Memphis still amazes. It just amazed me.
August 16th, 2019
(published in the Daily Memphian)
(photo: Dr. Lemuel Diggs)
Toledo, Ohio, visited Memphis the other day and I went along.
They began at the Tennessee State Welcome Center just off Riverside, you know, that place you’ve never been that you pass by on the way to Bass Pro, you know, the former Pyramid.
They mingled with three other tour groups, four buses full, and two bearded bikers in leather and bandanas on tricked-out Harleys. The tour groups were from all over the country. The bikers were from Switzerland.
They wandered around the bustle-filled, babble-filled building, spending time with the big statue of B.B. King, posing in front of the big statue of Elvis for selfies or for their guides to take their pics, taking in the imposing view of the bridge and the Wolf River harbor, hitting the restrooms and grabbing brochures, and then back on buses and gone, the building empty again, waiting again like a beginning you’ve looked forward to, like a smile about to happen.
Just another 20 minutes in the Tennessee State Welcome Center downtown.
My friend Lynn had the microphone on the bus. He tells Toledo about Memphis in more of a casual conversation than a presentation. He doesn’t read anything; he doesn’t pitch anything. He just tells them a story about a city. About this building or that place outside the bus windows and their role in history. About things that changed the world. About the first Piggly Wiggly at Main and Jefferson and the invention of self-service shopping. About an apartment in government assisted housing where a kid from Tupelo lived in high school. A kid named Elvis whose music changed the world. About a river that made us a city and put railroads and highways here, about a company that made our airport the second largest cargo airport in the world. A company called Federal Express whose system of delivery has changed the world. A shot fired from a rooming house bathroom window toward a motel balcony. A shot that killed a modern-day prophet and changed the world.
The first stop was St. Jude … you know … that huge coral-colored complex that’s getting even huger, full of huge and even huger hope for children and their families. A place that changed and is changing the world. Toledo actually gasped when they saw it. They couldn’t wait to see the Danny Thomas Pavilion, his gravesite, and the exhibits about St. Jude’s history. They knew all about St. Jude.
You see, a Roman Catholic kid born Amos Muzyad Yaqoob Kairouz grew up in Toledo. You know him as Danny Thomas. As the story goes, when he was down and out as a young man with a young family, he prayed to St. Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of hopeless causes, for help with his career promising to build a shrine to the saint upon his success. He founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 1962.
One of the key figures in founding the hospital with Thomas and placing it in Memphis was our own Dr. Lemuel Diggs. In 1963, Dr. Diggs saved my life. He was called in when I lay in a hospital bed for weeks with my platelets and my parents’ hope falling by the day and nothing working. Whatever he did, I went home because of it. Something that changed my world.
And I learned about Dr. Diggs’ involvement with the founding and work of St. Jude in the middle of writing this column when I googled Danny Thomas.
The last stop for the bus was the requisite visit to The Peabody, a nod to the ducks, and up to the roof to see their digs. A woman stood next to me as we looked over the edge and rooftops to the river. “Beautiful,” she said. “Just beautiful.”
Even with all of our problems – and we have our share – even with our colossal civic inferiority complex – and it’s a beaut – this city’s capacity to surprise and amaze in meaningful ways is still a source of amazement for me.
If you think our ability to change the world with things we do here is behind us, just ask the people at St. Jude about what they do every day, or FedEx what’s taking off, or Indigo what’s being planted, or the National Civil Rights Museum what’s moving forward from that balcony.
If you think what Memphis has done and can do doesn’t matter out there, just ask the people on a tour bus from Toledo.
I’m a Memphian, and just ask me.
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