The Sam Brooks Story

When I was growing up in Livingston, the area where the Livingston Regional Medical Center and several medical buildings are now located, did not look like it does today. That area of town, which was really just a street then, was known as Jam Holler. I've never known where the name came from, unless it was because so many small houses built there were crowded very closely together. The town branch meandered its way in close proximity to the homes there. Most of the families who lived in Jam Holler had a hard time keeping the wolf away from the door. One of the homes there was occupied by Mrs. Ermine Upchurch who had grown children. Mrs. Upchurch had a daughter named Ruby who was married to Shirley Brooks. Shirley died from what was believed to have been tuberculosis. At the time of Shirleyís death, he and Ruby had five small children, the oldest, a little boy named Sam, only eight years old. After losing her husband, Ruby decided she would go to Indiana to find work. When she went away, she left her children in the care of Mrs. Upchurch, their grandmother. Ruby was successful in finding a job, and for two or three years, she sent money home to Mrs. Upchurch to help take care of the children. Eventually she remarried. Not long after she married again, Ruby wrote her mother a letter that contained some rather shocking news. Ruby advised her mother that she would not be returning to Tennessee, and that she could no longer care for her children. She went on to say that her mother could give the children away, or put them in an orphanage, whatever she wanted to do, it really didn't matter to her. Needless to say, Mrs. Upchurch did none of the above. The children remained with her, and she did her best to provide a good home for them, which meant she had to depend on welfare. In addition to Sam, the other Brooks grandchildren she raised were Barbara, Joe, Bill, and Edith Ann.


Life for families living in Jam Holler was hard, but when Mrs. Upchurch and the Brooks grandchildren moved, which they did several times, one of the places they lived in was a little worse than the home in Jam Holler. A tool shed where an old sawmill once stood in the area of Jam Holler served as their home. Naturally, the tool shed had no kitchen, so the place where Mrs. Upchurch cooked on a wood stove was in a lean-to near the tool shed. The lean-to had no floor. All five children shared one bed in the tool shed, and their grandmother slept on a cot. Being the oldest of the five children, a lot of responsibility rested on the young shoulders of Sam Brooks. He began at an early age doing any odd job he could find to help his grandmother. At the age of 12, he was on the square of Livingston with a shoe shine box shining shoes. For families around Livingston who owned the old fashioned kind of push mower, he mowed their yards. Sweeping the sidewalk in front of Sam Coward's drug store was another way he earned money. Over the years, he worked at many different places around Livingston, including the ice plant that once stood where Livingston Dairy Queen is now. Later on, Carvel Cope gave Sam a job in the concrete block business. During the time he worked with Carvel, the Rickman high school was being constructed. Sam recalled how just he and Carvel loaded completely by hand a truck that held 325 concrete blocks to be hauled to Rickman for the construction of the school. After arriving at the building site, just the two of them proceeded to unload the blocks, again all done by hand. They made not one or two loads, but a total 10 loads of concrete blocks were loaded and unloaded all in one day. Talk about a back ache! Can you imagine?
 

When Sam was in high school, one of the jobs he had was running the projector at the Ritz Theater. He speaks very highly of the close friendship he developed with Fred and Marinella Rose, co-owners at one time of the Ritz. Lucian Copeland, owner of a pool hall just off the square on Church Street, was another person who provided part time work for Sam. Sam told me one of the extra benefits that came with working at the pool hall was becoming a pretty good shot with a pool stick.


Sam did odd jobs for Dr. Charles Eley who owned Eley's Drug Store just off the square in Livingston. While working there, Dr. Eley must have seen Sam's potential and offered to pay his way to pharmacy school if he would agree to come back to Livingston and take over the drug store for him. And at one time, he planned to do just that.


Pumping gas for Doc Jolley at Jolley's Gulf Service Station on East Main Street in Livingston was another of Sam's odd jobs. He also worked for Butch Holman in Holman's Department store where he said he learned how to be what he described as "the best Christmas gift wrapper ever was." One of the highlights of Sam's life at age 16 was the fact that welfare benefits were no longer paid for him. He told me he couldn't have been happier when his name was removed from the state's list of welfare recipients. Even though Sam worked every possible minute he could in order to help provide for his grandmother and his younger siblings, he managed to find time for football and basketball. Any type of sports was something he loved to participate in, and that interest has done nothing but grow over the years. Even when he was really young, one of the games he remembered playing in the yard of the old Roberts Hotel was kick the can. That hotel that used to sit on the corner of the block that our new library will occupy in the not too distant future.


Sam's academic achievements were a little lacking at times during his high school days. He found it wasn't always possible to make it to Ms. Margaret Miller's typing class on time because of running the projector until late at night at the Ritz. Ms. Miller was so aggravated with his tardiness, she not only threatened to throw him out of typing class, she did just that. But a few of Ms. Miller's students saw a tender side of her from time to time, even though she didn't like letting it show. She came to Sam after throwing him out, and told him to come on back and take the final test, that she knew he could pass it. And even though he was too stubborn to take her up on the offer, the typing that he did learn while in Ms. Miller's class helped out later during his time in the army.


And evidently when Uncle Sam called young men into service in the early's '50's, it didn't really matter if you were just a week away from graduating from high school. That's when the call came for Sam. The Korean war had begun, and he and fellow classmate, Riley Johnson, were both drafted into service. Neither one got to walk down the aisle at Livingston Academy with their fellow classmates to receive their graduating diplomas. Instead, they were being shipped out for military duty. Both Sam and Riley received their diplomas in the mail.

Sam's military career ended with just a year and a half served because of his being diagnosed with tuberculosis. As a result of his illness, part of one lung had to be surgically removed. His recovery took six months in several different military hospitals.


