Dear marks a milestone

Connor O’Neil, six-year-old grandson of Duay and Kay O’Neil, will be a first grader at Drayton Hall Elementary School this fall. His granddad dedicates the final “As It Was Give to Me” column to him today.

Today’s column is dedicated to my grandson, Connor Dash O’Neil, my beloved six-year-old grandson in Charleston, South Carolina.

Dear Connor:

Today is Friday, July 31, 2020. It is a special day for me, one filled with both joy and a tinge of sadness.

You see, today brings to a close a remarkable chapter in my life, that of writing this column.

I double-checked with Stokely Memorial Library to make sure I had my date right. The first time As It Was Give to Me appeared was January 6, 2002. It was the first of a two-part installment on Cocke County pioneer Joseph Conway, who settled down Bybee way shortly after the Revolutionary War. Today Conway Bridge across the Nolichucky River reminds us of the family’s importance in that community.

When I launched As It Was Give to Me, I had absolutely no idea it would continue as long as it has. I truly thought I’d share information about Cocke County history with readers for a year or two and that would be it. After all, what could I possibly find to write about for any longer?

The column’s name “As It Was Give to Me” pays tribute to one of my dearest friends, Lola Carrell Hall. When I was a teenager, just beginning to research our family’s history, she was my mentor. She and her husband Paris were kin to us “six ways for Sunday,” so she already had lots of information about our people. She joyfully shared her research with others, and was a marvelous storyteller, always concluding with the words “And that’s how it was give to me.” Not “given,” … “give.”

For well over 17 years, I rarely missed a Sunday. Technically I’ve written As It Was Give to Me for 18 and one half years, so, subtracting about half a year’s Sundays from the total, I figure I’ve written about 936 columns.

Wow! Who would have thought?

I haven’t done it alone, mind you. One of the blessings of this job has been making new dear and lifelong friends. I quickly realized the need of having a “go-to” source in each community, usually an older person with a sharp mind and memory. Sadly several of these people are gone now---Brenda Wilburn, Wilma Proffitt, ReVel Bell, Beth Freeman, Bud Campbell, Bud Ledford, Beth Runnion, Tildy Webb, Nathan Jones, Eddith Johnson, Jeanette Ragan...the list is endless. Once I laughed and said, “If I called Wilma Proffitt and asked her if she remembered someone from Mongolia, she’d reply, ‘Of course!’ and then tell a fascinating tale about her connection with the fellow.

Many people still living have also been of tremendous help, sharing their ideas for columns, photos, documents, helping me connect with others. Thanks to all of you from the bottom of my heart.

When I started the column, I pledged to keep it as free of politics as possible, but I confess, on rare occasions I have strayed. One column that comes to mind was my history lesson to J.J. Stanbaugh, a reporter for a Knoxville newspaper, who devoted a good part of his life, at least for a time, to making fun of Cocke County and our people. I learned later that his enmity stemmed from a personal situation connected to some of our county’s Republican leaders.

Anyway, I finally had enough of his snarky comments, went to my then-boss David Popiel and asked for permission to address the issue. The result was tremendous! I really think I could have run for any office in Cocke County at the time and won.

The year Great Smoky Mountain National Park turned 75 was special.

I was privileged to be part of a committee to plan celebratory events for that year. As one of Tennessee’s three counties making up the Park, Cocke County received much good publicity that year. I asked for, and received, permission to dedicate an entire year’s columns to the history of Cosby, our community in the Park. I ended up with 54 columns on topics ranging from Cosby’s earliest days to individual families to my personal favorite, Cosby’s moonshining history.

That’s when I made the acquaintance of the late Bud Ledford, who was once “in the business” and who shared a tremendous amount of history with me. At the end I counted him a dear friend. He truly educated me about the economic impact moonshining had on our county and the important part it played in our history.

That year also saw the Cocke County Tourism Department host a luncheon for several men and women who had been born in what became the Park. Sadly most are gone now, but it was an historic day. We also produced Under the Apple Trees, the story of the Carver family and their orchard business. It was wildly popular and was brought back for a second year. Good times! Thank you, Linda Lewanski, for your dedication to your job and to Cocke County. What fun we had that year!

