Johnson City Press Sunday, October 26, 2014

Community Heritage

Fun turns to tragedy

January 27th, 2014 10:06 am by Bob Cox

Fun turns to tragedy

Photo taken from the 1966 University of Tennessee yearbook.

I thoroughly enjoyed my years at the University of Tennessee while pursuing my engineering degree.
While I have many favorable reminiscences from that era, there is a particularly bad one that occurred on Feb. 1, 1965, when I was a junior.
The forecast for that wintry, 15-degree Monday morning was rain turning to sleet, followed by an accumulation of up to six inches of snow by early afternoon.
Surprisingly, classes that day were not suspended. Students, especially those from the South, viewed this as an opportunity to enjoy the campus’s invigorating winter wonderland.
True to predictions, the white stuff began falling by late morning.
Several of us left our Old Melrose Hall dorm after attending morning classes and walked down the Melrose Avenue circle toward “the strip” on Cumberland Avenue.
As we passed through the crowd, we noticed some clever makeshift “sleds,” including a large wooden flowerpot borrowed from a nearby faculty house porch, being used to transport students down the slippery streets.
About eight people would cram into the pot along the top of the hill and travel counterclockwise toward the Kappa Sigma Fraternity house at the bottom.
The ride abruptly ended when the sled hit the curb at the bottom of the hill, causing it to flip, precariously dumping its thrill-seeking passengers onto the ground.
As we continued toward Cumberland Avenue, we noticed a continuous buildup of students that ultimately totaled 500.
Although snowballs were initially randomly thrown at other students, the sport escalated into those on one side of the street throwing at folks on the other.
Some individuals used an umbrella due to the intensity of the falling snow, but they soon came down after they became targets for a barrage of snowballs.
On a positive note, there were positive reports of students helping motorists get their cars started and back on the road.
The weather began to take its toll on traffic, with more than 100 calls received by Knoxville Police, which included the report of a seven-car pileup west of the campus.
Of note were 67 complaints of students on the UT campus who were throwing snowballs at vehicles, especially those along the 1700 block of Cumberland Avenue.
About that time, the winter enjoyment was elevated another notch. One student would sneak up on a vehicle and attempt to open its door.
If successful, a barrage of snowballs would be hurled inside the vehicle, covering the unsuspecting driver and the interior of the car with snow. The individual would be dazed and overwhelmed as he or she tried to navigate their vehicle away from the melee. Anything was fair game for this distraction, be it pedestrians, cars, trucks or 18-wheelers.  
After watching this activity for several minutes, my party decided to eat lunch. Our quick choices were the Quarterback Restaurant (Italian cuisine), the Varsity Inn (Greek food) and Sam and Andy’s Tennessean (home of the legendary Vol Burger). We unanimously opted for a Quarterback pizza.
While we were dining, something happened a block away near the main entrance to the campus at Ayres Hall. A 56-year-old man who was employed by the Fulton Sylphon Co. in Knoxville left work early that day to have snow chains put over the wheels of his car. As he traveled down slippery Cumberland Avenue near the entrance to the Hill, he became overly agitated by a group of students throwing snowballs at him, blocking his view of the road.
About that time, the man, who reportedly had high blood pressure, suffered a heart attack, causing him to slump over his steering wheel and veer off the road, hitting a utility pole. He was taken to University Hospital where he was pronounced dead. We did not hear about this tragedy until later.
After we finished eating, we exited the restaurant. Almost immediately, we spotted a commotion and a large crowd gathering in front of the “T” Room, another favorite student eatery on the strip. We sensed something was wrong. To our dismay, we heard that that an 18-year-old male student had been shot near the restaurant.
Not knowing him, we learned that he resided in New Melrose Hall (later Hess Hall), the dorm adjacent to ours. We were further told that he was carried by students into the restaurant to wait for an ambulance to arrive. Word quickly spread that the driver of an 18-wheeler, an employee of the Bird and Cutshaw Produce Co. of Greeneville killed him.
Like many others, someone opened the truck driver’s door and pelted him with snowballs. But unlike the others, he became irate, probably fearing for his safety. Witnesses said he pulled a .22-caliber pistol from his glove compartment, stood on his truck’s running board a few seconds and fired his gun into the crowd.
The bullet struck the student over his right eye. Several people overpowered the driver, confiscated his weapon and wrestled him to the ground, where they held him until authorities arrived. He was taken into custody and charged with second-degree murder.
There was a good deal of discussion as to whether the truck driver aimed at any specific student who had thrown a snowball at him or shot aimlessly into the crowd. Some theorized that in the excitement of the moment, he accidentally discharged his weapon.
Unfortunately, this story does not end here. There was a third person killed on campus that day, but there was a myriad of contradicting facts surrounding him. One story had him being homeless and heavily on medication. Another said he was a trucker’s helper riding along behind the truck whose driver was arrested for the shooting.
Supposedly, he witnessed the tragedy and planned to testify on behalf of the driver. However, he was pelleted by a snowball that contained a rock or perhaps a hard piece of ice. He ended up at a nearby Salvation Army and later at a hospital where he complained of a severe headache from what appeared to be a concussion. While there, he succumbed to the injury.  
Within a span of one hour, three people died on the campus of the University of Tennessee. Police descended on the campus, many broadcasting messages to students. We were told to instantly leave the area and return to our dorms. We were warned not to pick up a snowball lest we be arrested. The campus was placed under a strict curfew until things calmed down.  
How could such a potentially fun day turn into such a horrible tragedy? The news spread like wildfire from radio, television, magazine and newspaper coverage. Even Paul Harvey made it the subject of his weekday program and a small national magazine, Pageant, described the tragic events in its March edition.  
When the grand jury met to determine what action should be taken against the truck driver, the court did not feel that his action warranted a trial, believing instead that he acted in self-defense to an unruly mob. Although he was immediately released from custody, some students disagreed with the court’s decision and let it be known.
There was no tangible evidence from interviews of those who witnessed the tragedy that the slain student participated in the snowballing activity. The general opinion was that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When I occasionally travel back to the campus, my mind sometimes drifts back to that fateful day almost 50 years ago when three lives were tragically extinguished, resulting from the antics of a few well-meaning but out-of-control students who were intent on having some winter fun. It was a day that still resides in my memory.

Reach Bob Cox at boblcox@
bcyesteryear.com or go to
www.bcyesteryear.com.

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