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Vic Weals, Another Influential Author

When writing the post for this blog a couple of weeks ago,(, I inadvertently failed to include one other influential local author I enjoyed reading. I'd like to introduce him to you today.

I did not become acquainted with the writing of Vic Weals until I was older, probably because my parents didn't subscribe to "the other paper," the Knoxville Journal, for whom Weals wrote. Whereas my parents subscribed to the News-Sentinel, an afternoon paper, the Journal was published in the morning. Daddy didn't have time to read the paper in the morning.

Victor R. Weals was born on March 17, 1918, in East Springfield, Ohio, and attended Ohio University, majoring in pre-med. (That, incidentally, was the same major that my father declared during his brief time at Lincoln Memorial University. But that's a different story for another time.)

Weals served in the Army during World War II and achieved the rank of sergeant major. He was stationed in Knoxville for a while near the close of the war, during which time he apparently fell in love with the area, especially the Smokies. He entered the University of Tennessee in 1946 and continued to live in the area the rest of his life.

In 1847, Weals got a job at the Knoxville Journal, where he worked first as a stringer and later as a general assignment reporter and headline writer. He eventually worked his way up from reporter to copy editor and wire editor. By the 1950s, he had his own column, a six-times-a-week feature titled "Home Folks." Later, he initiated and wrote another column titled "Tennessee Travels," which he continued to write for 10 years. The latter column is the one I remember reading.

In his columns, Weals sought to feature the lives of hard-working, everyday people, especially those who labored with their hands outdoors. He also incorporated in his writing his dry humor.

For example, in one 1952 column, he wrote about a father who took his two sons, nine and four years old, fishing, and they caught two big bass. The father teasingly told his four-year-old that he would have to clean the fish himself. Later that day, the father found his toddler in the bathroom scrubbing the fish with a soap-and-water-filled washcloth.

Everyone who worked with Weals found him to be not only a good writer but also one who set a good example for younger reporters to emulate and learn from. They all esteemed him as one of the best writers the Journal had, and one called him "a newspaperman's newspaperman."

Perhaps one of the most frequently encountered questions writers are asked involves where they get their ideas. Weals got his from odd places, objects, and people. He habitually collected stuff during the process of covering his reporting assignments, things that had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of his current assignment. But he sensed that he might use it some day in a story for his column. He might not use it for years, but he would find sometime a place where it was appropriate.

Late in life, Weals published two books and a booklet. The 10-page booklet he compiled sometime during the 1960s was titled Hillbilly Dictionary: An Edifying Collection of Mountain Expressions. It was illustrated by his Journal colleague cartoonist Charlie Daniel.

Unlike many similar booklets seen in gift shops of the South, his booklet wasn't meant to poke fun at the quaint and often odd-sounding vocabulary of mountain residents. Rather, his was meant to show that those mountain residents actually were speaking a purer form of English than the "flatlanders," whose language had been diluted over the years by outsiders and numerous foreign languages.

For example, in his foreword, Weals wrote, "The speech of the Appalachian mountain people is . . . the language of 400 years ago. . . . So, we should not immediately reject mountain English as poor English, or low-class English. It is, rather, older in its forms and vocabulary, and, in that sense at least, a purer English."

In 1991, Weals published perhaps his most famous book, Last Train to Elkmont. It is "a look back at life on the Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains." It explores in words and photographs the young lumberjacks who worked in the logging industry in the Smokies. The trails, roads, and campgrounds of the national park are ever-present remnants of their lives and work.

Perhaps Dudley Brewer, a former columnist and editor for the Journal, best summarized Weals's reporting and writing style: "He revitalizes times gone by, but he does so still as the observant reporter, not as an erudite historian who has a thesis, evaluates critically, makes opinionated surmises and moralizes. Weals leaves it to the readers to form their own opinions."

His final book, Legends of Cades Cove and the Smokies Beyond, was published posthumously in 2002, just months after he died of a heart attack. Although Weals himself is gone, his legacy remains in the form of his writings. He is buried in the Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery in Knoxville.

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