Roy Exum: Claude And "Mr. John"

Sunday, June 24, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There are some who believe this last week has been a devastating one for our community, losing two of our most beloved “builders” within three days of one another. Claude Ramsey, who spent over 40 years in public service and because of the type man he was never lost a political race, died on Monday after a hard fight with illness at the end. On Thursday we lost “Mr. John” Franklin, who some will claim became the first black man ever elected to office but who oozed such greatness and presence most of us never noticed his color.

I mourn neither, instead delighting in both for the wonderful years each molded the character of our city, our county, and our hearts in a way that made our community so vibrant, so warm, and mostly void of the problems many mid-sized cities have been cursed with. Most other towns were not as blessed, simply because other cities and towns have never had anywhere near the majority of political leadership we enjoy unto this very day.

You will recall that another great American died on Thursday - the Nobel Prize winning columnist Charles Krauthammer and, as I read how he was remembered with great respect, someone recounted how the Fox News icon could talk darn near anybody into accepting his views, into agreeing with his conservative but well-established viewpoints and logic.

When Charles was in his first year of Harvard medical school, he was paralyzed in a diving accident and he was determined the tragedy would not affect his life. So he switched specialties – taking up psychiatry where he could best utilize his mind -- and this is where he developed the best “method of persuasion” in America’s history.

Here’s how Krauthammer explained what he did in a recent interview: “You don't want to talk in high-falutin’, ridiculous abstractions that nobody understands. Just try to make things plain and clear,” you can almost hear his smile.

“The one thing I try to do when I want to persuade someone is never start with my assumptions, because if I do, we're not going to get anywhere.” So, get this: “You have to figure out what the other person believes, and then try to draw a line from what they believe into what you believe in … by showing them a logical sequence. But you’ve got to lead them along and you have to have it clear in your head from the beginning or you'll never get there.”

Who does that remind you of? I do not believe I can find one distant nor very close friend who knew either Claude Ramsey or John Franklin, I mean really well, who would deny Claude and “Mr. John” were not every bit as skilled in the delicate art of persuasion as Charles Krauthammer himself.

Claude and I shared the same birthday and on April 4th he called me to exchange greetings and we gently bantered until he asked for my opinion of some matter. I told him, and told him why, and he said, “I think you are right except I wish we could figure out a way to do thus-and-so where people would not get their feelings hurt. We need to get a total buy-in.”

BAM! The jaws of that bear trap never made a sound – I became the ‘total buy-in’ and I wrote a column a couple of days later praising Claude for quitting strawberries because only as our County Mayor could such a farmer exhibit such earth-grown wisdom.

What Claude learned in farming is what made our county yield a crop unlike any we had ever seen before and I was so sold on him we had each other’s cell numbers for years. The Volkswagen project, the gold rush of new businesses and industry. That was all Claude Ramsey.

But because this gentle giant knew ‘the art of the deal’ and, even better, ‘the art of caring,’ is why Governor Bill Haslam made him the Deputy Governor. His fingerprints are all over the state but few ever knew he had just one lung. I knew the complications that accompanied that and, whenever I saw him, his ‘endurance’ and persistence in being the best was even more gigantic in my eyes.

With “Mr. John” it was a little different. I got to know him when I was a teenager working at the newspaper because … read this slow … he cared about me. Every day there would be a parade of characters who would come through our news room and, at first, I called him The Professor because I will always  believe his greatest gift was with kids – which I was at the time.

Lots of times I’d be the first one in the news room to assemble the Sunday editions and he’d bring by obits from the funeral home. I loved to make sure John Franklin and the late Reuben Strickland got taken care of and, if there was an extra-special obit in the stack, I would add extra notes and there was a good chance it might be the “lead obit” that next day. (Let me assure you this is also true: No one has any idea how many paupers Franklin & Strickland buried as kings.)

One year when he was running for office I asked if he had an extra bumper sticker. As I accompanied him to his car to fetch it, we bumped into my grandfather in the hall and he asked John if he could see him in his office for a moment. When the Commissioner came out he had a strange look on his face and I asked if everything was alright. He simply showed me the campaign contribution he had just gotten.

There is an old Indian Proverb that says, “Good men must die but death cannot kill their names.” I’ll carry a piece of Claude Ramsey and “Mr. John” with me for the rest of my life. I know how deeply and richly blessed my many friends have been, and their children have been, because of this life we’ve shared with Claude Ramsey and John Franklin. I’ll remember not that now they are gone, but that they were here, and that each – while deep personal friends -- helped all of us climb so many mountains.

Each was a giant, believe you me, and Mayor Ramsey as well as “Mr. John” achieved greatness in the exact same way -- they cared about us far more than themselves. I can only pray my children and grandchildren and – hopefully – great-grandchildren, will become as lucky again.

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