Hudson Alexander’s Around The Block

HUDSON ALEXANDER |

It’s funny how memories of the old days can suddenly just pop up at the strangest times.

Just the other day, I was riding out West Main Street in Franklin, when I happened to notice — for the first time — how odd things looked around the old Bennett-Gathmann House, now that the huge old oak tree is gone from the front yard.

My short-term memory kicked in, and I recalled that it had finally fallen victim to “the elements” just a few months back. It had actually been deteriorating for years. But its fate was sealed, I recalled, after a large chunk had fallen off, landing close to the historic old home.

But then my long-term memory kicked in, too. Suddenly I was transformed to a time, over 40 years ago, when Jennie West stopped her car in front of that old house one night. I was just one of the neighborhood kids in the back seat. She said, “Boys, see that big tree there? About a hundred years ago, there was a little boy (Hardin Perkins Figuers), just about your age, who climbed up in the top of that tree — and he watched the Battle of Franklin unfold, back in 1864.”

See … it was that quick. In an instant, I had remembered that night. And I’d remembered how we were all spellbound, listening to the story. But, even more significant, I’d also remembered Jennie West, one of the finest women who ever lived here in Franklin.

Jennie West was born Jennie Cannon in 1918. She descended from a very distinguished family line, which included two Tennessee governors, Newton Cannon and Aaron V. Brown. Cannon, her great-great grandfather, was the last Whig governor ever elected in Tennessee. And she had an older brother, Henry Cannon, who had married the former Miss Sarah Ophelia Colley, who later achieved both fame and fortune as Minnie Pearl, a regular member on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.

But none of that mattered to us kids … not then … we just knew she was a wonderful lady — and a great Mom for one of our best friends, Dudley West. On any given weekend, back in the 1960s, you’d likely find our little gang riding around town with Mrs. West. We might be coming, or we might be going … maybe to the Franklin Theater — or maybe to a BGA ball game. But we’d all be there. In addition to me and Dudley, our little group included my brother, Pat Alexander; Eddie Roberts; David Ogilvie; Al and Jimbo Thomas; and Lynn Spencer. There’s no telling how many miles we all logged with Mrs. West at the wheel!

Jennie West, or Mrs. Tom West, was many things to many people: I’ve already mentioned that she was a great Mom to Dudley — and to Dudley’s older brother, Tommy. She also served as den mother, along with Peggy Gentry, in our Cub Scout pack. She was a room mother at school so many times that most of us lost count, and she was a “second mother” to most of the kids in our neighborhood. In addition, she was loved by hundreds of BGA students.

One Friday night, in the fall 1966, we were all riding with her to the BGA football game. Mrs. West was especially excited about that game because BGA was playing a team from Deshler, Ala. They were supposed to be the best in all the land of Bear Bryant. She said, “Boys, I know we have a mighty good football team this year, but we’ll find out tonight just how good we really are.”

And she was right. BGA beat Deshler that night, in a classic slugfest, and they went on to post a perfect 11-0 record under Coach Jimmy Gentry. The highlight of the season was a win in the Tobacco Bowl — and a state championship. To this day, many people feel that 1966 BGA team was the best high school team to ever take the field.

It was just a few years later when Dudley West became a standout athlete at BGA. He excelled in every major sport. I’ll always remember how the boys on the BGA football team loved Mrs. West. They were always welcome at the West’s home on Lewisburg Pike, and especially during the hottest part of the summer, when the team was in the midst of those grueling two-a-day workouts. Between sessions, there was no better place for some rest and relaxation.

In looking back, I realize that Mrs. West was a special person — the kind you might only meet once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. If you were riding high, she was always there to cheer you on, your biggest supporter. And if you were down on your luck, she was still there — as a sympathetic listener and a good sound advisor. You couldn’t ask for much more than that.

After befriending an entire generation of kids around Franklin, Jennie West died, of pancreatic cancer, on May 18, 1977. She was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery.