Grayer skies with hints of rain because of a cold front threatening these mountains greeted our hometown where folks will be turning up the heat and piling on blankets, as the temperature drops into the low 20s mid week
For the past many months I have been keeping an eye out for Tom Sutton, former Cocke County commissioner. You might have seen a photo of him warming the bench at Walmart. He seems to know everyone and all stop and say a kind word.
In late October it was a pleasure to attend his birthday party hosted by his family including daughter Panzie Wolf. They gathered at Smoky Mountain Home Health and Hospice, but Tom doesn’t need their help yet.
He turned 95 on October 25, 2019 and hardly looks his age still able to carry a tune, when he sings those old time Gospel hymns while relaxing at his Greasy Cove Rd home. The music carries him back to his youth growing up near Caton’s Grove Methodist Church and playing as a boy near what is today Gilliland Cemetery in the Smoky Park boundary.
Tom is the only living child of Floyd and Ada (Forrester) Sutton. They had five children: Carey Phillips just died several months ago; Jetta Bee died at age 13 because of diabetes; Clyde Sutton; and Flora, who was married to Bill Dockery; and Tom, whose real name is William Allen Sutton.
Eventually Floyd and family hopped over to nearby Groundhog Road and bought about 10 acres to raise tobacco and live on a mini-farm.
It was here that Tom recalls the funny story of his sister Jetta Bee taking two live chickens to Tommy Phillips grocery store off Cosby Highway. She wanted to trade the chickens for candy. I imagine that Mr. Phillips went along with the deal. The old cinder block store building still stands.
Coming back to the future, I find it extraordinary that Tom still drives. He has a silver 2008 Impala. He knows where Walmart is and how to drive there by himself to do his shopping, because he also cooks for himself.
Before he gets on the road he says a little prayer: “Lord, I’m driving today. Don’t let me hurt anybody or get hurt.”
His father Floyd had a T-Model Ford. Tom was about 15 when he first learned to drive the T-Model on gravel Cosby Highway, as it was in those years in the late 1930s.
Floyd was a farmer but in his later years worked at the county rock quarry. He lived to be age 72. His widow lived well beyond into her 80s. They are buried at Caton’s Grove Cemetery behind the church.
Tom remembered that when his mother was older and they happened to be driving by the cemetery she would throw up her hands and scream.
So how did William Allen become “Tom?” The name was stuck on him when he was a boy and it was related to the death of a neighbor, Tom Dorsey.
The story is told that little Tom was at home with the family when a neighbor came in to report that Tom Dorsey had just gotten killed. At that point little William Allen said, “Call me Tom.” The name stuck.
Tom attended school until the eighth grade but his heart wasn’t in studying and he was needed to help with the farm chores whether the tobacco patch or tending livestock. It was the Great Depression era and a tough lifestyle for mountain people.
It made more sense for Tom to join the Army than to continue in school. This decision gave him the rare opportunity to ride the Queen Mary from New York to England, a four-and-a-half day journey.
“They fed us kidney stew. I got sick.” He also never forgot the wave as big as the Smoky Mountains dashing into the steel ship’s hull. Tom was fortunate to stay in England for three years, the duration of World War II working in hospitals to aid the wounded.
One particular story he recalls happened while traveling in a canvas topped truck hauling hospital personnel. “We stopped to pick up three nurses.” It wasn’t long that the truck overturned on its side. “We got off and walked back to camp.” Tom wasn’t hurt but reported the truck had another crash later.
To be continued...