As he nears his 100th birthday on Sept. 24, James Bennett Collins, known by all as J.B., can look back with pride on 59 years as a reporter and photographer for the Chattanooga News-Free Press.
J.B. was a 1935 graduate of the old Central High School on Dodds Avenue. At Kings College in Bristol, Tenn., he majored in journalism, earned magna cum laude honors and was class valedictorian.
He joined the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1940 and covered a broad range of news during his career. He fit the observation of newspaper founder Roy McDonald that "newspaper reporters are born, not made."
During the 1940s, he wrote "Tennessee Snake Handlers," based on his investigation of the Pentecoastal sect that handled serpents. J.B. captured the drama of the snakebite experience in seeing preacher George Hensley at the Dolly Pond Church of God in Birchwood — with his crown of poisonous snakes — preside at the funeral of Lewis Ford, a husky 200-pounder in his early 30s. Ford had been bitten two days before.
He wrote and photographed the "Battle of Athens" in August 1946. Returning World War II veterans in Athens and Etowah organized to defeat the entrenched political machine. Illegal practices of the bosses included charging innocent citizens with false offenses of speeding and public drunkenness to secure increased revenue through fines and court costs.
On Election Day, Collins witnessed corruption firsthand when "special deputies" substituted pro-administration ballot boxes for the original vote boxes. The original boxes were taken to the McMinn County Jail, which left the new ballot boxes to be illegally counted.
Collins photographed the illegal box exchange only to see his camera seized and film destroyed. He was incarcerated for two hours in the county jail. Gunfire erupted and several were wounded. Hand grenades and dynamite were thrown onto the porch of the jail. From his cell, J.B. heard the mob of veterans outside shout "let's hang them," and "no, let's shoot them." The deputies surrendered. The original ballots were counted, making the G.I. slate victorious over the machine candidates.
J.B.'s main beat for the Free Press was covering Chattanooga's city government. For most of his 59 years, he worked out of the mayor's office as "urban affairs editor." He knew the good and bad of many political leaders but respected their private lives unless it involved corruption. His style was to report strictly the news without the investigative fervor of his Chattanooga Times colleagues.
He was a close friend of the late Lee S. Anderson, publisher and editor of the News-Free Press. J.B. started working at the paper three years before Anderson began his 70-year tenure. The two shared a workplace for 55 years.
Mayor Jon Kinsey and his predecessors hosted a celebration recognizing J.B.'s 50 years with the Free Press in August 2000 at Chattanooga City Hall. The reporter responded, "You made my day made the rest of my life."
Mayor Ralph Kelley spoke of Collins' coverage of the sensational story, "Kelley's Raiders Seize General," when city officials kidnapped the famed Civil War locomotive rolling through Chattanooga on its return to Kennesaw, Ga. Chattanooga later lost the court case over ownership of the General.
Mayor Robert Kirk Walker pointed out that Collins had covered the administrations of 10 mayors — from Ed Bass through Kinsey.
Mayor Pat Rose thanked J.B. for "always giving an objective evaluation of the involved issue." Mayor Gene Roberts credited the reporter and his counterpart at the Chattanooga Times, Springer Gibson, for publicizing over two decades the air pollution problem in Chattanooga.
Finally, Kinsey, who had taken office with no previous political experience, credited J.B. for "being a treasure trove of facts about the history of Chattanooga City government."
In February 1991, the Society of Professional Journalists honored Collins and renowned radio personality Luther Masingill for their contributions to the media.
J.B. was an avid golfer and regularly walked and played at Brainerd Golf Course until the age of 96. "I enjoyed the game, but I wasn't very good," he confessed in 2017.
Collins can look back with pride on his career as a newspaper reporter in Chattanooga. Happy 100th birthday, J.B.
Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rufolo and Rodgers. For more visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.