A Brief Detour
Updated: Feb 13
This website, this blog, and its associated podcast, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube branches are largely about the history of the American west, concentrating on the "Wild West" period following the Civil War and centered around the story of Texas Jack Omohundro, a Confederate cavalry scout turned cowboy who became the stage partner of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, originating the cowboy tropes that would become prevalent in America's fiction and its self-image—the mythology of ourselves and our history that we have chosen to believe. Texas Jack's story is told in my forthcoming book, and I'll continue to release related articles contextualizing Jack's life and times here on Dime Library. But occasionally I relate some of my other historical interests, like Teddy Roosevelt Junior's involvement in the D-Day landings.
Today, I would like to take a few minutes and a few paragraphs to talk about someone else. Two men are largely responsible for my love of history. The first and most important influential man in my life and my love of history is my father. The other intellectual giant on whose shoulders my understanding of the world stands is my maternal grandfather, Lee Jackson Cooper. We called him Ta.
Lee's life is a reflection of his generation. Born in the midst of the "Roaring Twenties," his formative years were spent enduring the Great Depression. In the second World War, he lied about his age to enlist early, joining the Navy. A talented actor and musician, he played the bass horn in a Navy band and was very proud that he was part of the band that played during the San Francisco Conference in the spring of 1945, where the United Nations Charter was created.
On the day he returned to his native Chattanooga, Tennessee, he stepped off the bus in his Navy uniform without any idea what he would do with his life as a civilian. "I passed Hamilton County Bank on Market Street," he later remembered, "and saw a group of people crowded around a man who was broadcasting live." That man, Chattanooga disc jockey Gaylord McPherson, spied the uniformed seaman in the crowd and called him over to speak on the air. As they conversed live on the air, Gaylord commented that Lee had a fine radio voice. "I thought I saw an opportunity," Lee later recalled with a grin," so I put him on the spot and asked him to hire me. Of course, he didn't—but it gave me an idea."
That idea would soon manifest into a career in radio, both as an on-air personality and behind the scenes as an engineer. But just because he had the voice for it didn't mean that breaking into the radio field would be easy. "I knew nothing about it," Lee later told a reporter, "and the closest I had ever come to a radio station was listening to one." What he did have, courtesy of a musically inclined family and his own time playing with the Navy band was a deep and abiding love for music combined with a broad knowledge of everything from engineering to world history. "And back in those days," he said, "a disc jockey had to know everything. He had to be able to deal with the electronics and fix whatever went wrong at the station. He had to intelligently discuss world matters, law, French and German composers, etc." He figured that having the idea, the will, and the knowledge, he could learn the rest on the job.
Unfortunately for Lee, it took some time to pick up the necessary skills, and not every boss was willing to wait. "I was so bad," Lee said, "that in the first year or year and a half I must have been hired and fired at least 11 times!" Another veteran radio man named Van Campbell recognized the potential in the younger DJ and took Lee under his wing. "Van did more to teach me the art of broadcasting than anyone. He insisted that I read everything I got my hands on—Newsweek, reports on the economy—everything. I was fortunate though because I had always loved this business of language. I used to pick up every Readers' Digest I could and learn all of the twenty new vocabulary words they published."
By 1953, he was doing a morning show on WFHG in Bristol, Tennessee, where he staged a charity drive for the Easter Seals and set a world record for continuous broadcasting. At 5 o'clock in the morning on March 26, Lee began broadcasting from a window in Bristol's Raylass Department Store, telling listeners at home and in front of the store that he wouldn't stop talking until he had raised $1,000 for the Easter Seals and beat the previous on-air record set by a Knoxville DJ raising funds for the Crusade For Freedom.
If he had to cut away to the news or station announcements, Lee continued to broadcast live to the street in front of the store, ensuring to the gathered listeners that he wasn't using the break to take a quick nap. 55 hours after he started his broadcast, Lee J. Cooper signed off at noon on Saturday, March 28th. He emerged from his window at Raylass to a cheering crowd, his wife and his station manager, and an ambulance waiting to give him an uninterrupted ride to his home, where he immediately fell to sleep. He had surpassed his goal of $1000 by $400, cash and pledges which were immediately sent to the Easter Seals. Lee was back on the radio the following evening at a quarter after 11 o'clock with his "Rebel's Retreat" radio show.
Largely because of his epic and record-setting marathon, Lee was selected by his peers as Mr. DJ USA. In the early 1960s, he and Jolly Charley at Chattanooga's WDOD were instrumental in creating one of the most successful radio formats of the time. "We realized that country music was going to be big in this part of the country," he later recalled, "so WDOD began playing that type of music during the show—from 6 PM to midnight. In 90 days, we had 32.8% of all radios at night in Chattanooga, and that was in competition with television!" Lee translated his accumulated knowledge into his own radio station. He and my grandmother Norma lived then in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee, and unlike Chattanooga, where listeners could tune into WDOD at night, there was no nighttime radio station broadcasting in Soddy.
It took two years and thousands of hours of effort to solve the problem. "I never knew what getting a license entailed," said my grandmother, who functioned as the station's office manager. They raised money, hired engineers, and dealt with government bureaucracy to file for a station charter with the Federal Communication Commission. "At one point we almost gave up," Lee said, "and we would have if it had not been for the local citizens who rallied behind us. In fact, on the day we started on the air, I think we have all of $317 left in the bank. It was the great people of Soddy-Daisy who made WEDG work." WEDG Soddy-Daisy was followed five years later by WXQX in Spring City and several years after that by Trenton, Georgia's WADX.
"Success," my grandfather said, "depends on hard work and getting the breaks. You can't achieve anything without effort and dedication, and you don't have to walk over people or be dishonest to get it."
Not every great man or woman is remembered outside of their family. Some people who have made an impact on us, on our history, and on our culture have been largely forgotten. Some, like Texas Jack Omohundro, eventually get their due. But as I wrote my book about Texas Jack—as I researched his history and uncovered the truth about his legacy—I often stopped to think about my father, my mother, and my grandfather, those people whose lives and knowledge and guidance have shaped me and my understanding of what is important in life, in art, in history. I am profoundly glad that my grandfather was the man he was and that his intelligence, his humor, and his broad interests and knowledge still resonate in my life now. We are all the products of those who came before us, of the mother who read to us every night as a child and the father who hands us a book and says "I think you'll like this," of the grandmother who still sends a $12 check on your birthday and the grandfather who so stubbornly pursued his idea. Not everyone is like Texas Jack. Not everyone gets a book. But everyone has a story.
A reel to reel tape of my grandfather, with promotional material for WSMQ in Bessemer, Alabama, offers a rare glimpse into radio promotions during his era and affords me the chance to hear his unique voice, which immediately takes me back.