Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Jim Dykes, R.I.P.

I just learned that one of the many voices of wisdom and storytelling who helped inspire my career has died.

Knoxville, Tennessee reporter and columnist Jim Dykes taught me a lot about journalism at age 21.

Of his own newspaper, Jim said, "No matter what you say, it's still a newspaper." (Jim was one of my local advisors and sherpas when I went to East Tennessee in 1978-79 on a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant, investigating TVA coal procurement -- the quoted remark was over pitchers of beer in a dive bar, and I still remember his wit and wisdom. Jim led a Newspaper Guild "byline strike" at his newspaper when editors tried to inflict a fourth grade vocabulary on its writers -- reporters took their bylines off their stories, just as happened later at The Wall Street Journal). Sadly, there is not one chapter of the Newspaper Guild in all of Florida.

Jim introduced me to the term "mackerel snapper," a Southern Baptist term for Roman Catholic. In turn, I told Jim that he looked like Brezhnev, with eyebrows that ran together.

Reporters used typewriters in those days. Jim's office typewriter had a clipping from a religious ad in his newspaper, stating, "WHY DO THE HEATHEN RAGE?"

Jim Dykes watched in wonder as I tormented TVA and asked questions about coalfield monopoly power, Howard Baker, Kingston steam plant, antitrust violations and pervasive low quality coal fraud -- questions that eventually led to a critical 1981 GAO audit, revealing hundreds of millions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse.

Jim Dykes warned me about my alleged tendency to see "a booger in every bush," but in his heart he knew I was right. That's why he'd spend hours with me smoking his unfiltered cigarettes and sharing pitchers of beer with a know-it-all Yankee from Georgetown University at a redneck Knoxville dive bar, facetiously stating that he was "waiting out" (till 11) PM Knoxville's then nearly non-existent "rush hour" before he drove home to his dogs and his mountain residence in his native Blount County. (Jim once said he "had to die of something," when I gave one of my tedious tobacco temperance lectures, even as I bummed the occasional cigarette. And yes, Jim reportedly died of lung cancer.)

I miss him.

I just found out -- as I quoted Jim Dykes as I wrote a spirited defense of the St. Augustine Record against one of DONALD JOHN TRUMP's local strumpets: Jim Dykes died in 2011.

As JFK said in the Cuban Missile Crisis, "there's always some SOB who doesn't get the word."

Jim Dykes remembered as poignant columnist who went against the grain

Local journalism legend Jim Dykes has died at age 78. Beginning at the Maryville Times in 1965, Dykes' career included stints at the News Sentinel, TVA and the Knoxville Journal. (Bob Fowler/News Sentinel)
Posted: Nov. 18, 2011

By Robert L. Wilson

Daily journalism has the reputation of attracting — some say creating — people with more eccentricities than a character in a Mel Brooks movie.

Whether Jim Dykes fell into that category is open to speculation, but that he is a memorable and venerated member of his profession is not.

Jim Dykes, a legend of Knoxville-area journalism, a friend of the common man and a pebble in the shoe of the self-absorbed, has died. He was 78.

His death silences a voice that once entertained, irritated and educated readers of three newspapers in Knox and Blount counties, and he is remembered as a man who could see through the haze of complexity and intentional obfuscation to state the unvarnished truth with clarity and fearlessness.

"He would go against the grain," said Sam Venable, News Sentinel humor columnist and a longtime friend of Dykes. "He was a super-talented writer, just one of those who was so gifted."

Dykes' personality and career were the subjects of a lengthy piece by Jack Neely in a recent edition of Metro Pulse. In it, Dykes offers his comments — profane and profound — on a life of lifting the downtrodden and deflating the flatulent.

"I'm considered to be a grump or something; I don't think so," Neely quotes him as saying.

Grump or not, his was an imposing presence in the newsroom, with his stout frame and fearsome eyebrows. But behind his irascible character was a respect for the truth and a soft spot for those holding the short end of the stick.

"He had a streak in him," Venable said, "that would go opposite of public opinion."

The celebrated could expect Dykes to be "digging them in the ribs and kicking them in the butt," the self-described "colyumnist" said. "But when the tide of public opinion turned against them, he showed a real soft side."

Dykes' career path prior to becoming a newspaperman meandered a bit, from being a miner, logger, security guard, telephone man, actor and rodeo rider, according to Neely.

