cox hired one of the state’s top defense attorneys, Ray Jenkins, the Knoxville lawyer who eventually won national fame in the McCarthy-Army hearings a decade later, and was acquitted. Prosecuting for the state were Howard Baker Sr., the attorney general and later long-time congressman, and the incumbent 2nd District U.S. representative, John Jennings. Baker was the father of Howard Henry Baker Jr., the former senator and chief of staff for President Reagan. The shooting occurred on September 25, 1946, a Wednesday. The not guilty verdict was returned on Friday, December 20, 1946: speedy Campbell County justice. It was interesting to note in the news stories that one of the many eye-witnesses to the shooting was Aunt Susie Nobles, my Grandfather Baird’s sister. She had an apartment just over one of the stores near where the shooting took place. A news story said she had just arrived from Knoxville, no doubt riding in her chauffeur-driven, maroon 1939 Buick.

I was asked, along with numerous other eye-witnesses, to come to the preliminary hearing before a justice of the peace at the City Jail. Daddy went along with me, but I was never asked to testify  and was not called to appear before the grand jury in Jacksboro. The matter was dispatched speedily, with Cox being bound over to the grand jury under $10,000 bond.

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6 Responses to School days

  1. sharon says:

    I knew everybody but the victim

  2. Carol Blankenship says:

    I am so happy that I found your blog. It has kept me and my family entertained and encouraging so many memories and stories. I remember, as a very young child, (early 1950s) spending the night in the apartment over my grandparent’s store on South Main Street and hearing the horses clomping up the street on their way to the train depot.
    McKinley (Shorty) Blankenship was my great uncle and H.D. Blankenship was my grandfather. Many years after the shooting, my father, John Blankenship, was making funeral arrangements for his aunt (Ollie Baird Owens of Elk Valley) at the Cox Funeral Home in Jellico and Alonzo Cox approached my father and offered his apologies for the shooting.

  3. GORDON FLEMING says:

    September 22, 2013

    Dear Mr. Miller,

    My mother-in-law was Ethel Blankenship Card. She was the brother of H.D. Blankenship who was Carol Blankenship’s grandfather. Carol wrote you on August 26th expressing her interest in your article about the tragic loss of her uncle.

    For some time I have been working on a family history of the Blankenships of Campbell County. Your account of the murder of McKinley Blankenship was very helpful to me in providing additional background, and color, to my understanding of the event.

    Since Carol’s parents have passed away, June and I do not know how to contact her.
    I believe I have some family information which would be of interest to her; and she possibly has some data which would be helpful to us, as we continue to work on our narrative about this very interesting East Tennessee pioneer family.

    If you would be kind enough to ask her to contact us through this E-Mail address , or phone 423-892-4923, it would be most appreciated.

    Thank you very much,

    Gordon Fleming

  4. Edgar says:

    In regard to Carol Blankenship’s post above, I would like to note that my brother, Elbert M. “Mac” Miller, of Maryville, Tennessee, was a good friend of John Blankenship, and had seen him a few years ago at a Jellico High School reunion. He also reminded me that H.D. Blankenship was married to my mother’s first cousin, Lillie Baird Blankenship.

  5. Zora Eblen Bivens says:

    Ed,
    As I said on your facebook post, I have really enjoyed reading your notes; and it has brought back many, many memories of places and peoples in Jellico. Thank you so much for the opportunity to spend the afternoon “going back in time”.

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