Thank you, Pat

Torchbearer with Pat Summitt on cover
Fall 2016 Torchbearer (Photo by Patrick Murphy-Racey)

It’s been a year since the passing of legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt, who was taken from us far too soon by early-onset Alzheimer’s. After her death, I wrote this piece as a “Note from the Editor” for UT Knoxville’s Torchbearer magazine, which we dedicated to Pat and UT’s women athletes. I still choke up when I see this magazine laying on my desk. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have fallen in love with the game of basketball—or have our daughters do the same—know that we will never be able to repay her.

Note from the Editor

Watching my daughter play basketball is one of my very favorite things to do. RC (as she’s known on the court) is 12 and has played only for a couple of years, but in that time I have been amazed at the positive changes in her confidence and self-esteem.

That’s why Pat Summitt’s death hit me hard. I never met Pat—I saw her once downtown and I drive by her statue every day on my way to work—but in the weeks since her passing, I’ve learned that I have so much to thank her for. I played basketball throughout my school years in southwestern Virginia and grew up hearing stories of hometown legend Glenn Roberts, who popularized the jump shot. I knew very little about Pat—except that her Lady Vols were awesome. But without realizing it, I benefited from her accomplishments and tenacity every single time I took the court as a Lady Wildcat.

It wasn’t until RC fell in love with the game that I truly began to realize the impact Pat has had on girls’ basketball, especially here in East Tennessee. I can’t say enough about
the quality and passion of our coaches, who take very seriously the responsibility of helping these young ladies grow into not only great basketball players but also wonderful people—much as Pat did with her players. I’m so envious of the opportunities RC and her teammates have to regularly train with some of Pat’s best players through camps and workouts. In essence, they are learning from Pat—one of the greatest coaches the sports world has ever known. Needless to say, we knew this issue of Torchbearer had
to be special, and we could think of no better way to honor Pat than to dedicate it to her and other women athletes from UT.

As you’ll read in these pages, Pat’s reach extended far beyond the court. And that’s something I wanted my daughter to know and hear firsthand. We made plans to attend the Celebration of Life Service so she could understand the impact of this iconic woman to whom she owes so much. However, as luck would have it, RC had basketball practice that night and didn’t want to miss it.

And I think that’s the way Pat would have wanted it.

Originally published in Torchbearer magazine’s fall 2016 issue.


Doctor, Mystic, Preacher, Lawman & Murderer

An abbreviated retelling of the story of my great-great-grandfather, Marshall Benton Taylor, and the massacre at Pound Gap.

Marshall Benton Taylor (aka Red Fox and Doc Taylor) was one of the most eccentric characters in the history of the Appalachian (pronounced App-uh-latch-un) region. He was born in southwestern Virginia in 1836 and grew up to became a doctor, using local herbs and plants to heal the sick. Taylor started following the teachings of spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg, declared himself to be a “seer,” and began holding séances in his home. He traveled the region preaching to the large crowds, who came to hear this charismatic and mysterious man. Taylor became so familiar with all the trails and hiding spots in the mountains that he had an unnerving ability to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quietly. This, along with his shock of red hair and red beard, earned him the nickname Red Fox.

Taylor was once brought to trial for the murder of a neighbor but was cleared of guilt due to lack of evidence—though his other neighbors swore he was responsible. After the incident, he began carrying around weapons—most infamously a Winchester rifle with rim-fire shells. In his later years, Taylor became a US marshall and a revenue agent, chasing down moonshiners and outlaws. In the process, he made an enemy of moonshiner Ira Mullins, who was paralyzed in an encounter with Taylor. Their feud continued, and Mullins put a $300 bounty on Taylor’s head.

Even though Taylor had been relieved of his duties as a marshall by this time, he found out Mullins would be bringing a load of moonshine across Pound Gap (a gap in the mountains between Jenkins, Kentucky, and my hometown of Pound, Virginia). Taylor hired two former confederate soldiers, and the three lay in wait. When the Mullins wagon came through, shots rang out, and five men and women lay gunned down, including Ira Mullins (see the original indictment against Taylor here).

The 56-year-old Taylor went on the run but was eventually caught on a train in West Virginia. He was brought back to Wise County, Virginia, where he was put on trial. One piece of evidence used against him in court was the rim-fire shells found at the scene of the crime. However, when Taylor’s rifle was examined, the shells were found to be center-fire. Upon closer inspection, it was found that Taylor had tampered with the plunger, causing the firing pin to hit the center of the cartridges instead of the rim. The jury convicted him of murder in the first degree.

The day of his hanging, Taylor insisted on preaching his own funeral from the second-story window of the Wise County courthouse wearing a white suit (see photo above) his wife had made for his hanging. He asked that his body not be buried for three days so that he could rise again like Jesus. Some speculate there was a conspiracy that helped him escape hanging, while others say Taylor is buried near his home in an unmarked grave in Wise, Virginia.

The legend of Red Fox echoed loudly in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. He was immortalized in John Fox, Jr.’s 1908 novel Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which was turned into a 1936 movie and a stage play—the official outdoor drama of the state of Virginia. More recently, the Red Fox character made an appearance in the 2014 movie Big Stone Gap (starring Ashley Judd), which also featured the song “Ballad of Red Fox.”

King of the Blues

About fourteen years ago, I had the distinct honor of getting a phone call from B.B. King. I was a rookie reporter at the Delta Democrat Times in Greenville, Mississippi, and had been working on a story, not about King or his music, but about a man that the musician counted very dear—Luther Henson.

Henson had recently passed away in Greenville. He was 101 years old, had lived in three different centuries, was born to a slave, and was nearly lynched. However, most importantly, he was an educator.

He taught at Elkhorn School near Kilmichael, Mississippi, where he met a 6-year-old Riley B. King. Henson’s daughter recalled hearing stories of how her father would sit on the front porch of the one-room school house and comb out King’s hair in the mornings.

The day I talked to King by phone, he was in an airport in Alaska waiting on a plane to take him to another show. He was so kind, stopping our interview briefly to sign an autograph for someone. He spoke of Professor Henson—the name he called his former teacher—with so much reverence. King said Henson was a father figure who never talked down to his students, but gave them “a positive idea of being black.” King remembers Henson telling him that “one day after while we would be judged by what we will do, not the color of our skin.”

“After while is here,” King said. “I remember Professor Henson telling me this and then years later I heard Martin Luther King say the same thing.”

Every year, King came back to Indianola, Mississippi, to perform a homecoming concert. I never had the opportunity to attend one while I lived in Mississippi, but I remember seeing a photo from an earlier concert when Henson was able to attend. In the photo, King and Henson were sitting across a table from each other with their hands locked together. They both had the biggest smiles, and King had tears running down his face.

When we ended our phone call,  I thanked King for his time and he said, “No, thank you for doing a story about Professor Henson.” King said he had only known three men as great as Professor Henson—two were presidents and one was a pope.

Read the entire story about Luther Henson.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons