News » Features

Mr. Big

The Scene set out to find Nashvillians who made headlines and then vanished



The men who once ran our city’s two daily newspapers, a controversial Metro Council member, a very unusual rapist, an artist who helped resurrect Lower Broadway, a police chief who advocated hanging people in front of the Metro Courthouse, a state bureaucrat whose life story became a Hollywood thriller, two trailblazing black basketball players on a previously all-white Vanderbilt team....

The names of these Nashvillians were in the headlines almost every day at some point in this city’s history. That is, until they retired, lost the election, shipped out under duress, went bankrupt or decided they’d rather chuck it all and go live at a nudist colony. Nashville has always had a way of hanging a public halo over some people and placing them in the glare of the limelight. Almost as quickly, these people vanish in the dark of night and are never heard from again.

We here at the Scene decided to find a few of our city’s headline-makers who are no longer around. For the most part, it wasn’t too difficult. Some of them are a little poorer. Some are a little richer. Herewith, 23 Nashvillians who vanished.

Sherman Nickens

Sherman Nickens, who helped solve hundreds of murders for the Metro Police Department, hardly wishes he still worked the beat.

“It was a good career. I liked it, but I’m happy I’m not doing it anymore,” he says.

Who could blame him? Having worked in the homicide division from 1965 to 1989, including 15 years running it, Nickens became a regular character on the local news, talking about grizzly murders with the detached air of someone who has seen it all. And, believe us, he has.

During his career, Nickens presided over some of the city’s most notorious homicides. In 1968, he worked the murder of W. Haynie Gourley, the founder of Capitol Chevrolet, in which Gourley’s partner William Powell was tried and acquitted of the crime. In 1973, Nickens also worked the David “Stringbean” Akeman case, in which the banjo-playing comic and his wife were gunned down in their home by burglars. And Nickens was also the first officer on the scene when 9-year-old Marcia Trimble was found strangled in a Green Hills garage after being missing for more than a month.

Nickens says a good detective needs to be “street smart” above all else. “You have to know people. You can’t put yourself above the people you’re investigating. You have to mingle with them.”

Today, Nickens works as a private investigator in Nashville and is renovating a condo in Florida so he can spend time there too. He says people still recognize him as the guy talking about “that murder” on the news. —Matt Pulle

Joe Casey, former Metro police chief

Casey, a towering man with a deep drawl, started out as a rookie cop in Nashville in the 1950s and then rose to the position of police chief, where he served for 16 years (1973 to 1989). Casey earned the nickname “Hang ’Em High Joe” for being an advocate of public executions. He was fond of saying that he wouldn’t mind if criminals were hung on the public square if murders and rapes stopped as a result.

That was Joe Casey: blunt, forceful and out to stop criminals. Today, at 76, Casey says he hasn’t changed his position on the death penalty one bit. “I said whatever it takes, and I still feel that way.” Casey adds that for all the attention the fight against terrorism gets, people should remember 20,000 to 30,000 people are murdered each year in the United States—far more than terrorists kill.

Casey, who still lives in Nashville, retired from the force in 1989 and worked for eight years as head of security and personnel for West Tennessee Wholesale Drug Co., where he was promoted to vice president before he retired again. A past president of the International Chiefs of Police, Casey took heat for his support of the Brady Bill, a gun control law requiring handgun buyers to register them and undergo background checks. “It has stopped some people from getting guns, and if it’s saved one life, it was worth it,” he says.

For a man who once battled criminals, Casey has another fight on his hands: cancer. He says his prognosis is good after a large, cancerous mass in his colon was removed in October. That was to be followed by preventative chemo. “As far as they can tell, they got everything,” he says. —Vicki Brown

Rosanne Cash, singer/songwriter

Cash, a Grammy-winning artist, left Nashville more than a decade ago. Her marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell had dissolved. Never quite at home in the Music Row milieu, Cash moved to New York City and began collaborating with producer John Leventhal, whom she eventually married.

Though she has been away from Nashville and the country music community for many years, she writes in a posting on her Web site ( that she was delighted to be listed recently at No. 22 in Country Music Television’s “40 Greatest Women of Country Music.”

“I was moved to tears when I heard what some of my old friends, including my friend and ex-husband, Rodney Crowell, had to say,” Cash wrote. Cash spokesman Danny Kahn says the singer often returns to Nashville to visit friends and family—she’s the daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto—and to work on special projects. She’s completed a new album for Capitol Records (her first in seven years), scheduled for a 2003 release.

She also contributed a cut to Kindred Spirits, an album paying tribute to her father, the legendary “Man in Black,” and was in Nashville in November for a benefit at the Ryman Auditorium for the Cumberland Heights Drug and Alcohol Center. Rosanne lives in New York with Leventhal and her three daughters (all from her marriage to Crowell). Life isn’t all about music—she has carved out a second career as a writer, having published a children’s book, a collection of short fiction and numerous magazine essays. —Vicki Brown

Joe B. Wyatt, former chancellor, Vanderbilt University

As chancellor of Vanderbilt University from 1982 to 2000, Joe B. Wyatt was hardly the most gregarious man on campus. In contrast to his jolly successor, E. Gordon Gee, Wyatt instead preferred to work behind the scenes, raising money and ushering in a new era of bricks-and-mortar development. In fact, the school newspaper called him “Joe B. Quiet.”

But if Wyatt’s tenure was far from flashy, he nevertheless helped turn the university from a sleepy Southern school into one of the top colleges in the nation. With a background in computer science and venture capital, Wyatt ran the school with the cool, no-spin efficiency of a pre-Enron CEO. That style—along with Wyatt’s lack of traditional academic credentials—made him a suspect figure among many faculty, but even they had to concede that his steady leadership served the school well.

“I’m proud of all the many accomplishments that Vanderbilt achieved during my 18 years as chancellor, and because many of those accomplishments were investments in the future of the university, I continue to be proud of Vanderbilt’s achievements,” Wyatt wrote the Scene by e-mail.

Today, Wyatt serves on a number of boards for research and education nonprofits, including the Washington, D.C.-based University Research Foundation Inc., where he is the chairman of the Board of Trustees. He and his wife, Faye, also spend more time these days with their two children and four grandchildren. Their son, Bob, is a surgeon in Dallas. Their daughter, Sandy, is a special education teacher in Houston. The Wyatts continue to live at their farm in Burns, Tenn. —Matt Pulle

Raymond Mitchell, The Fantasy Man

Few accused criminals ever sparked as much speculation, water-cooler conversation, dirty humor or outright incredulity as The “Fantasy Man.”

In strict criminal terms, Raymond Mitchell was convicted of rape by fraud and attempted rape by fraud, then sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment on June 19, 1996. But that’s not the amazing part.

Testimony in the trial revealed Mitchell’s modus operandi. He would telephone a woman and whisper to her, pretending to be her boyfriend. Then, while still on the phone, he would ask her to fulfill a fantasy of his by putting on a blindfold and having sex with him.

The scheme worked. Prosecutors said Mitchell called hundreds of women over the years, most of whom hung up on him. Some 30 women ended up reporting his calls to police. Of these, eight said they had sex with him.

One woman testified during his trial that she had sex with him twice a week for two months in 1992, because she thought Mitchell was her boyfriend. Then, one evening, the blindfold slipped off.

The defense didn’t take the trial lying down. Mitchell’s lawyers claimed the women consented and knew they were having sex with a stranger. But the jury didn’t buy the consent argument. Thus far, neither have the courts to which Mitchell has appealed.

Mitchell is now at the Middle Tennessee Correctional Complex. He was denied parole in 2000, and his next parole hearing is in 2004. —Vicki Brown

Rod Dowhower, former Vanderbilt football coach

Dowhower racked up a rotten 4-18-0 record as Vanderbilt University’s head football coach for two years from 1995 to 1996. Not that a losing record is unusual for a Commodore coach—Steve Sloan was the last Vandy football coach with an overall winning record (12-9-2). And that was 28 years ago.

It’s almost a tradition for new coaches to arrive at Vandy, predict great things for the squad and then leave five years later. What was remarkable about Dowhower is the speed with which he failed and quit. Few people—even fans—can recall his name.

It’s not like Dowhower didn’t have the credentials. He had earned a Super Bowl Ring as the Washington Redskins quarterback coach in 1991. After his Vandy experience, he went on to bigger and better things. First, he joined the New York Giants, where he stayed a year. Then he became offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999. After the Eagles 2001 season, when the team lost to the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship game, Dowhower retired.

Dowhower, 59, can now be found working on his golf game in Phoenix, where he lives with his wife. He remembers Nashville as “a great town, with a lot of nice people,” and says he stopped by the Vanderbilt campus a couple of years ago when he was scouting an MTSU player.

While he recalls Nashville with warmth, he says Vanderbilt was a tough place to coach. “Vanderbilt has a little different culture.... The big emphasis on academics is all positive. They graduate their players and they get a great degree, but the level of competition they play at makes it tough for a coach,” he says. —Vicki Brown

Olin Calk, sculptor

Seven larger-than-life cowboy sculptures once located in an empty lot at Fourth and Broadway are gone, and so is the environmental artist who created the downtown landmark.

Olin Calk, 45, was in Nashville from 1989 to 1991 while his partner, Mai Gehrke, whom he later married and divorced, was doing post-doctoral work at Vanderbilt. Lower Broadway was in the throes of being gentrified, and many feared that the authentic, country spirit of the strip was in jeopardy.

Across the street from the newly opened Merchants Restaurant, which was all spit and polish, Calk constructed his cowboy sculptures. The figures had guns pointed at the eatery. The artistic statement was clear: We are in a battle for this street’s spirit.

The cowboys were made of various recyclable materials (one was made of old records, another of computer circuit panels) and were meant to last just 30 days. But they became so popular that when Calk got ready to take them down, the Metro Arts Commission bought them.

Where are they now?

Tom Morales, owner of TomKats Inc., bought them from the Arts Commission when a restaurant addition took up the vacant lot where the cowboys stood. Three are at Saffire, a restaurant at the Factory in Franklin, two were burned up (apparently by homeless people who built a fire with them while they were on the lot), and “two are in my office at 408 Broadway,” Morales says.

Now in Las Cruces, N.M., Calk remains an artist.

“I’m working hot metal,” Calk says.

He stays in touch with people in Nashville and worked on proposals for a project in 12 South and another using material recovered from the construction of the Titans’ stadium. But he was disappointed when nothing came of either proposal. “I spent a lot of time talking to people and giving them my ideas, and nobody really wanted to pay,” he says. —Vicki Brown

Wayne Sargent, publisher and editor, Nashville Banner Amon Carter Evans, former owner, The Tennessean

Gannett, the massive newspaper company, has owned The Tennessean for so long that few remember it once owned the Nashville Banner back in the 1970s. The editor and publisher of the Banner under much of Gannett’s ownership was Brooklyn native Wayne Sargent. The owner of The Tennessean, meanwhile, was Amon Carter Evans.

Their backgrounds were as different as night and day.

Evans is the son of the late Silliman Evans, a Texas native who rose to power in the 1920s through his affiliation with Franklin Roosevelt and bought The Tennessean out of bankruptcy during the Great Depression. After Silliman Evans died, young Amon Evans found himself the publisher of The Tennessean. One of the first things he did was hire John Seigenthaler as his editor.

Sargent, meanwhile, was a lifelong employee of Gannett and worked for the national newspaper chain when it purchased the Banner from old-South conservative Jimmy Stahlman in 1972. From the time he arrived in Nashville as the newspaper’s editor and publisher, Sargent knew that his new gig in Nashville would be difficult.

“Mr. Stahlman had put his imprint on the Banner for so long that it was hard for anyone at the paper to realize he was gone,” Sargent says. “He would sometimes reprint a lot of the sermon that he heard in church in the paper. He hated Frank Sinatra, so the name Frank Sinatra could never be mentioned in print.”

Sargent stopped the occasional sermon rewrite and the Sinatra ban. He says he moved the Banner more to “the political center” without losing its affiliation with the Republican Party.

What Sargent didn’t do, though, was build cordial relations with Evans and The Tennessean, a publication financially linked to the Banner under the newspapers’ 1937 Joint Operating Agreement (JOA). Under the JOA, the Banner and Tennessean had combined advertising and distribution arms but maintained separate editorial departments. Gannett put constant pressure on Sargent to cut costs and improve earnings, something he needed the full support of Evans to do.

