Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My favorite Jim East stories

My friend and former colleague Jim East has been under the weather lately. I know many of you know Jim, either from his many years at The Tennessean, Williamson A.M., the Franklin Review Appeal, UPI ... Well, everywhere, basically.

Anyhow, I thought the best way to say how special Jim is would be to share some of my favorite Jim stories -- those about Jim or told by Jim.

Once, when Jim was a GA reporter at The Tennessean several years ago, there was a police-involved shooting here in Metro -- as I recall, some sheriff's deputies were serving some warrants on a bad dude who was holed up in a house. He shot at the deputies, and then they shot him dead. Jim was part of the team who covered it. The next day some obituary-style info on the dude ran in the paper under Jim's byline -- date and time of services, names of survivors, et cetera, phrased in the way that was our style at the time: Survivors include his mother, Jane Doe; brothers John Doe, Jim Doe, Jack Doe, all of Nashville, and sister Janet Doe, of Cookeville, or whatever.

A couple of days later, Jim got a complaint letter from a reader that went something like this: "Dear Mr. East, please cancel my subscription to your newspaper. How dare you say that 'all of Nashville' is in mourning for this loser who shot at a cop."

I remember the day I covered the Olympic torch coming through the Nashville area on its way to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games. It was a long day on the job, and I missed the best part of it, learning only the next morning from my co-workers about Jim's comedic re-enactment of the torch relay outside Cafe 123, across the street from the newspaper building, "running" in slow-motion for dramatic effect while holding aloft his flaming cigarette lighter. (Smoking probably hasn't helped Jim's health. I remember he once started a Christmastime column for Williamson A.M. by saying he'd heard the local chamber of commerce encouraging people to see Franklin all lit up. So, he wrote, he "lit one up" and drove around looking at the lights.)

Another great Jim-mail story: Jim wrote the the funniest newspaper column I think I have ever read, back a few years ago for Williamson A.M., in which he described the pre-Easter season and various conveniences and pleasures that Williamson Countians were giving up for what he repeatedly referred to as "Lint" -- referred to it not just twice, but a total of 16 times in the text. (The foregone pleasures included reloading their own shotgun shells, playing tennis at Maryland Farms Athletic Club, and carrying firearms to Spring Hill city meetings.) Not long after, Jim started getting letters: Did he know he misspelled "Lent" all the way through his column?

But my favorite Jim story is one that Jim told himself. I can't tell it nearly as well as he did.

It was back in about 1984 or so, and Jim was -- and I may have my facts wrong here -- the Tennessee press secretary for the presidential campaign of Walter "Fritz" Mondale. The campaign arranged a big event in Memphis that would bring in a huge political name: Marion Barry, Washington, D.C.'s mayor and former civil rights activist (this was years before his crack-smoking, "the b*&^% set me up" days).

Even better, the event where Barry was going to speak was at the big Memphis church pastored by none other than the Rev. Al Green.

This was going to be huge. Barry, who had been elected DC mayor six years earlier, was a major national celebrity. He also had Tennessee ties, having attended the University of Tennessee and having participated in the Nashville sit-ins.

So Mayor Barry traveled down to Memphis from DC. The campaign was supposed to arrange to get him to the church. Something logistical went wrong somewhere. When the appointed time came for the event to start, not only was Mayor Barry not present, the campaign didn't even know where he was.

So, here were thousands of people and the press, all gathered at this church. The candidate is there. Al Green is there. But the special guest, the mayor of Washington, D.C., is nowhere to be found.

Jim and the other campaign staffers start scrambling. Eventually, they find that Mayor Barry is being chauffeured from the airport by a well-meaning campaign volunteer who was legally blind, and who had decided to detour on the way to the church and drive to his own neighborhood to show off Mayor Barry to his friends.

I think they eventually did get the mayor to the church, though there was a pronounced delay. And I don't think the legally blind volunteer was allowed to do anymore driving on behalf of the campaign.

Like I said, I can't tell it nearly as well as Jim did.

But one more thing about Jim.

I interned here at The Tennessean the year between my junior and senior years at Vanderbilt, and that's when I first got to know Jim. I returned to school in the fall and went back to writing for the student newspaper, and one day we had to report on some criminal matter that involved a student -- I can't remember if it was on-campus or off-campus. I forget who we had to call to interview, but I remember that I was dreading it. At some point, I called the Tennessean newsroom for some kind of assistance in dealing with the police, and they connected me to the cops reporter on duty -- Jim.

I told Jim about my dilemma. Well, you just have to make the call and ask, he told me: "You never ask any questions, you never get any answers."

It's simple, but it's profound. I've never forgotten it.

I have worked as an editor for a few years now. While I don't think I speak from the position of authority with which Jim spoke to me that day, I have repeated that phrase many times to reporters I have worked with. It never fails to help.

Jim, you probably won't see this while you're feeling bad, but I love you, and you're in my prayers. Get well soon. :)

(If you've got a favorite Jim story you wouldn't mind sharing, please post it in the comments below or feel free to e-mail me at jpeebles@tennessean.com.)

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