Following his discharge from the army in 1956, Sam enrolled in Tennessee Tech on the GI bill. Because of his health situation, he could not play any kind of sports until his senior year at Tech when he became a member of the baseball team. He worked three summers at Standing Stone State Park as a life guard under the watchful eye of Coach L.E. Oakley, another person Sam maintained a close friendship with. But his health problems did not hold him back from doing some coaching on the side. While in school at Tech, he coached several bantam football teams in Livingston, and worked with Little Leaguers in Cookeville. It was while he was enrolled at Tenn Tech that a very attractive lady named Helen Polston of Harriman, Tenn., entered the picture. During Sam's junior year and Helen's senior year at Tech, they were married. Sam graduated from Tech in 1960, and enrolled at UT in Knoxville where he attained his Master's in only four quarters. His college education also includes a EDS from Middle Tennessee State University. Helen has also had a teaching career, and over the course of their marriage, their family grew to include a daughter, Holly, and a son, John. The Brooks family now includes three grandchildren, and they are looking forward to the birth of their first great-grandchild in August of this year. Two of Samís brothers, Joe and Bill, are deceased.
 

A position as director of physical education in an elementary school in Florida was Sam's first teaching job, but when a chance to move back to the hills of Tennessee became a possibility, Sam and Helen relocated to South Pittsburg, Tenn., where he was hired as an assistant football coach and head basketball coach. Prior to his becoming a member of the teaching and coaching staff at South Pittsburg, football was the favored sport at that school. Under his leadership, interest in basketball grew immensely for South Pittsburg residents. During his coaching career, Sam was selected by United Press International to serve on a panel of 10 coaches who each week selected Tennessee's top 10 basketball teams. Fellow coaches in the Sequatchie Valley Conference elected him president of the organization. Sam's involvement in community affairs and organizations grew almost as fast as his coaching skills. Over the years, many honors have been bestowed upon him because of his involvement in the Jaycees and Lion's Club organizations of South Pittsburg. One newspaper article in which Sam received an award for the South Pittsburg Lion's Club Lion of the Year stated that membership in the Lion's Club had nearly doubled in size under Sam's term as president. Numerous other awards were presented to Sam for his outstanding achievements while a member of the South Pittsburg Lionís Club.
 

Sam Brooks during his coaching career at South Pittsburg high school.

 

In February of 2004, South Pittsburg high school honored two of their former coaches with the renaming of their basketball facility to the "Brooks-Fuqua Gymnasium." Sam shared this honor with a former South Pittsburg girls' basketball coach, Bebe Fuqua. Sam's contribution included his work toward the establishment of classifications in basketball that he dedicated much time and energy to. In a newspaper article that appeared in The South Pittsburg Hustler, Sam's efforts regarding basketball classifications of schools is commended, and as a result of all his hard work, he has helped make the dream of a state championship possible for all high schools throughout the volunteer state.

Many newspaper articles have been written about the long list of achievements Sam received much deserved credit for during his years of coaching, but probably none of these compare to letters he got from young men who once played on his teams. One such letter was written by Houston Vaughn, a young man who grew up in Livingston, and whose parents were Joe and Clem Vaughn, was a member of one of the bantam teams Sam coached in Livingston. In a letter to Sam that also included a copy of a picture of the team Houston played on, he writes: "The memories from that year of football are special to me. I appreciate the time you guys spent working with us and the interest you showed. I never got big enough to play highschool football so these are my only football memories. I did go out for the team as a junior and senior, but only weighed about 135 pounds so I mostly warmed the bench."

Standing in the very back:  Wayne Sells, assistant coach

Back row:  Coach Sam Brooks; Charles Neil Eley; Jackie Carr; Mike Matheny; David Endicott; Max Puckett; Bobby Bilbrey; Clark Harward; Jimmy Allred; Dan Hill; Russell Warden; Joe Brooks, assistant coach.

Middle row:  Pat Swallows; Eugene Walker; Chipper Stephens; Jimmy Crawford; Dugan Hammock; David Sadler; Mike McCormick; Dicky Mitchell; Terry Crabtree.

Front row:  Houston Vaughn; Sluggo Gray; Jerry Carr; John Bradford; Freddie Haney; Earl Wayne Thrasher; Jackie Kirby; Verlin Hyder.

Photo courtesy of Houston Vaughn

 

Another player Sam coached, this one in South Pittsburg, wrote a letter dated October 19, 2005, which says, in part: "You were one of those few in my life who gave me a strong sense of purpose and direction. I will always cherish the memory of spending time and energy in your company and under your leadership. I just wanted to thank you again and hopefully encourage you at this point in your own life to take great pride in the important role you played in the lives of so many young people. Your friend, Dennis Ridley"


Both these letters show the great example and the wonderful influence Sam Brooks has been, and the fact that he, who was helped along the way by so many he came in contact with while he was growing up, has, in turn, done the very same thing for many others in his adult life. I feel sure Sam's early years set the course that brought him to where he is today. The many obstacles he faced as a youngster only made him more determined to really make something of his life, and there can be no doubt that he has definitely accomplished that goal. He laughed when he described himself as "a kid from Jam Holler with three college degrees." Not bad, Sam, not bad at all.
 

Sam is retired now, but during his long and successful coaching career of 28 years, he won approximately 438 games. I am happy to have had a chance to share Sam's story, and I think I can speak for the town of Livingston by saying we are all so very proud to claim him as one of our own. There are many people who helped to shape Samís life, and he wishes it were possible to list those names without unintentionally leaving anyone out. Since that isnít possible, he does want to express his sincere appreciation and thanks to everyone who helped him along the way. You have Samís assurance that you will never be forgotten. Should anyone want to get in touch with Sam, his mailing address is: 200 Magnolia Avenue, South Pittsburg, TN 37380.