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Village that raised me made for a unique childhood

Robert Owens, Community Voices • Jun 2, 2019 at 6:30 AM

Editor’s note: Robert Owens was one of our original Community Voices columnists. The retired mental health care administrator died on May 25, In his honor, the following is a reprint of his May 21, 2006, column in the Press.

A few years ago, then-first lady Hillary Clinton wrote a book, “It Takes A Village,” the major thesis of which was her belief that the best circumstances for a child to develop required the support, interaction and opportunities an entire community could provide. As I look back on my early years and discuss them with family and friends, I frequently am told I had an unusual childhood.

It has come to me that Hillary was right — it does take a village or town for a child to make an introduction to life as I did, and that may be far more rare than I have realized. Not only did I have a remarkably loving and stimulating family, it seems that in some ways I was adopted by the whole metropolis of Dunlap — all 721 of them in the 1940 census.

The occasional shopping trips to Chattanooga proved to me that Dunlap was a small universe. Consequently, every resident and everything that happened there were both known and significant. In that world, the smallest incident could make deep and memorable impressions. These circumstances were enhanced for me by both parents being remarkably willing to let me operate independently under almost any circumstance I chose, which proved to be with people and in activities almost without limits.

As an adult, I heard Mama say many times that the only problem with Bob as a child was “he never knew when to come home.” Our house never was locked, and we all lived in an idealized world thinking nothing really bad could happen to us in Dunlap. This being the case, I found the town to be open territory in which I could explore, interact and inspect the functions of the town.

In many ways, Dunlap was a true Mayberry as attested by a number of the activities related in this writing. The biggest difference was Mayberry did not reveal the seamier side of a poor, small, Southern town. It mostly reflected its quaint charm, of which Dunlap also contained an ample quantity. The greatest similarity was the connectedness of lives. Everybody knew everything, and at an early age, I thought I should and did have access to every aspect of what was happening.

I had friends around my age, mainly four: Fred and Jimmy St. Clair, Randall Standefer and James Wiseman. Jimmy was a year younger, Fred a year older and both James and Randall two years older. We spent much time together, but our relationships and experiences warrant separate coverage and will be related in another account.

The wider world of relationships that interested me most was in the adult world. Having absolutely no community recreational facilities or personnel to oversee them, children were left to provide their own recreation, and our family did a masterful job. Games were constant, with Donald, Nez and Liz always delighting me with all sorts of entertainment. Probably the crowning achievement was Liz’s remarkable reproduction of a Monopoly game, which we played endlessly. (I would pay dearly for that set today).

To me, Dunlap consisted of a real Monopoly game with a real Railroad, a real Telephone Office and a real Jail. The places I recall visiting, and knowing intimately the people operating them, included Greer’s Barbershop, Mr. Haskew’s Shoe Shop and the Dunlap Train Depot (probably the most frequently visited and most-used place as a playground because Fred and Jimmy’s father was the depot agent). I spent time also at the Dunlap Furniture Store, which was run by Mrs. St. Clair; the Telephone Office, where Miss Bessie Deakins was the day operator and Mrs. Maude Pyle was the night operator. (I usually went by when Mrs. Pyle was on duty, as she was my favorite); and Hixon’s Grocery, where Lytton worked.

In addition to these businesses, visits to individuals by no means were seen as out of bounds. One of the best was Mr. Wiley Freeman who was, to me, the town’s best eccentric. He was an elderly inventor. He always had something in the works, but his obsession was a perpetual motion operation. He had several that came close but none quite there. The last I saw of him, he was still optimistic about finally making one work. Once, I told him that my father had explained why his goal could never be reached and I quickly regretted saying that. He became a little agitated and corrected both me and my father, so I never referred to that again. He never tired of spending time with me and we seemed to be good friends.

Robert Owens was among the founders of the Johnson City Mental Health Center in 1958. He became director in 1962 and remained with the organization until retirement in 1996 as president of Watauga Mental Health Services, now Frontier Health.

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