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April 17, 2014

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Son Reflects on Bob Hurley,
Father and Columnist

Bob Hurley relaxes with grandsons Henry, left, and Walt Hurley, of Springfield, Ky., at the Hurley home on Poor Farm Road in 2012. Photo special to the Sun.

Originally published: 2014-01-21 09:40:07
Last modified: 2014-01-21 10:25:28

Additional Images

BY JONAS HURLEY, Special to The Greeneville Sun

My dad, Bob Hurley, has always been the one with the camera, writing the columns, traveling the back roads. Today, I'm writing for him, sharing what I know as I consider his life and career. I'll bring you up to date, but let's start at the beginning.

Robert Paul Hurley was born on June 22, 1944, in Cleveland, Ohio, at the now-shuttered Deaconess Hospital on Pearl Street. Work and money were scarce in Mohawk, Tennessee, during the war, and his father, like many Southerners, moved north for work.

Dad has remained a fan of the Cleveland Indians through all the years, even when he pretended to not be interested in baseball, and it was a delight when I was able to take him to a few games at Jacobs Field about 10 years ago.

I spent the last two years of my medical training at what was in 1944 the Cuyahoga County Hospital, only a dozen blocks from Deaconess, and we were able to find the street on which his family lived, Flowerdale Avenue.

When his older sister returned home from school one afternoon after getting in a fight at school for being called a hillbilly, and his mother was expecting their fifth child, they left Cleveland to return to Mohawk in the fall of 1946.

Bob was always the tallest child for his age, and I am told that he, just like my youngest boy, who bears a striking resemblance to him, asked question after question to the adults around him. I guess he was rehearsing for all the questions he would ask for his columns.

I have been told that he had a bit of a wild streak in him, but this wasn't really information that he relished for me to hear. I remember seeing a photo, which I wish desperately I could find. Apparently one of the elderly drivers in Mohawk drove so slowly that the teenage boys would make a game of lying down in front of his car as he was driving along, and someone snapped a photo of my dad doing just that.

The only other mischief that I know of involved a road sign.

As you probably know, since he married my mom in 1966, he spent many hours tending the garden and farm on Poor Farm Road. Some years back, after the Tateho Corporation began production on the Poor Farm Road, the city changed the road name on the Stop sign on the corner of my dad's farm to Tateho Road. After my dad took the sign down for the third time, I'm not sure if he petitioned the city or if the city just got the hint, but the sign was changed back to Poor Farm Road.

He went to Mohawk Elementary School, up on the hill, by the Presbyterian Church, in what was at the time a fairly prosperous rural community. It was a half-mile walk down the railroad tracks from his childhood home to Sam Riley's Chevrolet, Mohawk Roller Mills, and Overholt and Turner's store.

The Norfolk-Southern tracks were just a few dozen yards from the front door, which faced the railroad tracks, not the road, and dozens of trains would rattle the windows every day.

I guess it was a fairly bustling place for an eight-year-old, and it saddened him deeply as the little community fell on hard times.

He graduated McDonald High School in 1962. He played some basketball, but since his father was still in Cleveland and his mother never once drove a car in her 94 years, he couldn't get to practice very often.

He enlisted in the Navy in Morristown about as fast as he could after high school. Like most young people who grow up on a farm, he was very eager to leave, and like many young people, after he was gone a few years, he was eager to return.

His older brother John had enlisted in the Navy two years earlier, and my dad was stationed on the same aircraft carrier, the USS Shangri-La. Given the turmoil to come in the next decade, he was lucky, spending most of his time in San Diego and the Mediterranean.

During one of those shore leaves, when he would hitchhike from Jacksonville, Florida, to Mohawk, Tennessee, he met my mom at the Blue Circle Drive-In on the corner of Cutler and Summer streets here in Greeneville. They were married in December of 1966.

He worked for six months at a factory in town before getting hired on at the newspaper in February 1967. Years later he would kid me that he had only had two jobs in his entire life, and at last count I had had about 30.

He would frequently complain that his worst mistake was to be trained at multiple jobs at the paper — in the early years, he learned to do the paste-up, learned how to photograph, develop his pictures, and learned how to write. He took a few night classes here and there, but never got a college degree.

He has never liked to be called a journalist — it was a bit too high-falutin' a title — he likes to be called a columnist.

He sold encyclopedias for a while in the 1970s, primarily so we could get the complimentary set. I remember that between McDonald High School and his smattering of night classes, he could still recite Robert Frost's poetry and the Gettysburg Address.

It was this time in the late 1960s and early 1970s that he began writing his columns about the old soldiers, the mountaineers, the old moonshiners. By the time I was 8 or 9, I got to tag along on many of these trips, and I have many fond memories of them.

Although I left this community in the early '90s, I know how much his columns have meant to so many through the years I have been gone. His columns reported the history of the community, told of the unsung heroes, and brought to light many untold stories.

I can remember how he would always greet, by way of an enthusiastic yell, Ham Hamlin on his usual seat on a bench in front of the courthouse. My dad had written about Ham and how he had survived for days on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific after his ship had been sunk.

I can remember going to the side of the mountain that Collie Payne plowed with an ox many times when I was a child. I can remember him covering the tobacco market, with the cadences of the auctioneers in the frosty air, when all of downtown Greeneville smelled like Burley tobacco in early December.

I remember riding on many trips in that old 1966 Chevelle to see farmers, old drill sergeants, widows turning 100 years old, among many others. I remember him going to the farms for the spring farm editions and the many, many churches and cemeteries for the Religion page.

I remember going to Plains, Georgia, to see Jimmy Carter's peanut farm. I remember going on vacation to Florida, where my parents would always insist that we go to the historical sites, not just the beach.

I remember him letting me steer the old Chevelle in the fields on the Poor Farm Road and letting me drive the tractor when it was time to put up hay.

My dad would work and work hard in the garden and on the farm. He would help his brothers John and Sam butcher hogs the day after Thanksgiving every year, although he didn't care for the job much at all.

He never killed an animal that I can remember. My grandmother was the one always asked to dispatch the chickens when I was a child.

I remember one year the groundhogs were taking more than their usual toll on the garden, and he and I both tried to shoot a few. But we were both fairly lousy shots and didn't hit a single one.

One of his hardest years was 1989, when his brother, John, was ill with colon cancer and my mom's dad was ill from complications of his Rheumatoid arthritis. He logged many miles and many hours helping them to appointments and seeing them in the hospital.

Ten years after that he did the same for his father in his last few months. Five years after that he did the same for his mother and mother-in-law during their prolonged illnesses. His duty to family in their illness is more than impressive.

It was about when I was finally finishing my training that I began to hear rumors, never a peep from him, that he was getting impatient for a grandchild. It was also about this time that my parents began planning on moving to the farm on the Poor Farm Road. Through my childhood we may have slept and received the mail on South Main Street, but my parents' time and energy were spent on the Poor Farm Road.

His first grandson was born in 2005, and the second one in 2007. The old farmhouse was rebuilt and enlarged, and finally, in 2010, he and my mom moved back to the farm and finally started keeping chickens again.

I suspect that he has taken the grandchildren on some of the same back roads that he took me on, and I know he would like to take them on many more trips.

I don't know if that will happen. Last week he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and is very ill. We begin palliative treatment very soon.

His illness came so quickly and was so advanced when it was found, it may not give us much more time with him. I know that he would like cards, and they can be sent to 138 Poor Farm Road, Greeneville, TN 37745. I know he would want your prayers, as would my mom.

I know that many, many people will miss you and your columns, Dad — you are loved by many.

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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