“Amon resented a big chain like Gannett coming in here, becoming his partner like that,” Sargent says. “There were a lot of things that I wanted us to stop spending money on, but I couldn’t convince him to do this.” Eventually, things got so bad between Sargent and Evans that the two stopped talking to each other, communicating only through Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler.

Eventually, Gannett became so frustrated with the situation that it decided, in 1979, to buy The Tennessean, thus necessitating the sale of the Banner. A few weeks later, Sargent was transferred to a job in Gannett’s corporate headquarters. After seven years as one of the most important people in Nashville, Sargent left town and has rarely returned since.

So where is Wayne Sargent? After seven years as the editor of The San Bernadino Sun, he is retired and living in Carmel, Calif., a resort town on the Pacific coast. He often remembers life in Tennessee in the 1970s and thinks of Nashville as the most intensely competitive news environment he has ever seen. “There were two strong voices there, and they were like day and night in terms of political polarity. And competition makes the world go round.”

As for Amon Carter Evans, he’s the owner of Rattle and Snap, a restored plantation near Columbia now run as a restaurant and bed and breakfast. He doesn’t have much good to say these days about his former newspaper.

“I’m giving some thought to discontinuing my subscription,” he says. “They need to come out, get off their ass and stand for something. I’m tired of this namby-pamby stuff.... For me it is an abdication of responsibility of the worst kind.” —Bill Carey

Eric Crafton, former Metro Council member

The very mention of the former Metro Council member’s name can still start arguments. People who were opposed to the Titans’ stadium deal regarded Eric Crafton as a hero. People who were opposed to the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Charlotte Pike considered him a goat.

In the end, the Wal-Mart deal spelled the end (at least for the time being) of Crafton’s political career. He lost his 1999 reelection bid to Bob Bogen, a longtime employee of the Metro Nashville Education Association.

So where is Eric Crafton today? He’s still in Nashville, working as a residential homebuilder. Most of his homes are in a small Bellevue subdivision called Oakhaven, but he also has bought and renovated a few homes in the inner city for home buyers with low incomes.

“It’s a pretty gratifying thing when you can buy and resell property and help some people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy a house,” he says.

Crafton hasn’t changed his mind about the two big political controversies in which he was involved. “I think that Wal-Mart turned out to be a good thing for the neighborhood, and I don’t think that the traffic has been nearly as much of a problem as some people said it would be,” he says. “I also shop there sometimes, and when I do, I sometimes see some of the people who fought against it.”

As for the Titans, Crafton says he doesn’t have season tickets but has been to a couple of games. “I was never upset that they were coming. I just didn’t think it was fair that Davidson County had to foot the bill when so many of the ticket holders were coming from Williamson County,” he says. “So I root for the team. But usually I stay home and watch because I like to watch the game on TV, with instant replay and everything. And I don’t like having to pay $8 for a hot dog and Coke.” —Bill Carey

Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard in SEC basketball

Once upon a time—and it seems like a long time ago—basketball teams in the Southeastern Conference were all-white. The two men who changed that were Vanderbilt students Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard.

Vanderbilt basketball coach Roy Skinner had recruited Wallace and Dillard in the spring of 1966. Neither will ever forget the experience.

“Sometimes, things would get ugly during those road games,” Wallace says. “People would yell things, people would taunt me. Sometimes the cheerleaders at the other schools would lead cheers against me. Things were worst at the two Mississippi schools and at Auburn. I was made very aware of the fact that they weren’t used to seeing black players, and that they didn’t like black players.”

Wallace stuck with the program, became one of the stars of the team and graduated in 1970 with a double major in electrical engineering and engineering mathematics. Dillard suffered an injury his sophomore year and didn’t make the team his junior year. He recalls having a hard time adjusting at Vanderbilt.

“When I think of Nashville and Vanderbilt, I remember encountering a lot of racism,” he says. “I was a student and an athlete and I was politically active, and I didn’t fit in too well in the conservative environment of Vanderbilt at that time. Nashville was still very much a Southern town, and it was hard for a student like me to have much of a connection to the rest of the city’s black community. So Godfrey Dillard and Vanderbilt just didn’t match up too well.”