But with no prior writing experience or the ability to type, he joined the staff of the Maryville Times in 1965.

Dean Stone, the longtime editor of the Times, said he "saw a lot of things" in Dykes that spurred him to give him his first reporting job.

"He was inquisitive to find out what was going on," Stone said. "I didn't foresee he would be as good as he was."

Journalism took Dykes on to jobs at the News Sentinel, TVA and the Knoxville Journal when it was a daily, writing a column.

Preceding him at the Times was Stan DeLozier, who also was a longtime reporter for the News Sentinel.

DeLozier remembers seeing Dykes at work drinking his coffee from a Mason jar and said he was "always irreverent and unpredictable."

As evidence, he relates the time when the News Sentinel management decreed that all men in the newsroom had to wear a tie to work.

Dykes did, DeLozier said, but he did not wear a shirt. Just a tie. When the ordered was modified to include a shirt, Dykes obliged by wearing the tie with a golf shirt, DeLozier said.

Dykes also is the only reporter DeLozier remembers who quoted a hear-impaired and mute man in a crime story.

There had been a shooting near the newspaper's old building in downtown Knoxville and Dykes was dispatched to the scene. He found the deaf man and ascertained the man had witnessed the incident, and he conducted the interview by writing questions down and the deaf man writing his responses.

"He knew what it took to get the story," DeLozier said.


David Hunter: Death of Jim Dykes leaves an unfilled void
Jim Dykes, one of East Tennessee's best known wordsmiths, died on Nov. 16.

David Hunter
Posted: Nov. 22, 2011

Jim Dykes, writer, author, carver of wood, sailor, dare-devil lineman, father, husband and friend to many, went to sleep the night of Nov. 16 and never woke up. He left a void that nobody else will ever fill.

The call that came from his son, David, Thursday morning brought relief that he was no longer suffering from the monstrous cancer that finally took him down, and sadness that his voice has been silenced. We will never again have a wide-ranging, hours-long conversation about the absurdities of existence and the mysteries that fascinated us.

I know that my grief pales in comparison to that felt by his children and grandchildren, but it is real, as real as Dykes' desire to suck the last drop of meaning from life before he had to leave.

He was the reason I became a newspaper columnist more than 20 years ago after I publicly insulted him in the old Knoxville Journal for something he wrote about police in general and me in particular.

After reading what he had written in his column, I sat down and penned a parody of a Jim Dykes column and sent it to the "letters to the editor" section of the Journal, where it was published. He would later refer to the parody as my "taking off of his head in print."

Jim called me at work to let me know that he liked my style, even though he was the brunt of what I had written, then publicly acknowledged in his column that much of what I said was true — even though it was grossly exaggerated. He said he wanted to meet me and we arranged a time and place.

"You really do have monstrous eyebrows," I said by way of greeting that day. "And you have no neck," he replied. It was he who suggested I approach his editor about a column on the editorial page of his own newspaper. I was already doing a weekly column for the Halls Shopper, but Dykes said I needed a larger audience.

Soon afterwards, the two of us were swapping insults regularly in our respective columns, carrying on a mock feud — and at the same time, getting together at his home in Blount County and having lunch on a regular basis for rambling conversations.

Dykes was a big man who towered above most, and the persona he showed the world was a gruff brawler of a man who could be dangerous when upset. He really wasn't like that, though. He was a kind, compassionate man who loved his dogs and tolerated fools rather than hurt their feelings.

After the Knoxville Journal folded, he withdrew to his beloved Condorhurst, a rustic house on which he had done most of the construction, where he read his books and magazines and focused on wood carvings to a large degree. His whirligigs, mostly shaped like birds, are treasured by his friends.

There are times when words are insufficient even to those of us who have devoted our lives to them. Words are a crude way to express emotions, but that's all we have to paint a picture of a friend or loved one we'll never see again.

Dykes was one of the finest writers I have ever known, but had he never written a word he would have left a legacy of wit and wisdom for those of us who remain behind.

Jim Dykes was truly one of a kind. I will miss him a lot.

David Hunter is a former career police officer, author of 18 books and a 25-year columnist with the Knoxville News Sentinel.


In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwend
April 27, 2016
Knoxville Mercury

The first bar that Jim Dykes introduced me to was a dark, dusty dive on Gay Street, about a block away from the newspaper building. It was called Lockett’s, and according to the sign in the window, it offered more than cold beer. The place was in the business of “novelties.”

