A Downtown Folk Hero

A Downtown Folk Hero

 

By Tom Mattingly

Heading downtown on a Saturday night to buy the early edition of the Sunday Knoxville News Sentinel was an essential part of the Tennessee football experience in the 1970s and 1980s.

There are times that sports stories evolve into stories about sports. This is one of them, transcending the scores and statistics to tell an inspiring personal story.

There are those among us with no apparent connection to the University of Tennessee who help make the experience following U.T. athletics more memorable than you could imagine. Sometimes it takes extra effort to find these folks, but the ultimate destination is worth the trip.

“I was struck with the notion that those who never dwell in fanfare usually end up generating the most of it,” wrote Sam Venable, who was with the Knoxville Journal and the News Sentinel during his professional career. Over the years, Venable has perceptively told the stories of the area’s people and events.

This brings us to Pierce Hamilton Carter, known to some as “P.H.” and to many others simply as “Mr. Carter.” He didn’t say a lot, but perceptive people listened intently when he did speak.

There were those who might not have given him a second glance, but that was their loss. He was something special, a pearl of great price.  A great many people knew him, even without knowing his name.

He commandeered a stage around 11 p.m. and beyond Saturday evenings into Sunday morning after a Tennessee football game, home or away, win or lose. You found him near the old KUB building at the corner of Gay Street and Church Avenue, selling the early edition of the next day’s paper, hot off the press.

Many times, the line of cars stretched westward from the Coliseum, as his friends waited to share a good word before getting an early look at the Sentinel’s event coverage.

He was, in newspaper parlance, a “single-copy salesman.”

That description only scratches the surface in defining who this man was.

Some men deserve the appellation “Mr.” One was the late Ackron Parris Porter, long-time staffer at the University of Tennessee Gibbs Hall training table. He was always “Mr. Porter.”

Another is “Mr. Carter.” Even in these uncertain days proper name etiquette is honored more in the breach than in the observance, you couldn’t imagine calling him anything else.

He and Mr. Porter deserve to be discussed in the same breath, given their character and influence on everybody around them.

After Mr. Carter retired, Venable discussed his pedigree in Knoxville newspaper history in a May 5, 2006, article. Nine days later, Sam penned his obituary.

“P.H., 77, says he started carrying the Journal on Nov. 15, 1959,” wrote Venable. “We’ll take his word for it. He predates most of our senior circulation staff.

“Although plagued by poor eyesight throughout his life, P.H. put in many 12-hour days. He and his wife, Frances (she died last year, shortly after their 49th wedding anniversary), raised five children on a news carrier’s earnings.”

That wasn’t all there was to Mr. Carter’s story, Sam wrote. He was a downtown folk hero, much the way the late Bobby Langston was at the Cumberland Avenue Krystal. They were two good men who cared about their customers.

Mr. Carter had a regular route he followed in those halcyon days Knoxville had two newspapers. If you drove downtown most any time of day, you’d see him on his bicycle making his appointed rounds, person-by-person, office-by-office, block-by-block.

He didn’t say, “Extra, Extra, Read All About It,” the way journalists did in the old Hollywood movies, but he didn’t have to. He developed a loyal following over the years. “His friends were all the people he ever met,” as Lindsey Nelson once said of University of Tennessee professor Jimmy Walls.

“Despite the vision problems, the result of a freak industrial accident at his job as a baker,” Venable wrote, Mr. Carter was undaunted. No one could hold him back. He was definitely old school.

“There weren’t too many (jobs) to choose from,” he said in a 1972 interview, “but I didn’t want to go on welfare.”

Mr. Carter never had a byline, never wrote an op-ed piece, and never chased a story, but he was as much the “face” of the News Sentinel as anybody on staff.

What he accomplished, however, was to make life fuller and more memorable on Saturday nights and any other time in downtown Knoxville.

If newspapers are old on the streets of glory, Mr. Carter will be standing on a prominent corner, greeting his regular customers as they pass by.

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