Below find a collection of people stories — news features connecting readers to subjects running the gamut from the famous to the ordinary, but all with something extraordinary worth finding and sharing.
2006 This Memphis Life series
That’s how it all started for Sexton, who grew up in Whitehaven the son of a dentist and graduated from Evangelical Christian School in 1981. He was considering law schools before that first draft. Not long after, to the great consternation of his mother, he stopped considering. “She thought I had lost my mind,” Sexton says.
Some days, Sexton does, too. In his two busiest months, December and January, Sexton might be home 10 days and average four hours of sleep. Sexton says his two brothers, one an oral surgeon and the other an investment adviser, “think I’m nuts, that I have no life.”
Yeah, Sexton will tell them. But you have a job.
Once he learned how to ride it, young Bill nearly wore out the dirt drive that led 200 yards down to the main highway. “That was the joy of my life for a good while,” Heath says, his usually understated voice vibrant with memory. “I enjoyed learning how to ride that bike more than I did learning how to drive a car.”
When he fixed up those first bikes for the K’s, 6-year-old Kion and his siblings rewarded Heath by reminding him of the pure joy he once felt. It’s something he thinks about as he works a rusted bolt or fits a chain, and it makes him happy.
There he stands, sentry to Aisle 13 at Hubbard’s Hardware on Summer Avenue, one of the oldest living hardware men still going, the twice-widowed man born in 1918 still giving his bosses – and his customers – 44 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.
There stands Allen W. Hurley . Some say the “W” is for work, not Walter. “Everybody loves him,” says store owner Steve Hubbard, whose grandfather owned the old North Memphis Coal and Hardware on Main. “Customers come in and ask for him.”
Need a nut or bolt? Head to Aisle 13. “They keep the nut in the nut aisle,” jokes Hurley.
Dec. 12, 2003
The moment, the man — Dec. 12, 1983, the death of Rex Dockery
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
The chant began to build, and the players began clapping and a football team drunk on the giddiness that comes with newfound winning circled round their coach.
Memphis State had just thumped old rival Louisville, 45-7, and that meant a 6-4-1 record for the 1983 squad. It meant the first winning season in six years and vindicated their coach for coming from Texas Tech, showed he wasn’t loony for talking about chasing national titles even during a 17-game losing streak.
It also meant that coach, Rex Dockery , had a promise to keep, right there in Louisville, right there on the icy turf.
“County Fair! County Fair! County Fair!” came the cry, and pretty soon Rozelle Clayton was out in front, pumping his fists and doing a jig and Dockery’s upside-down smile grew even wider.
And next thing they knew, their coach was down and back up, down and back up and flopping and rolling through the grass drills they called the County Fair.
When he finished, Clayton lifted Dockery in a bearhug and the players carried him to the cheers of fans who had traveled up for the Tigers’ Thanksgiving Day finale.
Rex’s wife, Wallene, marveled at the joy her husband had created. “It was an incredible moment,” she says.
It has been 20 years since Rex Dockery had folks in this city believing the football program was on the verge of great things, and since his untimely death, the program has struggled to regain that optimism. The 2003 Tiger football team is 8-4, headed to the program’s first bowl game since 1971 and returning almost all of their key players next season.
Like Tommy West, the team’s current coach, Dockery played at Tennessee, and, like West, used his disarming personality to charm the city and tap into Memphis’s fertile recruiting market.
“It was very similar to the feeling going on here right now,” says Bob Winn, the football team’s media relations director since 1976. “It was euphoria and a feeling that, ‘Hey, we’ve turned the corner and this is the guy to take us to the promised land.'”
That was the feeling on Dec. 12, 1983, when Rex prepared to leave his Germantown home. He teased his 8-year-old son, Dee, making him surrender a kiss goodbye before catching the school bus, and then Wallene recalls Rex saying he hadn’t decided whether to drive to that night’s Lawrenceburg Quarterback Club meeting in Middle Tennessee or fly in a booster’s private plane.
“A voice in the back of my head said, ‘Wallene, you’ll never see him again,'” she says. “But, you know, we were in a hurry, both of us trying to get to work, and it’s one of those things you put out of your mind.”
Winn remembers seeing Dockery later that morning and hearing about the latest recruiting victory. Everything seemed right in the world of Rex Dockery, and he was looking forward to giving his speech in Lawrenceburg.
”You start getting that taste of winning, and the atmosphere changes,” says Danny Sparkman, the quarterback in 1983. ”The water tastes better. The air smells fresher.”
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
It would be one of the coldest Decembers ever in Memphis, but on Dec. 12, it was merely overcast and in the low 40s when Glenn Jones lifted his Piper Seneca six-seater into the sky.
The flight plan listed five passengers for the trip to Lawrenceburg.
Jones, the pilot, was a devoted member of the Highland Hundred, the football booster club, and he owned a local oil company.
Charles Greenhill, a star freshman defensive back for the Tigers, had won the club’s state player of the year award in 1982, as a senior at Frayser High. Many considered him one of the best athletes to come through the city’s high school ranks, a four-sport star who, at 18, already possessed NFL size and speed.
Chris Faros, the 31-year-old offensive coordinator, had seen the Tigers put 37 points on Ole Miss and 45 on Louisville and watched Danny Sparkman become one of the best passers in school history.
Jeff Womack, a Tiger running back and Lawrenceburg’s 1981 state player of the year, had planned to take the flight, but he didn’t like the look of the clouds. Even though it meant a chance to see folks close to home – Womack was from McMinnville – he decided to stay in Memphis.
But clouds never did much to discourage Rex Dockery, the 41-year-old Tiger coach who looked like Huck Finn, collected friends like Will Rogers and applied Norman Vincent Peale’s philosophy to everything he did.
