Thursday, June 22, 2023

June 22, 1981: Appalachian Observer Begins work

June 22, 1981: Appalachian Observer Begins workJune 22, 1981: Appalachian Observer Begins work

It was 42 years ago today.  I woke up in Washington, D.C., flew to East Tennessee, met my new publisher, started the Appalachian Observer and took in my first Anderson County School Board meeting.

Anderson County suffered from a School Dictator.  That's what Eastern Kentucky's sage, Harry Caudill called them in Night Comes to the Cumberlands, where corrupt coal-dominated Courthouse gangs suppressed dissent, hiring and firing political patronage employees, many of them school employees.

Anderson County's School Dictator was Paul Eugene Bostic, Sr., thirteen year veteran of the job, who presided over a corrupt Democratic political machine that fired teachers that did not support his candidates.  

After flying into Knoxville and going with Ernie for lunch at Miller's Restaurant, we set about undoing the corrupt political machine, working with his wife, Annie to design our newspaper layout and plan our attack.  That night, I entered the Anderson County Courthouse and attended my first Anderson County School Board meeting on the third floor, in the large Circuit Courtroom. 

There, School Superintendent Bostic and seven School Board members sat around a table, without microphones or public address system.  Parents of rural Marlow Elementary School children were angry and protesting, ignored by Bostic & Co.  Their beef: the PTA had purchased kitchen equipment, which Bostic was in the process of removing, planning to substitute lukewarm food trucked in from elsewhere.  When parents would ask a question, Bostic & Co. would duck them.  Bostic would mumble and mutter into his tie.  So I stood up and said, "Mr. Bostic, would you please speak louder and enunciate, sir?"

Bostic angrily responded, "Who said that?  Who said that?"  

A few days later, newspaper owner Ernest F. Phillips and I distributed copies of our tabloid prospectus to Independence Day fireworks watchers at Lake City High School in Lake City, Tennessee (now renamed Rocky Top, after a failed development that violated songwriter's intellectual property rights).

Our four page prospectus listed stories we would cover and was headlined, "Celebrate Independence!"  We promised not to be one of those dull newspapers that refused to cover the news, like our competitors, the Clinton Courier-News, The Oak Ridger, Knoxville Journal and Knoxville News-Sentinel.  We told our prospective readers in our prospectus that those newspapers practiced "Chain Gang Journalism." We promised not to be misled, or to mislead them.

A graduate of Lincoln Memorial University, a former underground coal miner, Ernie Phillips disliked strip-mining and disclosed chicanery to me while I was on a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant as an undergraduate.   

Ernie was the former Criminal Investigator for District Attorney General James Nelson Ramsey, whose indictments of local officials on corruption charges embroiled the Courthouse.  The local Establishment hated Ramsey because he indicted several of them.  One of them, County Court Clerk John Marshall Purdy, committed suicide in his daughter's yard in Nashville after being indicted for embezzlement.  The local Sheriff, Dennis O. Trotter, was in our sights, and was later indicted, arrested, and pled guilty to federal criminal charges. 

The School Superintendent's son was Paul Eugene "Jencks" Bostic, Jr., President of City and County Bank of Anderson County.  Jencks' Bostics's bosses, bankers Jacob Frank "Jake" Butcher and his brother C.H. later went to federal prison.  Their lawyer supposedly committed suicide.  But on June 22, 1981, the Butchers still presided over a corrupt banking network that planned the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville.  

Butcher's home, Whirlwind, was across Melton Hill Lake from Oak Ridge, scene of many environmental crimes I would later help expose.  Mrs. Sonya Butcher once got Jake some well-needed property tax relief when she told the Equalization Board her home was next to a nuclear waste dump and noisy railroad trains!)

Anderson County was coalfields and energy production in the northwest mountains, and classified national security nuclear weapons plant pollution in the south, at Oak Ridge. Like a "cask tapped at both ends," as Alexander Hamilton said of New Jersey, Anderson County had two of the Nation's worst industries, coal and nuclear.  Most of the thirteen County Commissioners wore their Union Carbide security clearance badges on their shirt pockets from the X-10, Y-12 and K-25 plants.   The Department of Energy, Union Carbide and a crooked Sheriff named Dennis O. Trotter ruled these parts.  

At the school board that night, forty years ago, on June 22, 1981, who knew where our new newspaper would take us?

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