published Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Cook: Flowers for William, cheers for Johnny

MEMORIAL DAY EVENTS

• Chattanooga National Cemetery Memorial Day Program

Monday at 11 a.m. at the cemetery pavilion with keynote speaker Harry Carroll, Veterans of Foreign Wars department commander for Tennessee.

• At 7 p.m., there will be a Torch Light Tour of the cemetery led by Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park historian Jim Ogden

• Dalton, Ga.

Monday at 10 a.m. at the courthouse with presentation of colors, music, laying of wreaths, followed by food and booths with information for veterans and their families at Dalton Green.

• Cleveland, Tenn.

Monday at 10:30 a.m. at the Bradley County Courthouse Plaza with pastor and Tennessee Army National Guard chaplain Matthew Ward as guest speaker.

I met Irene Blake Tucker at Patten Parkway on a sunny afternoon. She grabbed my arm, the way some older women do in church, and walked me straight to the spot.

"That's my brother," she said.

There's an urban island among all the businesses and parking spots at Patten Parkway near Martin Luther King Boulevard. The pub and beauty salon on one side, the coffeeshop on the other, with this thin strip of island in between.

It has places to sit, some shade trees that people smoke and text under, and the real reason Irene is still holding my arm: a not-too-large monument with 687 names on it.

The Hamilton County men who fought in World War II.

In humility and gratitude, this memorial is dedicated to the memory of each son of this city and county who gave his all ...

The monument is old in a nostalgic, forgotten way, like a front porch rocker. Somebody's even tagged the backside of it with yellow graffiti.

Irene finds his name. First column, 56 names down.

Blake, William.

"He was killed. They say a mine blew him up," she said.

She leans in real close to me, my face reflected in her pink sunglasses, as if sizing up the men she sees today compared to the ones she remembers from long ago.

"He was a good man, honey," she said.

They grew up on 46th Street when the roads were dirt. No electricity, no washing machines. She was born in '39; her brother in '24. Both of them born in their home whether the doctor got there in time or not.

"If anybody had a ditch to dig, he'd dig that," she said. "Anything honest to make some money to feed us."

When William turned 19, they sent him to France. His body never returned.

"That's all I've got of my brother," she said, looking at the monument.

That's why, five days before Memorial Day, she's brought with her two tiny American flags and a wreath of flowers.

"I don't think it's right they don't put something here," she said.

All across America, cemeteries are being decorated with Memorial Day flags and flowers; the National Cemetery here turns into a Rockwellian daydream. Boy Scouts, daughters of veterans,

flags and those taut, white tombstones.

But nothing at Patten Parkway.

"Where are the flowers and flags for our World War II heroes at Patten Parkway?" she wrote in a letter to the editor.

This year, she took matters into her own hands. She stopped by the florist and bought a wreath of red, white and blue flowers.

"Carnations?" I ask.

"And mums," she said.

Thursday, she decorated the Patten Parkway monument herself. Placed the wreath under a dogwood, then moved it to rest on the back of the monument, closer to her brother and out of the wind. She put the flags near the other monument there that honors local Marines.

It was a do-it-yourself patriotism. Flowers from the sister to the lost brother, the one who mailed her that Betsy Ross doll all the way from war-torn Europe.

"I was sitting up in the chair when the postman came with that doll," she said.

Memories. Sometimes, that's all we've got. Memories, and monuments.

Whether some group volunteers to begin to decorating Patten Parkway is anybody's guess. But this Memorial Day, it will have a wreath of flowers and two small flags, thanks to one woman who refuses to forget.

"Maybe those boys are looking down on me," she said.

And smiling.

•••

Speaking of memories, here's one:

It's my first day here in the newsroom, and I'm shaking and quaking more than the San Andreas Fault. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a blur, and it's moving fast, faster, right toward me.

It is John Vass Jr. The John Vass.

He pulls me aside, and does what he does best.

Looks me in the eye, says some words of encouragement and kindness, and then hustles off, back to work.

"I wish every business and institution had someone like John Vass," said Ron Harr, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

For the last 49 years, John has been a Rushmore for Chattanooga journalism; from the News Free Press to the Free Press to the Times Free Press, John has chronicled the lives, hopes and business dreams and deals throughout the city, meaning that it's possible that every day since 1965, some newspaper has been delivered in this city with his influence on it.

But no more. Starting this week, John is officially retired.

"He was the best," Lee Anderson said at his retirement party last week.

John is quicksilver polite, but, as they say in the cycling world, he has this other gear. A bullish, dogged one. When chasing stories, he was always the last one standing. If newsrooms were bars, he'd be our bouncer.

He is the kindest tough guy I know. The toughest kind guy. He was the first to greet me in the morning, shouting hello across the newsroom. To me. To everybody.

I've never heard him gossip, tell a half-truth, or speak ill of anyone. Never. In an age of distrust, people trust John. He has the wisdom of Lao-Tzu, the grit of Mike Wallace, the grace of Emily Post.

I wish every business and institution had someone like John Vass.

We did. Thank God, we did.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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