Integration Stories

Gerry Eddlemon on integrating Gibbs Hall in the fall of 1967

I well remember when Coach came up to me one day and asked what I thought about having a teammate who happened to be black as my roommate. Remember this was about 1967 when segregation was finally beginning to break down for good. I said if it’s fine with Audry [Hardy] it’s certainly fine with me. The credit all belongs to Coach, but I finally came to realize that Audry and I may have been the first integrated roommates in SEC athletics history. It was a real honor, and a great pleasure, to know the outstanding athlete and roommate Audry was then….

Does anyone remember once upon a time at the Florida Relays (1966?) Coach Rohe coming into our barracks-style lodging and asking for volunteers to represent the Volunteers at the all-black Rattler Relays being run at the same time across town at Florida A&M? I believe four or five of us answered the call (I admit I had little chance of scoring at all in the mile at the Florida Relays). The Rattler Relay staff, athletes, and fans really seemed to appreciate our visit and treated us like royalty. It was a heart-warming moment in my life — I was so inspired I managed one of my few decent performances, a second place in the mile (at least that’s the way I remember it! — whoever else was there correct me if I’m wrong).

The credit all belongs to Coach, but I finally came to realize that Audry and I may have been the first integrated roommates in SEC athletics history. It was a real honor, and a great pleasure, to know the outstanding athlete and roommate Audry was then…

An Unintended Horse Race

For some time I had been looking to challenge the outstanding speed-hiker Mitchell Flynn’s record for hiking the 70-mile length of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via the rugged Appalachian Trail. At the end of our X-country training camp at Elkmont (Sept., 1967 I believe), the one where we had the bad ol’ bear incident, I convinced some of my teammates, to drive me up to Davenport Gap at the northeastern end of the Park to allow me to do a test run from there to Newfound Gap some 31 miles and 12-13,000 feet of climbing away, where I asked them to pick me up, probably about five hours later. My idea was that if I ran it well, I might try breaking Flynn’s record (~ 25 hours) for the entire 70 – 71 miles of the Park sometime later.
Wearing my running flats rather than hiking boots, and carrying only a tiny amount of water and honey for food, I took off alone, making pretty good time on the first, fairly smooth stretch of trail. Sometime into the hike however, the trail became much more rugged for long stretches, including treacherous, “single-track” deeply rutted and narrow footing with long mountain grass and other vegetation often completely obscuring the path full of rocks and roots. That took a big toll time-wise because of the caution needed to avoid breaking an ankle or leg, and of course I was alone and would be unable to summon help. Nevertheless, I managed a fairly good pace for most of the first 20 miles.

Unfortunately my thinly clad feet soon began turning into painful mush, and from then on it was a struggle to just keep moving at all. I also greatly underestimated the amount of food and water I would need and probably descended into fairly serious dehydration. After struggling the last 11 miles just to keep moving, and taking special care not to tumble off the precipitous cliffs of Charley’s Bunion in my now delicate condition, but actually taking a painful tumble onto the trail itself when I tried to run the last couple hundred yards, I limped into the parking lot about 7 hours 20 minutes after I had started and probably 1.5 – 2 hours after my teammates expected to see me there. They were justifiably ticked off and I was mightily humbled, having averaged only about 4.3 mph.
But wait! There’s more to the story . . . A couple days later the Knox News-Sentinel (or maybe it was the now defunct Knox Journal) ran a big story with photos on two brave guys on horseback, who traversed the exact same route that same weekend (we never saw each other), in 9 hours and change, about two hours longer than my fast walking the same route in about 7:20. Needless to say, one foot-sore Vol runner felt just a hint of vindication when he realized he had just beaten two horses and riders in an inadvertent 31-mile race across almost half of the Great Smokies. But if only I had just worn good hiking boots and arranged for adequate food and water, I might not have endured the humiliation of keeping my ticked-off teammates waiting at Newfound Gap.

About five years later (1972), as a graduate student, I finally did break Flynn’s GSMNP crossing record in a time of 24:29 (with Flynn’s totally unsolicited and unexpected help when I needed it most!), but was sorely disappointed not to become the first to break the 24-Hour barrier, thanks in part to painful Achilles tendonitis in both heels, a drove of mean-spirited wild boar, and one very angry mama bear who stole the supplies a friend had brought up to Spence Field to get me to the finish line at Fontana Dam. She also charged me when we tried to get the pack back from her, thereby precipitating a possible world record 50-yard dash after already speed-hiking more than 51 miles over some of the ruggedest territory in America.

So, thirteen years later, on my 39th birthday, I finally broke my own record with a new time of 23:38:07, the first traverse of the entire Great Smoky Mountains in less than a 24-hour day. I’m proud to note that, nearly two generations later, another Vol runner now holds that record.