Dillard is now a Detroit attorney specializing in civil rights and international law. Wallace is a law professor at American University’s Washington School of Law. He comes back to Nashville occasionally to visit family members and says he still has a hard time realizing just how much the world has changed since he was in college.

“When I see games on television now with so many black players, it is just unbelievable to me,” Wallace says. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since my experience.” —Bill Carey

Jimmy Bowen, label head

Depending on who you ask, Jimmy Bowen is either one of the most beloved or most despised figures in the history of Music Row.

“He was my mentor, big-time,” says Tony Brown, formerly of MCA and now a senior partner at Universal South. “He taught me what to do and what not to do. Lots of people say I shouldn’t say that, but it’s true.”

Producer George Massenburg puts it a little less delicately. Bowen, he says, “came along at a time when the town was ripe to pillage, and he pillaged what was left.”

Bowen, 65, came to Nashville in the 1970s and ran MCA, Elektra/Asylum, MCA (again) and Capitol before a combination of ill health and a fallout with the megalomaniacal Garth Brooks caused him to retire to Hawaii in 1994.

“Bowen did a lot to mainstream Nashville,” says longtime Music Row reporter Hazel Smith. “He started giving artists co-production credit, and others followed suit, and he taught Music Row to sell much more than 500,000 records.”

Today, Bowen lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. He’s no longer active in the music business, but his golfing buddies certainly are. “I played with him two days this week,” says T.K. Kimbrell, Toby Keith’s manager. “James Stroud, Toby Keith, Glen Campbell and Lon Helton were in our group.” —Phil Sweetland

Bill Boner, former mayor, congressman, state legislator

Once upon a time, Bill Boner was a political star. From an East Nashville district in the state legislature, he springboarded to the U.S. Congress, and from there he served one term as mayor from 1987 to 1991. He was hounded out of the mayor’s office for, among other things, various public marital indiscretions. But five years later, in 1996, he made a political comeback, winning a seat in the state legislature, again from an East Nashville district. But when he gave up his seat two years later to run for the job of Metro’s register of deeds, his political career came to a screeching halt. He lost. East Nashville had been ready to take him back, but the county at large wasn’t. Since that time, he’s been below the radar.

Boner is now the superintendent and principal of the Tennessee Preparatory School (TPS). Like all school administrators, he arrives early and gets to deal with everything from sick teachers to disciplinary matters. But TPS is not an ordinary school. It’s a small institution (about 130 students) specifically for children in state custody. The students, who are mostly between 16 and 18 years old, come from all over the state and live at the school.

“They are basically abused and neglected children,” Boner says.

Boner, an educator by trade who became a masterful politician, has fit in at TPS like a square peg in a square hole. He started as a government and world history teacher, then became principal and recently was promoted to superintendent. Along the way, he helped produce the yearbook, coached a few sports teams and helped organize a student government association. “I’ve done a bit of everything,” he says.

So would Boner, 57, consider returning to politics? “I certainly have no plans to do so,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I liked what I used to do, but I really like what I’m doing and I feel like I’m really making a contribution. This is a real thrill for me.” —Bill Carey

Marie Ragghianti, whistle-blower

People who lived in Tennessee in 1979 will never forget Governor-elect Lamar Alexander being sworn in three days early because of the scandal that engulfed the administration of Gov. Ray Blanton. And many people today still remember the name Marie Ragghianti, the chairman of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles, whom Blanton fired. Ragghianti ran afoul of the governor when she refused to release certain prisoners, some of whom had bribed members of the Blanton administration to be released.

Ragghianti became better known by her first name, Marie, which was also the name of the movie about the Tennessee parole board fiasco, starring Sissy Spacek and Jeff Daniels. (The movie also featured cameo appearances by Nashville journalists Larry Brinton, Dwight Lewis and the late Drue Smith.)

Since the 1970s, Ragghianti has taught in a community college in Florida, studied for her doctorate in criminology in New York and worked as the chief of staff of the U.S. Parole Commission in Washington. Today, she lives in and works as a consultant for the state of Maryland, working on a program to control and prevent crime.

