The first time Bernard Edwards visited Townsend was on his honeymoon in 1956.
More than 60 years later, he still visits every single year.
Edwards is from Franklin. He has two sons and three grandchildren. His wife, Eunice, passed away 12 years ago, but that doesn’t stop him from paying an annual visit to the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” on the way back from a journey to pick up apples from Baxter’s Orchard in Cosby.
Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., Townsend residents gathered around Edwards, shaking his hand and saying “Thank you for your service.” Edwards is one of America’s “Greatest Generation” — a veteran of World War II.
He turns 97 next month.
He loves his time in Townsend and everything that comes with it: seeing the mountains, driving around Cades Cove, checking in at the Tally Ho Inn and spending time with his sons.
One of those sons was present Tuesday, standing over his father at the Townsend IGA where the store owner had provided a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast. Dr. Doran Edwards is a retired surgeon. He said that soon after the first time his father visited Townsend, he also took his sons.
The tradition never stopped.
Now it’s a time for the two to spend in each other’s company.
“Eunice died in 2007 of recurring breast cancer, and my wife died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Edwards said. “So we’re two old bachelors who come, and we spend some time up here every year.”
Bernard Edwards remembered all his past trips with his late wife fondly. “We just enjoyed the scenery, you know, roaming around in the boondocks.”
But Edwards’ life was not always so peaceful. His memory is sharp and his days of service in Hawaii are still vivid in his mind.
His basic training was in Alabama and Texas, Edwards said.
But after that he was shipped to chemical warfare training in Hawaii at Schofield Barracks, where he served in a maintenance company.
“We operated ... high explosives, mortars shells ... and also, mustard gas,” he said. “Now, the gas was never used, but we didn’t know it. We had plenty, just in case, and every time we invaded an island, we would ship out a number of mortar shells filled with that.”
After the invasions, he explained, all the munitions that were not used were shipped back to his company, where they were sorted out and sent to the next campaign.
This company specifically was in charge of high-explosive material that included 4.2 mortars.
One day, Edwards’ company picked up a load of munitions at Pearl Harbor and brought it to prepare for shipment. Another company that was there for extra help came behind them and picked up a load as well, but it never returned to base.
“We sent this company to Pearl Harbor to pick up some supplies that were coming back,” Edwards remembered. Meanwhile, “we had this truck full of mortar shells. We found this one box that had been opened. This safety pin had been pulled, the detonator was standing up like that.” He gestured with his hand as though pointing at the box.
“Bang! I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”
Sadly, Edwards said he and others surmised that was exactly what happened to the men who had gone to receive the other munitions.
“That didn’t much get in the paper, you know. You didn’t tell anybody anything back then.”
The disaster is known as the West Loch Disaster and it took place Sunday, May 21 of 1944, just a few years after the day that lived in infamy.
A total of 163 men died including the entire company that was helping Edwards that day. Nearly 400 were wounded. The hull of the ship where the tragedy happened, LST-480, can still be seen today.
But at base, when Edwards opened that box, the men’s lives were spared.
“He was the one who took care of it,” Dr. Edwards said. “He was the one who found it.”
Edwards said his company has had numerous reunions, but its members have dwindled in numbers over the years.
“The last two years that we met, there was just two of us,” he remembered.
Just a few years ago, he went to his fellow serviceman’s funeral.
So as far as he knows, Edwards is the last living member of his company, which included around 120 men. “And I was one of the young ones.”
But he is still young at heart and younger in body than many would guess. He walks five days a week and is involved with his community and local church.
“You got to keep moving,” he said.
But he has always been moving, according to his son. “This man grew up in a very rural area of southern Tennessee,” Dr. Edwards said. “He says he walked thousands of miles behind a mule plowing.”
He added coming to Townsend is for his father like going back to times where there were fewer roads and less modern technology.
“In his world ... the sameness of it, the fact that those parts don’t change. Maybe the roads get paved, but nothing else much changes. There’s something about that sameness that is anchoring. Secure,” Dr. Edwards said.
Townsend may simply be a visit to the past for Edwards, but for residents, he’s a local icon.
Gregory Dean, Townsend IGA director, said a customer sat down that morning and told Edwards thank you because he was able to order his breakfast in English.
“What I want everybody to know is that Townsend is the friendliest community around,” Dean said. “But the biggest thing is we hold firm to our friendliness (and) our veterans.”
Dean said the first thing he did when he got to the store was put an American flag up.
“We’re proud of our country,” he said. “We’re proud of the men who fought to provide our freedom.”
A brotherhood of retired firefighters from Alcoa and Maryville keeps the last Wednesday morning of the month open for a reunion of sorts, where stories true and altered spill out over plates of biscuits and gravy.
About a dozen or so of them gather at TC’s Grill in Maryville and have been for about 15 years. David Staley, who retired from Alcoa Fire Department in 1991, was asked to form this band of retirees for the monthly get-togethers. He was hired in to the police department initially, in 1957.
He said in the 15 years they have shown up on these Wednesdays, they’ve only had to cancel a few times, for bad weather.
“I figured it would last only a few months,” Staley said of the get-togethers.
Here on this Wednesday in September was Paul “Big Paul” Walker, who served with the AFD for 22 years. He also worked in public works for 14 years, retiring in 2007.