“If you get up every mornin’,” he would tell people in his East Tennessee twang, “smile until 10 a.m., and believe good things are gonna happen, you’ll be surprised how well your day’ll go.”
To live with Rex, then, was to always look for the positive, and so when Wallene carried Dee home from basketball practice, she’d forgotten about the dread feeling that hit her that morning. Dee looked forward to watching the “Monday Night Football” game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Long before cell phones and the Internet had transformed relationships into a series of hourly updates, they had no way of contacting Rex, no way of knowing he had not yet arrived at the Lawrenceburg Quarterback Club.
Fred Pancoast, the Tiger football coach who logged winning seasons in the early ’70s, was the president of the club and had talked to Dockery earlier in the day. Maybe misty weather and the low ceiling of clouds had delayed his keynote speaker.
About 10 miles outside Lawrenceburg, where folks live among the rolling farmland, many residents heard the dull drone of a plane’s engine, flying low.
It brought many outside their homes, and they saw a small blue-and-white plane, careening nose first through the sky before crashing hard into a clearing, not far from the woods.
James Earl Estes and his wife ran to the scene. “Four bodies is all we saw,” Estes would later tell a reporter.
And no movement.
It was about a half-hour after sunset, at 5:25 p.m., when the first call came to the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department.
From there, word spread, first to Nashville’s news organizations and then to Memphis.
Jeff Walker, a lineman who would play seven seasons in the NFL, was at Gold’s Gym in Eastgate when he found out. He drove so fast back to campus that a policeman pulled him over.
“I said, ‘It’s an emergency,’ and then I began to get emotional,” Walker says.
The policeman gave Walker an escort back to campus.
“There were three or four hundred people already out in the parking lot,” Walker says. “It was just an unbelievable scene. Lots of emotions. Lots of crying.”
Across town, the doorbell rang and a tow-headed 8-year-old boy got up from watching “Monday Night Football” to answer the door.
But Dee Dockery had no idea why two Germantown policemen stood on the front porch.
His mother, coming down the stairs, saw them, and remembered her premonition.
“She knew right away, something had happened,” says Dee, who is now a doctor in Birmingham.
The couple’s other son, Trey, lived in the dorms on campus and was a team manager. By the time he got to the house, it was filled with people.
Dee remembers falling to sleep in his parents’ bedroom, next to his mother, with a dozen or so people still in the room.
“What about Dee?” he recalls hearing someone say. “He’s so young.”
Back at the campus, a priest, Monsignor Paul Clunan, tried to help with the grief.
“It was the day time stopped,” says Greg Sanders, a Memphis policeman who then was a senior defensive back. “You could not believe it. It was like losing your father or your brother.”
By that weekend, the temperature in Memphis hit 20, and two weeks later, the Mississippi River had turned into a flotilla of ice.
On Dec. 25, the thermometer hit zero. In the recorded history of Memphis, there has never been a colder Christmas Day.
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.
To this day, Bob Winn has difficulty recalling the joy that filled so much of the 1983 season. A tragic coda taints the victory over Ole Miss, the winning record, the Thanksgiving celebration at Louisville.
A few thousand people attended the memorial service at the Mid-South Coliseum, and the team took a bus to Cleveland, Tenn., to help bury their coach.
Frayser High hosted Greenhill’s funeral, Faros was returned to his hometown of Kansas City and Jones was laid to rest in Memphis. It is still unclear why the plane crashed.
Tiger athletic director Charles Cavagnaro settled on two finalists to replace Dockery: Mack Brown of Appalachian State and Rey Dempsey of Southern Illinois.
He chose Dempsey, who took the Dockery talent to a 5-1-1 start in 1984 before dissension and mistrust led to a four-game losing streak. Dempsey would win only two of his final 15 games before resigning in 1985.
Brown is now the coach at the University of Texas.
For Tiger fans, it is hard not to wonder what might have been.
Walker recalls a conversation he had with Florida State coach Bobby Bowden over the summer while Bowden was watching his son, Dallas, at a quarterback camp.
“If Rex hadn’t had that tragic accident,” Bowden told Walker, “y’all could’ve been on the same pattern we were on.”
Instead, the Tigers defined mediocrity over the next 19 seasons, with moments of joy accompanying wins over a Florida here or an Alabama there. Even in 1996, when the Tigers beat Tennessee, it was just one of four wins.
That is why 2003 feels so different for Tiger fans, because it has been 20 years since winning seemed not only possible but probable, 20 years since, as Winn puts it, “There’s light at the end of the tunnel and we know it’s not a train.”
For Rex’s widow, Wallene, this winning season seems to evoke even more memories as she and her family remember the plane crash. She and her husband of three years, Tommy Leek, are in Cleveland, Tenn., today, and they will visit Rex’s grave with his father, John, and sister, Pam.
Wallene works for New York Life, selling insurance, among other things, and, when she’s back in town, she hears many Tiger fans saying the same thing.
Tommy West sure reminds them of Rex Dockery .
“People say it’s like having Rex back again,” Wallene says. “It makes me feel good to hear people say that.”
Wallene attended the Tigers’ victory over East Carolina on Nov. 1, and sent West an E-mail he later posted in the Tigers’ new locker room.
As you probably know, Rex’s last season 20 years ago in 1983 was 6-4-1 . . . and no coach at the U of M has matched that record since. I just wanted you to know that I can’t think of anything that would please me more than you, your staff and your 2003 Tigers beating that record and going to a bowl game . . .
It has taken 20 years, but the Tigers are finally fulfilling the promise that an eager coach from East Tennessee always predicted for them.
It’s enough to make you wake up smiling.