Ragghianti comes to Nashville at least once a year to visit her brother and old friends. She still thinks about the series of events in her life that led to the downfall of a Tennessee governor.

“When Blanton died in 1996, I felt nothing but compassion for the family,” she says. “I think he was a great man who was ill-served by a few people around him, and he paid the ultimate price for his mistakes.” She also says only good things about Tennessee’s current Board of Paroles and its chairman Charles Traughber. “My understanding is that the board has been run well for quite some time, and it appears to be even an example for other states.” —Bill Carey

Mike Turko, flamboyant TV reporter

There was no middle ground with Mike Turko. You either loved him or you hated him. Between 1995 and 1999, he was a reporter at WKRN-Channel 2, where he attacked absentee slum lords and government bureaucrats with an in-your-face style of reporting that included kicking in doors and throwing bricks through windows. There was no soft and fuzzy.

“I like to think of myself as someone who helps out ordinary people when no one else will,” Turko says. “I dive into stories that no one else will touch.”

These days, he’s doing much the same thing, only now he does it for station KUSI-TV in San Diego. “I had always wanted to live in Southern California, because I love the weather here,” he says. “There are mountains and desert and ocean—all within 30 miles of where I live.”

Professionally, Turko is especially fond of the stories that resulted in instantaneous change. There was the time that he reported about an elementary school that had no sidewalk. Shortly thereafter, the school miraculously got a sidewalk.

“I think my favorite thing to take on was Nashville Gas,” he says. “Of all the corporate entities, I remember them being the most unresponsive to people’s concerns.”

Turko says he misses Nashville. “People were courteous in Nashville, much more so than they are in other parts of the country, including here,” he says. “And out here, neighbors don’t know each other, which is odd. People just have their own concerns.” —Bill Carey

Pat Quigley, former head, Capitol Nashville

Quigley, who ran Capitol Nashville in the late 1990s after Garth Brooks demanded Scott Hendricks’ ouster, was a New York marketing executive who quickly showed his Nashville naïveté.

To try to turn things around at the label, Quigley suggested telephoning Patsy Cline to gauge her interest in singing a duet with John Berry, an artist on Capitol’s roster. Cline, of course, had been dead for over 35 years.

“I was never a label head,” he says. “I kind of fell into that when Scott lost his job. I was there to do marketing.”

All of which dovetailed perfectly with megastar Brooks’ obsession with sales figures. Quigley proceeded to rattle the Row by charging retailers bargain-basement prices for The Limited Series, a box set that repackaged Garth’s catalog with a handful of bonus tracks. Writing in USA Today, Brian Mansfield admired Quigley’s enthusiasm for new music, but other critics claimed that Capitol became a one-artist label under Quigley, doing only Brooks’ bidding.

Quigley, 52, now lives with his wife and four children in Boulder, Colo. “My family misses Nashville,” says Quigley, who owns “a lot of DataPlay,” a privately held tech firm in Boulder that manufactures storage disks the size of a quarter. The hope is that they will take major market share away from traditional CDs. —Phil Sweetland

Wick Comer, businessman

In the late 1960s, Washington Industries was one of Middle Tennessee’s business giants. The apparel manufacturer had about 10,000 employees and over $250 million in revenues. In addition to its 27 manufacturing plants, Washington had amassed an odd mix of assets in the name of diversity, including the Nashville stove manufacturer Phillips & Buttorff and a small town department store chain called Sullivans. When longtime company head Guy Comer died in 1969, he was replaced by his son T.W. (Wick) Comer.

The next 10 years were disastrous ones for Washington. Rather than leave his son completely in charge of the business, Guy Comer had formed a nonprofit organization called the Church of Christ Foundation, which, by the time of his death, owned most of the stock in Washington Industries. The foundation’s board of directors was more loyal to Guy Comer than Wick Comer, and within months of his taking over as president of Washington, Wick Comer and the foundation’s board began feuding.

That feud eventually became the subject of a two-year court battle in Nashville that had more than its share of melodrama, including one witness who died of a heart attack on the witness stand.

