Me and Jerry

One of the highlights of my year is always covering the R.C. Cola/Moon Pie Festival in Bell Buckle on the third Saturday of June. I love this event, and while I’ve missed two or three, I’ve been to the vast majority of them since the festival kicked off in 1995.

It’s a fun, often tongue-in-cheek event, reflecting Bell Buckle’s quirky sensibilities. Back in the early 1990s, the town’s previous third-Saturday-of-June event, the Country Fair, was languishing, and the town looked for a way to revitalize it. Someone read a story about the Moon Pie, and that was the germ of an idea. The town contacted Chattanooga Bakery, which gave its permission, probably not expecting much. The festival has grown huge, second only to the Webb School Art & Craft Festival which the town hosts each October.

There are several components to the festival. It begins with a 10-mile (not 10K, 10-mile) run, along with a 5K run as an alternative. There’s a parade. There are scores and scores and scores of vendors. There’s live entertainment, sometimes including clever skits written by the town’s former first lady Carla Webb.

They also, each year, crown an RC Cola King and a Moon Pie Queen. As I reported yesterday in the Times-Gazette, country star T. Graham Brown and his wife will be this year’s honorees.

Last year’s king, “Voice of the Tennessee Titans” Mike Keith, tosses Moon Pies to parade spectators.

Since this is the 25th year for the festival, they are also going to make note of all of the previous kings and queens. Some will be in attendance; others will be represented by stand-ins. The stand-ins will ride in the parade, just as the king and queen do, tossing Moon Pies to the crowd. They will also be on stage after the parade for the coronation ceremony.

I got a call this morning from Jenny Hunt, the town’s former mayor and one of the organizers of the festival. Usually, when I get a call the day after a story has run, I brace myself for a complaint or correction. But in this case, Jenny’s call did not have anything to do with the T. Graham Brown story.
Jenny asked me to be the stand-in for the late Jerry Thompson, who died in 2000.

Jerry Thompson, if you don’t remember him, was a legendary journalist for the Nashville Tennessean. As a reporter, his most famous story involved going undercover with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, which took him away from friends, family and colleagues for 16 months. He won a National Headliner Award, was nominated for a Pulitzer, and turned the experience into a book, “My Life In The Klan.”

Later, he gave up the pressure of reporting and wrote a folksy personal column, “Thompson’s Station,” for the Tennessean as well as hosting segments on “Tennessee Crossroads” on Nashville Public Television.

If I met Jerry Thompson at all, it was only briefly, perhaps on the day that he was in Bell Buckle being crowned king. I was an admirer of his -- who in my profession wouldn’t be? -- but I never knew or worked with him. I suggested that maybe Mark McGee, who worked for the Nashville Banner and knew Thompson personally, would be a better choice. But Jenny said they wanted someone currently working as a journalist, and besides, I had a long connection to the festival.

When I told Mark about this later, he said he actually thought of me and Jerry Thompson as being similar in some ways, and while I’m not one-quarter of the journalist Thompson was I consider that a huge compliment. Mark joked that I would have to develop an appreciation for home-grown tomatoes and beer. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I’m all in on the home-grown tomatoes.
I still feel like I’m not qualified to be Jerry Thompson’s stand-in, but I’ll take it as a compliment, and a new way to enjoy the festival.

I’ve actually ridden in the parade one time before -- I was back in the line-up area on Maple Street one year when someone invited me to ride on their float, and I thought it would be a fun change of pace. I may have to see if one of my co-workers or freelancers can take photos of the parade this year, since I won’t be at my normal viewing point on the square. The only float I’ll be able to photograph will be the one directly ahead of me. (As the old saying goes, “Unless you’re the lead mule, the scenery never changes.”)

I won’t have to worry about rushing or e-mailing photos back to Shelbyville for the Sunday paper, as I have in the past. With our new production schedule, the Saturday paper will already be in people’s mailboxes by midday Saturday, and our next paper will be the Tuesday edition. So I can post my photos online whenever I get home and then set them up Monday for Tuesday’s print edition.

Should be a fun day. We’ll be thinking of you, Jerry.