Along with bringing As It Was Give to Me to a close, I’m also retiring from my job as Assistant Editor of the Newport Plain Talk. In doing so, I can say I have been “in journalism” for 50 years, as a full-time reporter, part-time writer, columnist, photographer, and contributor.

Fifty years...half a century. Whew! But, as Nathan Ford said when he was honored for fifty years membership in the Newport Lions Club, “It’s not so hard to get 50 years in something...just don’t die.”

I was only 18 years old (not much older than you!) when I walked into the newly established Cocke County Banner and told them I was there to be their Feature Writer. (I really had no idea what a Feature Writer did; I had seen someone with that byline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel).

It was the summer of 1970, and I had just finished my freshman year at ETSU and needed a job. Believe me back then there were few positions available for young people in Cocke County, so I was indeed blessed when the late Ola Fancher hired me. Afterwards I went home to find out exactly what a “Feature Writer” was.

Cocke County had two newspapers in 1970, the Banner and the Plain Talk, and the competition was keen. We took pictures of everything and everybody. I once drove to Grassy Fork to take a picture of a four-legged chicken! Summer brought two-pound tomatoes which called for a photo op. One Saturday night, I made pictures at thirteen bridal showers, accruing over 200 miles on your great-granddad’s car. I got to cover President Nixon’s visit to ETSU and ride the press bus with the likes of Dan Rather and Roger Mudd. I also took pictures at the scene of one of Cocke County’s most famous murders and had to sign a deposition for the resulting trial. Pretty heady stuff for a teenager.

In more recent years, I was privileged to interview Martin Luther King III when he visited Newport and ate supper with him at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church!

Along the way, I learned more and more about Cocke County, my home and your heritage, its people, communities, and history. Most is good, but, as with everything, some is not. That’s just the way it is no matter where one lives.

Since joining the staff of the Plain Talk, after I retired from teaching, I’ve earned several first place awards from the Tennessee Press Association: Best Education Reporting, Best Special Edition, Best Investigative Reporting, and even a Meeman Award for community service. But, you know, I never won a first place for my column? I’ll admit, that hurts. Apparently the judges never quite knew what to make of it.

Even better than the TPA awards have been the local accolades from various clubs, boards, and groups. As a reporter, I think part of my responsibility to our readers has been to do whatever I can to make Cocke County a better place. Covering the school board meetings, the Newport Utilities board meetings, and Chamber of Commerce doings has been a distinct pleasure. Traveling to Hartford each spring with Jan Brockwell and Shalee McClure for the annual rafting inspections has been fun. Among my favorites have been the activities of our young folks, such as the Cosby Junior Beta Club and the CCHS FFA. Telling the public about Alexa Austin’s personal fight against Alzheimer’s has brought me more happiness than I can describe. Keep your eye on her, Connor! You’ll hear more about Alexa as the years pass.

Every time I watch our young people taking leadership roles, I feel good about our future.

And speaking of the future…

With the end of this chapter in my life, I’ll have more time to devote to you, my fine fellow. You’re already six years old, tall as can be, smart as a whip, and a natural born athlete. Hopefully I’ll be around for several more years to watch you grow even more and teach you how to play bridge. I look forward to crossing the “Big Pond” with you and showing you the sights of London, Oxford, Edinburgh, and Stratford with an early morning trip to Stonehenge.

As you mature, I hope you’ll always remember to treat others with kindness and respect. Your teacher this year commented once that you were the most thoughtful, caring student she had, and that made me very, very proud.

Always remember it’s not how much money one has, not the color of one’s skin, not one’s political party, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, level of education, or national origin that matters. What’s truly important is what you develop inside your heart and how you treat other people.

Always remember that, practice that, and you’ll be fine. Remember, too, you can be anything you want, from an astronaut to a pro-basketball player (two of your goals thus far), but you’ll have to work hard to reach your dreams. Don’t ever forget what Auntie Mame said: “Life is a banquet, and most poor fools are starving to death!”

So, with that being said, I’ll sign off one more time with the words, “And, that’s how it was give to me.”

All My Love, D

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