Chancellor Frank Drowota II ultimately concluded the case by ordering the foundation’s board to take on nine new trustees, a ruling that still left control of the company in question. Wick Comer then resigned. During the next few years, the American apparel manufacturing industry began shifting overseas, and in 1988, the company declared bankruptcy. Today, one of the only tangible signs that Washington ever existed is its old factory building at 222 Second Ave. N., which is now office space.

After he resigned from Washington, Wick Comer bought a small interest in The Bank of Hendersonville. That investment grew until he owned most of the bank, which he later sold to Volunteer State Bank. Since the late 1980s, Comer has spent most of his time operating a small farm in Sumner County.

Today, he has very mixed feelings about his experiences as head of a large company. “Parts of it I enjoyed very much,” he says. “But the lack of control was frustrating. My father ran everything with an iron hand as long as he was there. But when he died, the control of the company shifted to the people he had surrounded himself with and not to the next president. There is no way that I would have been able to run it.”

Comer also says that he will never forget the feeling he got when the company folded 10 years after he resigned. “When the company went under for good in the 1980s, there were employees who were in the hospital who found out as they were checking out that their insurance policies didn’t exist anymore. It was awful.” —Bill Carey

George Mitchell, The Footstomper

In 1966, a native North Nashville teen named George Mitchell was caught attacking women in the downtown Church Street shopping district. It wasn’t the attacks that drew attention as much as the method. Wearing heavy dress shoes with hard wooden heels, Mitchell would single out shoppers, sidle up to them and stomp the delicate insteps of their feet. A Belle Meade domestic’s grandson, raised in the John Henry Hale Homes, Mitchell would be arrested more than 40 times over the next two decades—sometimes within minutes of his latest release from jail.

For 18 years, the bizarre criminal career of the so-called “Nashville Footstomper” made headlines—not just in Nashville, where his rampage produced stories such as “Foot Stomper Gets Boot Again,” but across the country. The attacks suddenly ended in 1985, after local authorities reportedly made it clear to Mitchell that he was headed for hard prison time.

His whereabouts went largely unknown for 17 years, until WSMV-Channel 4 anchor Demetria Kalodimos tracked him down for her award-winning documentary Injurious George. The man Kalodimos found was a reformed, middle-aged father and grandfather who regretted the youth he wasted in jail. His footstomping days ended, he told Kalodimos, after an intervention by patrons at a billiard parlor where he used to hustle pool. Since then, through acceptance and discipline, he’s been a changed man.

According to Injurious George, though, he’s been known to give some damn fine foot massages. —Jim Ridley

David Stringfield, former hospital chairman

Nov. 19, 1998, will long be remembered at Baptist Hospital as the day that the doctors were whooping it up in the hallways. Had a cure for some awful disease been discovered?

Hardly. That was the memorable Thursday when the unpopular David Stringfield was unceremoniously fired as chairman of the health care center’s board. Stringfield, who had run the hospital for 16 years with little interference from a weak and ineffective board, was finally let go after his big-spending ways led the hospital into a precarious financial situation. As well, his ouster came just weeks after he was implicated in a series of apparent financial improprieties in the hospital’s construction and real estate dealings.

Stringfield was known in Nashville as a brilliant, if bizarre, chief executive. He counted country music legends and sports stars among his inner circle. His public persona was that of a gracious and religious man committed to running a first-class healing center. Privately, he was known as an insecure, ego-driven and complicated fellow who tolerated little dissent among his employees. Strange personal habits—he drank carrot juice until his skin turned orange, had his office swept for secret listening devices and had a hospital building named after himself—only added to Stringfield’s mysterious aura.

Today, Stringfield, 63, lives in a condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A generous retirement package from Baptist has meant that he doesn’t need to work. There have been occasional Stringfield sightings at his old hospital, but he has largely left Nashville behind him. Some in Nashville’s health care community speculate that it’s only a matter of time before the building bearing his name is renamed, although a hospital spokeswoman denies that.

For his part, Stringfield declined to return calls.

—Willy Stern

Hal Kennedy, public relations impresario

In 1966, a brash Texan with a taste for flashy attire strolled into Nashville and pitched the relatively new concept of public relations to the city’s conservative business community. Meeting more than a few skeptical minds, Hal Kennedy somehow sold a city on the idea, launching the industry’s first big time public relations firm here, Holder-Kennedy.

