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After loss, Johnson City resident finds outlet in local history

David Floyd • Updated Jan 21, 2020 at 1:07 PM

After his mother’s death two years ago, Johnson City resident Ted Bowers said he felt lost.

She had been in a nursing home for about seven years.

But, he found an outlet that helped him cope: Researching the history of Johnson City.

“It kept me busy, and it was something that held my attention,” he said, “and I became more interested in it the more I found.”

Johnson City’s past was always something Bowers found interesting, and he would sometimes spend hours over the course of a single day scouring old clippings from the Johnson City newspaper on microfilm at the East Tennessee State University library.

His research has covered a broad cross-section of topics, such as the history of Langton High School, local wrestling and Elvis Presley’s visits to Freedom Hall Civic Center, but one subject Bowers gravitated toward was military history — particularly the connections between local residents and major conflicts like World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

“I’ve always known about the Korean War, but I didn’t realize how bad that it was,” he said.

Bowers said circumstances could be particularly bad in prison camps, where POWs would end up sleeping on the ground with nothing but their uniforms to deaden the freezing cold. Almost 40,000 American soldiers died in the Korean War, a figure that included Johnson City men like John Sadler and Delbert Marks.

One local fighting man, Cpl. Robert Riddle, returned to the Tri-Cities in 1953 to a tremendous amount of fanfare after spending 33 months as a prisoner of war in Korea.

In the course of his research, Bowers kept finding more interesting tidbits about the city, info that he said came together like a puzzle. Today, Bowers shares much of what he’s learned on the Johnson City, Tennessee Memories Facebook page, a group created in July 2011 that acts as a repository for all things Johnson City. He serves as one of the group’s moderators.

His posts follow a “this day in history” format, and he hopes that his research can help clear up misconceptions about the city’s past.

“I like facts,” he said. “I don’t like hearsay and folklore.”

For example, Bowers said there are unfounded superstitions that the old Swingle Hospital, which opened in 1948, was haunted. Bowers said the hospital had an excellent team of doctors, but the facility struggled and eventually closed as new hospitals opened and physicians began leaving to take other jobs. The building closed in 1961, stood vacant for decades and was ultimately demolished in 2010.

Even with numerous rolls of microfilm at his disposal, Bowers indicated that it could still be difficult to find photos of old Johnson City landmarks. Bowers was only able to find photos of certain buildings, like the Tri-City Drive-In Theatre and the Piedmont Hotel, because a wreck had occurred just outside their front doors.

One photographer whose work Bowers admires is James Ellis, who served as the chief photographer at the Johnson City Press-Chronicle for about 36 years, between 1946 and 1982. Bowers marveled at Ellis’ ability to capture intimate moments in the lives of Johnson City residents.

He remembers one image Ellis shot that showed a mother, R.M. Nave, talking long-distance on Christmas Eve to her son, Cpl. Thomas M. Gardner, who was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, in 1950.

Bowers shared that photo to the Facebook group on Dec. 24, 2019. The call cost the Naves $75, Bowers wrote in his post, a call that Nave said was worth “every bit of it.”

“A lot of things are forgotten if you don’t bring it back out,” Bowers said Monday.

Editor’s note: Delbert Marks was originally reported dead on Sept. 7, 1952. It was later reported on Dec. 19 that he was actually a prison of war. He was released in 1953.

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