By Timothy Moore
Sometime in the autumn of 1970, I was visiting my father at a restaurant in Chattanooga for a rare weekday lunch. I don’t remember the occasion; it was unusual for me to have lunch as a junior in high school in a downtown restaurant. But I do remember what happened that day when a friend of my father’s walked in.
Dad and Jack Lupton had been friends for years. And it seemed to me that “Mr. Lupton” as we called him was one of the sharpest, best dressed men you’d ever come across. His suits seem to fit his thin, dapper frame like a Brooks Brothers’ mannequin, and his collars always seemed crisp with the tie perfectly matched. He was a tall, Johnny Carson figure of sorts, and a man whose angular face the Cubist would have loved. Usually tan, sometimes wearing a collar pin, he looked like the very essence of the “Esquire Man” (when Esquire was still publishing Fitzgerald and Hemingway).
When he came in I had just headed for the men’s bathroom, and “Uncle Jack”, as everybody wanted to call him, was recognized by a few and like a perfect gentleman, went to a couple of tables, shook hands, smiling and gave the right hand short wave to others.
By chance, out of the side of my eye, I saw him head my direction towards the bathroom, so I quickly darted in. Whether he saw me or not I could not tell.
What I did know was that I was going to do all I could to interrupt that perfect appearance of decorum, dress and style that we all envied.
The bathroom was a modest one with two almond metal stalls and a white Formica counter with two sinks and an eight foot mirror stretching from corner to corner. I quickly assessed the situation and decided the only think I could do “upset him” was to lie horizontally on the sink counter, facing down to obstruct both sinks, as if the untimely death of a stranger in a most unlikely place had occurred.
I knew he would understand. I also knew the fight was on: a war of wills as to which one of us would simply concede and say, “Okay, you’re the funniest—you got me.”
But that isn’t the way it would often go with Uncle Jack. I had had many experiences with him, his son Cartter, my best friend, and all the kids in our neighborhood. Growing up in the 60’s, Mr. Lupton had become like a secret hiding place for children, a “place” we could go in the world of 1960’s proper adults and find the White Rabbit of Wonderland, an adult who in a moment’s notice could become sillier than your 12-year old self, and then like magic, transform himself back into “super adult” before his peers.
He knew the trick of it. If no one else ever saw it, had it really happened? He had thrilled you, pulled a trick on “normality”. Did he really do what you thought he did? An adult? Did this man in the grey flannel suit just quickly make a face at you—and then revert to normal. Batman or Bruce Wayne? It was like he was whispering to you, “Yes, I have success, I have nice clothes and a beautiful family—but I’m still your age. Don’t forget it.” And poof! He was the respected Mr. Lupton again. It was magic. Magic.
It led to sort of a “Spanky and our Gang” approach to him at times, or maybe a better way to put it, a Dennis the Menace –Mr. Wilson relationship. And lucky for us, Cartter, his son, shared the same sense of humor and encouraged ways to “get Dad.” We had some wonderful runs.
One in particular that comes to mind was when the kids in the neighborhood learned that Mr. Lupton was having an important house guest stay with him and his wife Alice. We had no idea who it was, just that we were to be on our best behavior because this man and his wife were important. Mr. Lupton wanted to make sure everything went right. It indeed seemed rare, because we rarely received orders like that, and couldn’t remember anybody from out of town ever sleeping overnight anywhere on the Mountain. There really was no place to stay.
But it also seemed like a perfect opportunity.
Albert Wilson, an accomplished wrestler and scholar at Baylor at that time, had somehow from outside the neighborhood, also discovered “the secret child” of Jack Lupton and was amused by and attracted to this gap between appearance and reality. And so it was that Albert, another friend and I came up with an idea that seemed to be a very credible attempt at to derail the cool and dapper Mr. Lupton. Game on.
That Saturday night, Mr. Lupton and his wife Alice, who lived with the knowledge that the neighborhood gang could surprise at any moment, had treated their out of town guests, the golf pro and Augusta National member, Charlie Coe and his wife to dinner in Chattanooga. It may have been that Mr. Lupton was attempting to join the club and Mr. and Mrs. Coe were doing their social due diligence.
As they were winding their way back up to their Lookout Mountain home, a subtle fog had enshrouded the mountain like it often does in the cool springtime. Making the final curve as they approached their attractive, Tudor-style home, we imagined that both he and Alice were regaling the Coes to a series of accolades of how beautiful the mountain was, and what a delightful place it was to live. It was at that moment that Uncle Jack’s silver Continental’s headlights hit their intended target: a huge 5 by 16 foot white lumber sign, nailed securely to the tall pines of their front yard, which read in 18-inch tall black letters, “MOTEL”. And then below it, the critical second blow in 8-inch letters, “Vacancy: Please Drive In”.
The real beauty of it to us kids came after he spotted the sign when pulling into his driveway, he had to explain to the three out of state cars idling in front of his door, in front of the Coes, “No, this residence is not really a motel — and no, there are no vacancies.”
It was, in the kids’ war with Uncle Jack, a perfect strike.
In less than two weeks time, Mr. Lupton struck back, without a word. Albert Wilson and I arrived at wrestling practice one day at school to the snickers of others. After a few minutes we understood why. Up on the wall of the wrestling room was a six by eight foot black and white poster of Albert Wilson and me in a News Free Press photo, holding hands and grinning, a small joke we had secretly played with a Free Press photographer who was shooting a group school photos for the newspaper. Mr. Lupton had exploited it to its fullest, and being Chairman of the Board of the school, there would be no interference with his revenge. The poster stayed up for two grueling weeks.
My stories can be doubled and tripled by others who could fill volumns with the wonderful, mirthful personality of Jack Lupton. We never really thought of him as the “successful businessman” for most of the time in our growing up years, we were not aware that he was successful; we were not concerned with matters of business. And in truth he had not yet taken reins of his company and made such an impressive impact on American business.
In the church service in his honor on Lookout Mountain, Tuesday, the adult Mr. Lupton was honored. The man who had quadrupled his Company’s size, given generously of his fortune to Chattanooga, the University, the community and to countless other charities and individuals was lauded. The Reverend Talbird spoke of his civic achievements, his loyalty and his love for community in age old Episcopal liturgy that Mr. Lupton had surely heard a thousand times.
But as I sat in the pews and thought of the other Jack Lupton, I couldn’t help but smile to think of his devilish smile. He was a man who had given me and my friends the secret knowledge that adulthood wasn’t going to be so bad. You can still remain a child, as he proved that day in the restaurant bathroom in Chattanooga.
He walked into the bathroom, where I was spread sink bowl to sink bowl, face down in front of the mirror. I heard him walk past, relieve himself in the urinal, flush and then come to the sink, where my ankles crossed the bowl. Without hesitation he turned on the water, completely dousing my ankles and filling my shoes with water. Then he began, in what seemed a rehearsed fashion, to blow his nose, clear his throat, and cough loudly.
He took a few more minutes, straightened up his tie, coughing a few more times, and then coolly turned and walked out the door.
He never said word one. But he left the water running.
That’s the Jack Lupton I loved and miss.
Timothy Moore is a writer and restaurateur based in Atlanta. He reports that John T.Lupton was one of the funniest men he ever met.