Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove or correct some incorrect information.
As marketing campaigns go, it was almost too perfect. Too easy.
But for country singer Jimmy Wayne, it's just further proof that, after a gut-wrenchingly difficult childhood, life can get better.
As a child, Wayne dealt with a non-existent father, a mother who was in and out of prison and an abusive stepfather who took Wayne and his mother on the lam, fleeing across the country. Eventually, they dropped the 13-year-old Wayne at a bus station and he watched his mother and stepfather drive away.
One of the first people who tried, and succeeded, to set him straight and on a positive path was his sixth-grade teacher.
At 16, he went to live in the home with Bea and Russell Costner, who also had a huge impact on his life. Part of what they taught him was hard work; Bea would often bring a cold Coca-Colas after he did chores around the house. She also paid him for the work.
Years later at his concerts, he would tell the audience how his teacher urged him to write his feelings down in a journal rather than act them out. He also talked about those cold drinks.
This past summer, Coke used his "I Love You This Much" song as part of its Share A Coke campaign and that led to a partnership with Krystal, the Chattanooga-founded burger chain that frequently partners with Coke on marketing campaigns. When all sides sat down to talk about a possible marketing campaign, they asked for Wayne's ideas.
"I didn't want it to be about me anymore," he says. "I wanted to honor teachers. My teacher."
The Country Fried Favorites campaign was hatched and students across the region were asked to design and create an artistic sculpture using Krystal burger boxes. The winner was Sequoyah High School in Soddy-Daisy which on Friday, Sept. 30, received a special "Crystal Friday" event at the school that included a check for $5,000, a visit from Krystal's 18-wheel food truck carrying burgers, fries and drinks and a concert by Wayne, who has six Top 20 country hits, including the No. 1 "Do You Believe Me Now" and the No. 3 "Stay Gone."
Sequoyah art teacher Liz Kimbal says the students created an eagle out of the boxes, both to honor the school's mascot, but also to highlight a new incentive program at the school. Called Soar, it recognizes students who go above and beyond what's expected of them. Wayne's concert was a great reward for their work, she says.
"Jimmy came and played football and danced around with the kids and, of course, performed," she says.
Red Bank High School took second place and won $500 in Country Fried Favorites; Dickerson Middle School in Marietta, Ga., won third place.
On Sept. 29, the day before Sequoyah's celebration, Crystal Friday, now retired from teaching, was flown from her home in Bessemer City, N.C., to Coke's corporate offices in Atlanta, where she given the full red-carpet treatment during a ceremony in her honor. At the event, 3,200 Coke employees and some of her friends were greeted with Cokes and Krystals served in bottles and boxes with her name on them.
Wayne realizes not everyone has the opportunity to thank a special teacher in such a grand way, but for him, even the recognition for Friday comes up short.
"I feel like I haven't done enough," he says. "She changed my life. The hurtful things I'd say to her and the way I acted up were horrible. She taught me to write and made me the person I am today."
Wayne and Friday reconnected after the release of his first CD when she appeared at a CD signing in Bessemer City.
"The line was around the building and she stood in line two hours," he says. "I saw these hands pushing a CD across the the table and looked up and there she was. To have a hero and to be able to meet them later and say 'Thank you' it still hasn't sunk in."
"We can all remember a teacher who changed our lives and helped shape our future," says Heather Schlesinger, director of calendar programs and promotions for The Krystal Co. "For teachers, it's a labor of love that often goes unnoticed. This award is simply our way of saying 'thank you' to teachers everywhere and to our communities that give us so much."
A new contest is planned for next year, but most agree it will be hard to top how well this one fell into place.
"It was pretty special," Schlesinger says.
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.