Gerber: Nearly 5 decades on East 11th Street

Gerber: Nearly 5 decades on East 11th Street

May 18th, 2014 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Try going to lunch with John Vass, Jr.

Try, say, walking from the Times Free Press on East 11th Street to Southern Star, just one-half mile away. That ought to be a quick walk. But if you're with John Vass, it takes longer because he knows so very many people in this town and, because he's so gregarious and friendly and super-enthusiastic, he stops and shakes their hands and talks to them and asks how their kids or the grandkids are.

Then, once you're inside the restaurant -- often packed at lunchtime -- he knows even more people, and he greets each one. He shakes more hands than a politician on the campaign trail.

That's just how John is. He's warm and kind and, above all, he's genuine. When he asks how the kids are, he really does want to know. In a world of antagonistic talking heads and sniping Internet trolls, John is a gem.

"Good golly!" he'll exclaim when something big happens.

John, who retires on Friday, has been a fixture in the newsroom for nearly five decades. Two generations of journalists have known him, and he's taught more interns than I can count how to spell Olgiati. Plus, because he's lived in Chattanooga most of his life and knows more facts about this town than a Wikipedia entry, he'll throw in a lesson on former Mayor Rudy Olgiati to boot.

John, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, was born in Chattanooga but raised in the Belgian Congo. He returned to Chattanooga as a teenager and graduated from City High School. He started at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1965 while he was a student at the University of Chattanooga, which later became UTC.

As a cub reporter, he wrote obituaries and covered police news. He didn't earn much, but he loved the work, and the fast-paced tempo of the newsroom suited John's mile-a-minute personality.

After college, he taught English at Northside Junior High School for one year, working at the paper on weekends. But he couldn't get the ink out of his system. The next year, he returned to the paper full time as a reporter covering business. He later became the paper's business editor.

After the Free Press merged with the Times, he served as co-business editor with Dave Flessner. Since 2010, John has been the newspaper's web editor.

He keeps an eye on the paper's website almost 24/7, it seems. It's not uncommon to get texts or emails from him at 3 a.m. about breaking news.

John met his wife of 31 years, Chris Sherrill Vass, right here in the newsroom in 1981. He said at first, he didn't like her. She was too brassy and too tall. But later he realized that she was what he'd been looking for all along: an independent woman who speaks her mind. He proposed after a whirlwind romance, and they married in the spring of 1983.

When I came here 11 years ago, I quickly learned about the city just by listening to John. He speaks passionately and proudly about how the city has evolved and cleaned up and turned itself from a polluted industrial town to a prosperous, trendy city.

From now on, John will be reading the paper and website as a reader, not an editor. After Friday, I don't expect any more pre-dawn texts, but I do know that John will probably still be up at 3 a.m. reading the website.

I know he'll still be shaking hands and giving even strangers a big grin and a warm hello. And I know he'll be stopping by the newsroom where he's spent so much of his life. The ink in his system is deeper than a tattoo.

John plans to ease into retirement doing the things he loves -- riding his bicycle through the hills and valleys of the area, caring for his beloved old dog Onyx and spending some quality time this summer with his son Jay, who'll be home from the University of Tennessee.

He said he'll treasure the memories of his time in the newsroom.

"I don't regret a minute," he said.

Good golly, Johnny, we believe you.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.