And there were numerous things inside that fit that description. The bartender, to start with—he looked as if he had never been exposed to daylight. He didn’t say much, either, but he didn’t have to. There was a parrot, named Polly, that did most of the talking, though the bird had a decidedly limited vocabulary.

But when Dykes was present, there wasn’t much opportunity for a parrot, or anyone else, to talk.

My first encounter with Dykes came when I started reading some of his work in the News-Sentinel. He was covering the courts and I had recently been promoted from copy boy to state-desk reporter at the Journal. That meant that sometimes we would be writing about the same case.

I quickly noticed that Dykes’ work was most interesting when the case he was covering tended toward the scandalous. Like most successful journalists of the time, he was quick to recognize the quirks and twists that define the best stories. And he had the chops to deliver the tale in the most compelling way. He could present lurid details in an understated, matter-of-fact way that avoided sensationalism.

Plus, he had a reputation as a hard-drinking, hard-living character, the kind of reporter immortalized in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s great Broadway play, The Front Page.

Though we were sometimes competing, Dykes and I became good friends, having a beer at various spots around town and, later, all over East Tennessee. Though he could fit in at the swankiest gathering, I quickly learned that Dykes had more than a passing interest in places like Lockett’s. One favorite was Opal’s Tap Room on Chapman Highway, a sad spot whose owner tried to keep up with the times by featuring go-go dancers.

Dykes believed the effort was commendable and deserved our support, so we periodically stopped in to check out the entertainment. We finally gave up—every night we visited there was only one dancer, and it was always the same girl. Good reporters that we were, we introduced ourselves and proceeded to interview her. Our first discovery was that her name was not Opal. “Well,” Dykes told her, “you’re still a jewel.”

And then there were the roadhouses: bars that were out in the country.

Once, when he and I were driving a back road in the mountains east of Tellico Plains, he pointed out the weeded-up remains of such a spot, long since abandoned. “I got in one of the worst fights of my life in there,” he said. Of course, I asked what it was about. “I was in no shape to care,” he said, adding only that there “were lots of broken beer bottles.”

Another time we had just crossed back into Tennessee from Kentucky, up in Scott County, when we came upon a cinder-block building with a big sign that said “First beer in Tennessee.”

“Pull in here,” he said, so I did. Then, before he got out of the car, he paused, looking the place over. “You had better go in and get a six-pack to go. If I remember correctly, I’m not welcome here.”

Though his notoriety seemed to cover most of southern Appalachia, Dykes was most famous in the joints closer to his Blount County home, including the string of nightspots that ran up what was then state Highway 73, on the stretch from Maryville toward Townsend and the mountains.

One night, exploring the area, we went into one of those spots that met most of our criteria: the gravel parking lot featured several pickup trucks and there was a tasteful neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. (“Tasteful” meaning that it was non-blinking.) But when we entered, everything stopped. As non-regulars, we found that we were the center of attention. The bartender, especially, kept looking our way. Dykes was unperturbed and we found an empty table.

A waitress took our order and things seemed to get back to normal—pool game resuming, jukebox playing. But when our beers were delivered, the server wasted no time in letting us know that we should hit the highway.

“I don’t guess you all want another one,” she said, staring hard at Dykes. We took her hint and made our way out after downing our Blue Ribbon.

Of course there were other places where Dykes was welcome. One was the Duck Inn in Alcoa. Long after he had left the News-Sentinel, long after Lockett’s had closed, Dykes began writing a column for the Journal called Without a Paddle, where he frequently made fun of his fellow East Tennesseans, especially those who were involved in politics.

It proved popular with the Duck Inn regulars, and they would tell him how he nailed this congressman or that councilman. Once, he and I stopped for a hamburger and beer a couple of days after a scathingly sarcastic takedown of Lamar Alexander. Two regulars stopped by our table and told Dykes how much they agreed with his support of the Maryville native son.

He looked at them, then at me, and said, “I was being sarcastic.” They apparently didn’t understand what he meant, chuckling before taking their leave.

“Sarcasm, I guess, is wasted in Blount County,” Dykes said. “Readers like these make me appreciate Lockett’s. At least the parrot had a clear understanding of what East Tennessee politics is all about.”

About the Author
Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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