“You don’t miss the job, but the people,” he said. “It’s kind of a demanding job.”
David Hurst agreed. He put in 30 years with AFD and has been retired for close to 14.
David Hodges worked for Maryville Fire Department for 32 years, retiring in 2018.
“I thought I would leave before they ran me off,” he quipped.
Others around this breakfast table included Maryville Fire Capt. Mike Sing, who helped keep the community safe for 33 years before retiring in 2018.
Pat Flynn has attended many of these sessions over the years, too. He worked for Alcoa for 31 years and has enjoyed retirement since 2009. It is his job to send out reminders so no one forgets to show up.
Ed Hall recalled his time of service with Alcoa down to the day. “Twenty-five years, seven months and 21 days,” he said.
Then there’s Claude Scarbrough, who worked 30 years for Alcoa Fire Department and retired in 2000.
With 29 years to his credit with Maryville, Larry Cupp said he attends these monthly gatherings to “tell a few tales.”
They even let Everett Cooper attend, although he spent only one year with Alcoa Fire Department. Cooper said he is grateful for the fellowship.
Tom Clark, a member of the Alcoa Fire Department for 40 years, and Randy White, who logged 25 also with Alcoa, round out the list of attendees. There was only one fire station when Clark started; there are three now.
They all have worked alongside one another at some point in their duties, they explained. If one department needs reinforcement, the other is there.
Flynn said this week, which is Fire Prevention Week, is a good time to recognize a group of men who worked hard for their communities and who still have that camaraderie these years later.
“I would like to think we made a difference,” Clark said. “We made a difference.”
Blount County Commissioner Jim Hammontree often shares a joke or humorous story during the public comment period at school board meetings but last week began by explaining he had a serious topic to discuss.
Hammontree, who is using a cane, described the difficulty he had climbing into the stadium at William Blount High School to watch the previous week’s football game.
“Since I’m prone to falling, I noticed that those hand rails — what there are — are too far apart, and they don’t go all the way to the top,” Hammontree said.
“I’m beginning to think that maybe you should raze the two stadia and start from the ground up,” he said. “Now where’s the money coming from, that’s the —.”
“Yes, commissioner, where is the money coming from?” Board of Education Chair Debbie Sudhoff asked, as attendees at the Oct. 3 meeting laughed.
“That’s the bigger question,” Hammontree concluded.
Sudhoff said she has witnessed the accessibility issue at the stadiums for more than a decade.
“I have seen parents literally carry disabled students into the stands so that they can be part of the high school experience and experience football,” she said. “We want to see our stadiums completely compliant with ADA so that all of our community can enjoy football.”
Heritage High School opened in 1977 and William Blount in 1979, more than a decade before the federal Americans with Disabilities Act began requiring public facilities to be accessible. Heritage also was built before building codes required it to have a fire-suppression system.
Last year the school district spent nearly $500,000 to seal the two stadiums, to prevent further deterioration from water, as well as to stabilize existing railings.
A nearly $100 million comprehensive proposal to renovate the high schools included about $5.3 million for improvements to the athletics facilities at the two schools. Part of that was a design to push out the front row of the stands and add ramps to provide elevated, accessible seating for people with disabilities, said Bill Steverson, principal with the architect for the project, Michael Brady Inc.
“We would love to get our second level of improvements done with approval to use some funds to do that,” Stan Burnette, Blount County Schools supervisor of student services and a member of the district’s Athletics Committee, said after Hammontree’s comment. “That is on the agenda. A lot of people think it’s just field houses, but it’s total stadium improvements.”
In August, the school board approved spending $1 million from its savings, called the fund balance, to give each high school $500,000 for a new football field house. During that meeting there was no discussion of public accessibility issues, and William Blount Athletic Director Scott Cupp confirmed last week that the plan was just to use the money for football field houses, with any excess returned to the fund balance.
The Blount County Budget Committee voted 4-1 in September against allowing the school district to use the money from its fund balance for the field houses.
BCS still is figuring out how to spend an estimated $4 million in new money this year the county approved for high school renovations through Fund 177 — property taxes not shared with the two city school districts. Schools Director Rob Britt said first-year priorities would be to replace the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at both high schools; renovate science labs and classrooms; and install a fire-protection sprinkler system at Heritage.
Since then the plan has narrowed to HVAC replacement at William Blount and science labs at Heritage, although the school district hopes it can use savings from energy improvements at the schools to provide more funds for renovations.
“They need more money to do what they need to do,” Barry Brooke, an executive vice president for LawlerWood LLC, which is managing the high school renovation project for the school board, said in a phone interview this week.
The HVAC system at William Blount is a higher priority because Heritage installed about 60 new units in recent years and moisture is more of a problem at WBHS, he explained. The cost of installing the fire suppression alone at HHS was estimated at about $1.7 million in the full renovation proposal.
With only about $4 million expected from the county for the renovations this year and no guarantee of future funding, “We’re going to get as much done as we can,” Steverson, of Michael Brady Inc., said in a phone interview this week.
The caption for a photo of Darron Marcus Lee Sellers published with an Oct. 8 article (“Man faces charges for alleged bomb threat at William Blount High School”) spelled his first name incorrectly.