Begun with his partner Bill Holder, who passed away a few years later, Holder-Kennedy first represented the venerable National Life Insurance Co. and later took on such heavy hitters as Nissan, Kentucky Fried Chicken, HCA, Shoney’s and First American Bank.

“He came to town with his cowboy boots and belt buckles, gold chains and necklaces,” says Aileen Katcher, of Katcher Vaughn & Bailey. “He always had a flamboyant personality, but when it came to advising others on communications he was one of the great P.R. minds. People were able to see that and look past the cowboy boots.”

Along with assembling an all-star set of clients, Holder-Kennedy became a breeding ground for some of the top public relations professionals milling around today’s corporate corridors, including Katcher and Hank Dye, the founding partner of Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence. Eventually, Holder-Kennedy became the victim of its own success, having spawned sleeker and, ultimately, more competitive, imitators. By the mid-’90s, Holder-Kennedy folded and Kennedy took his act to Murfreesboro.

“It was time to move on,” he says. “Holder-Kennedy had been around for a long time, and it had become big and old and cumbersome.” But Kennedy, 69, is not out of the business entirely. He and his wife run a small marketing agency out of their rural home. “We are in a wonderful place,” he says. “Our office is in the woods, we look out our window and see the trees. We can work whenever we want, and I don’t have to wear a necktie. I haven’t worn a necktie, except to a funeral, in the last five or six years.” —Matt Pulle

Ed Stolman, businessman, arts supporter, downtown activist

Stolman enjoyed a remarkably varied business career, having helped build Hospital Affiliates while also becoming one of the city’s most prominent supporters of the arts. He also helped turn the Dove Bar into a nationwide treat after sampling the ice cream on a stick at a tiny Chicago candy store.

But Stolman’s most lasting Nashville legacy lies in helping save downtown. In the mid-’80s, Stolman recalls taking a walk down Lower Broadway with then-Mayor Richard Fulton. The two came across a once-proud but long-neglected building. It windows were boarded up, and vagrants were sleeping inside and setting small fires for warmth. With the help of investors, Stolman spent millions of dollars rehabbing the structure, ultimately turning it into Merchants Restaurant, the distinguished three- story eatery.

The opening of such an upscale restaurant, in the shadow of urban blight, helped convince others that downtown could be more than a forgotten corridor of vacant buildings, porn shops and empty streets. “Renovating that building started something positive downtown,” Stolman says. “Pretty soon the girlie shops left, the pawnshops left and that area started to mature.”

In the mid-’90s, Stolman and his wife, Carol, left Nashville for the West Coast. The two bought a home in Glen Ellen, Ca., just an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, Stolman works as an olive rancher, growing 1,400 olive trees on his property.

“We make world-class olive oil,” he says. “We won a competition in Spain and Italy. We have our own press where we make the oil.” —Matt Pulle

George Gillette, former owner, WSMV-Channel 4

Gillette ran WSMV-Channel 4 in the 1980s during the station’s golden years. While most of the media outlets today operate at the whim of out-of-town owners, Gillette was the last of his kind—a local media hot-shot who knew which stories worked and which didn’t because he actually lived in Nashville. Even more importantly, Gillette was able to assemble and maintain an impressive roster of anchors, reporters and managers, helping make Channel 4 a paragon of decent broadcast journalism that also dominated the ratings.

“There’s really something to be said about local ownership,” he says. “On the one hand, you get tremendous local input, which gives you an insight into what’s going on in the community and, on the other hand, if you’re wrong on a story, people will let you know you were wrong.”

Gillette ultimately sold Channel 4 to out-of-town owners and, today, under the umbrella of Iowa-based Meredith Corp., Channel 4’s star has faded. But Gillette’s career has skyrocketed. Working out of Vail, Colo., Gillette owns 81 percent of the NHL franchise Montreal Canadiens along with seven ski resorts and a thriving food business. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about his days in Nashville when he ran the top television station in town. “It was one of the most wonderful experiences of our lives,” he says. “We loved Nashville. We loved the people in Nashville, and we loved Channel 4.” —Matt Pulle

Add a comment