Cook: Who is the most famous Chattanoogan?

Cook: Who is the most famous Chattanoogan?

August 8th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

The question hung around for a few days, tagging along on a recent family vacation like a stray dog somebody began to feed.

It all started one afternoon. Our feet were propped up, cold drinks sweating in their bottles, and one of us asked a question so rich I thought I'd share it with you.

Who is the most famous Chattanoogan?

For me, there's but one choice. An award-winner, a giant of his day. A friend of the common man. Immense in spirit and girth. A man not afraid of speaking his mind. (No, not Wiedmer).

"Reggie White," I said.

You can't swing a block of Wisconsin cheese without hitting someone who knows about Reggie White. Named by NFL.com as the seventh-greatest player ever, the Howard High graduate -- and best Philadelphia Eagle in franchise history -- won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers and, in many ways, lived up to his "Minister of Defense" nickname by living nobly on the field and off.

Discussion over.

"You're nuts," said my brother-in-law. "Samuel L. Jackson is a heck of a lot more famous."

From "Pulp Fiction" and "A Time to Kill" to "Jungle Fever," "Star Wars" (the sequels) and "Snakes on a Plane," Jackson's more than 100 films have grossed more money than any other Hollywood actor. He's also set to play Martin Luther King in a Broadway play.

However, there is no Samuel L. Jackson Boulevard in our city.

"What about Bessie Smith?" asked my mother-in-law.

The Empress of the Blues was the finest blues singer of the 1920s and '30s, and her song "Downhearted Blues" is widely considered one of the most influential songs of the 21st century.

"Don't forget Usher," said my wife.

"And Mr. Belding," my other brother-in-law said, referring to Dennis Haskins of television's "Saved by the Bell."

"How about Lauren Alaina?" someone shouted from the other side of the room.

Like the national debt, this was getting out of hand. We needed boundaries. First, the acid test for our not-so-legitimate survey is to imagine yourself on a street corner in Kennebunkport, Maine, or Burnt Corn, Ala. What name would be most recognizable by Mr. Everyman there?

Second, our candidate has to have lived in Chattanooga for a significant amount of time. Ted Turner, CNN founder and McCallie School boarder, only fractionally counts, as do Terrell Owens, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student-athlete and current NFL player, and Pat Robertson, host of "The 700 Club" and McCallie grad.

Jim Nabors, singer and television comic, lived briefly in Chattanooga and doesn't qualify and, as much as we'd love to claim her, Lauren Alaina Suddeth, an "American Idol" finalist and resident of Rossville, doesn't either.

Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of "Newsweek," is a Chattanoogan, as was Adolph Ochs, influential publisher-owner of The New York Times and The Chattanooga Times, and as is Venus Lacy, Brainerd High graduate and Olympic gold medalist.

"I am going to say O.D. McKee's granddaughter Debra McKee," said Daryl Black, executive director of the Chattanooga History Center, in an email. "She was the model for the Little Debbie icon. Everybody knows her."

That's when I thought of James Agee and Walker Evans. In 1941, after traveling the sharecropping South for one hot summer, the writer and the photographer published "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," a haunting collection of black-and-white photographs and prose praising the dignity of poor families in Alabama.

The book is built on a beautiful idea: Fame travels downward. Maybe in Chattanooga, the most famous and dignified among us are the most ordinary.

In some inverted way, fame resides not with wealth or celebrity but among the calloused, everyday hands with neither gold nor diamond rings, of people who work two jobs, throw away nothing off their plates, raise their own grandchildren, sweep up the church each Sunday, drop quarters into pint jars so that Santa comes each December -- but only barely.

The Chattanoogans living days that feel like nights and nights that feel like years, yet always, no matter what, do the right thing. The Chattanoogans who may not be known past the corner block, but in their neighborhood they are pillars, heroes, pearls of great price.

Could it be that these folks, not Reggie White or Sam Jackson, are the famous ones in Chattanooga?

If that's true -- and my heart tells me it is -- then we need a new list alongside our original one.

And you're welcome -- as an online comment or email -- to help me write them. Who do you say is the most famous Chattanoogan?

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.