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April 16, 2014

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Spellbinding Story Captivates
Heritage Trust Crowd

Sun Photos by Lauren Henry

At left, storyteller Jay O'Callahan transports the Heritage Trust's audience to 1978 Jonesborough to hear the history of revitalizing the downtown of Tennessee's oldest municipality. At left, Dr. George Blanks, president of the Greene County Heritage Trust, hands Carlos Whaley the organization's “Award of Merit.”

Originally published: 2012-12-07 11:08:44
Last modified: 2012-12-07 11:10:30



In the ballroom of the historic General Morgan Inn, trimmed with evergreen, bright red bows, and glittering gold and silver, a sound cut through the soft clinking of silverware against fine china.

It was the sound of a train whistle, high and clear. Jay O'Callahan's voice, typically low and rolling, mimicked the sound of the whistle with uncanny clarity ... and a storytelling journey was off and running.

It was the 40th annual Early American Christmas Dinner presented by the Greene County Heritage Trust, an event often seen as the traditional beginning of the community's holiday social activity.

This year, the organization booked a main speaker for the dinner who could communicate the spirit and purpose of the Trust itself by focusing on an actual, locally familiar example of a community's acting to preserve its historical heritage.

The dinner was also an opportunity to recognize churches reaching important milestones and award the winner of the Trust's Award of Merit.

Carlos Whaley was recognized for his outstanding commitment to education and dedication to the preservation of Greene County Heritage. (Please see a separate article in Saturday's issue.)


An internationally-known storyteller, O'Callahan weaves his stories around a central character, and "Mainstreet, Jonesborough" -- his presentation Thursday night -- was no exception.

The story was originally commissioned by the International Storytelling Center and the Town of Jonesborough to tell the story of the historic town's revitalization in the only way befitting what is sometimes considered the world's storytelling capital, in light of its internationally-famous Storytelling Festival.

O'Callahan's story, first presented to an audience in Jonesborough, captured over a century's worth of that community's history while following the fictional character of 29-year-old Hope Daniels, a sophisticated woman from New York City who comes to Jonesboroughin 1978 to teach school for a year.

"Fictional characters, probably composites of real Jonesborough residents. Hope Daniels is one, and her grandmother is another, and some of Hope Daniels' students. The rest of the characters in the story are real Jonesborough people," O'Callahan explained to the Heritage Trust audience.


In the story, Daniels' grandmother lives in Jonesborough and Daniels recalls a visit to the town when she was eight-years-old.

O'Callahan painted a scene of a bustling downtown in the late 1950s with Main Street, "four blocks, the whole road. It's a river. Yes, a river of life. Coming and going of life," O'Callahan's fictional grandmother said.

The storyteller introduces each new character with a new inflection, rhythm and personality.

Twenty-one years later, August 1978, Daniels decides to accept an opportunity to teach Shakespeare in Jonesborough and live with her grandmother for a school year.

In the story, she arrives to find the town changed from her 1950s memories.

"She was surprised at the red light and four-lane highway that hadn't been there," O'Callahan relates.

And when she reached downtown, it was not the bustling place she remembered. The growth of neighboring Johnson City and the new mall there left a skeleton of a downtown with sagging buildings and crumbling bricks.

"What happened, my dear, is, we were Rip VanWinkle. We fell asleep, time passed us by. We woke up, and everyone had automobiles. Everyone was going to the shopping mall," explained her grandmother to Daniels.

Daniels begins her job teaching Shakespeare and starts to learn more about this town where her mother grew up and where her grandmother grew old. She learned of the town's difficult but eventually successful fight to save and revitalize the downtown through a number of steps, including the establishment of the storytelling festival

Among real-life figures mentioned in the story is widely-known former Jonesborough Mayor Jimmy Neal Smith, who led the effort to launch the storytelling festival.

O'Callahan concludes the story in 1979, when change was still but a budding hope in the hearts townspeople.

However, it is a hope that was realized.


Lois Blanks, wife of Heritage Trust President George Blanks, said she was lucky enough to see a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the veritable walking anthology of characters and stories as she and her husband hosted O'Callahan in their home Wednesday and Thursday.

"I felt like I was watching a real professional at work," she said.

She grew excited when she told of how the story was more than two years in the making. Each interview O'Callahan did added a new layer to the tale and richness of the story.

O'Callahan did not grow up in Jonesborough, but rather Brookline, Mass. Jonesborough is his adopted Southern hometown.

Time magazine calls him "a genius among storytellers."

Thursday night's audience was spellbound for an hour, as he wove his story.

"We are lucky to have him," Laraine King told the audience in introducing him before his presentation.


Dr. Blanks, president of the Heritage Trust, encouraged the attendees to become involved in the Town's "20/20 Vision."

Action groups are made of members of the public, and he urged those attending the dinner them to call Town Hall to join.

Andy Daniels, president of Main Street: Greeneville, introduced a program to capture scenes from Greeneville's past on its downtown buildings.

It is a mural project called "Windows to the Past," and the first design was presented Thursday night.

An old poster advertising a showing of Buffalo Bill will grace the side of the old opera house in downtown. Yes, Greeneville has an opera house.


Robert H. Bailey, chairman of the special awards committee, presented several awards.

In addition to the Award of Merit presented to Whaley, Bailey presented plaques to Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church for its 175th anniversary, to Meadow Creek Presbyterian Church, to Mt. Tabor United Methodist Church, and to Warrensburg United Methodist Church, each for their 200th anniversary.

The Rev. Jim Mays gave the evening's invocation prior to the meal.

The evening ended with the traditional singing of "Silent Night."

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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