Sharing the Stories of Cas Walker
In 1924, Cas Walker arrived in Knoxville. He is one of 20th-century Knoxville’s most famous citizens and his colorful life became some of the city’s favorite urban legends, which are captured in a new book, Cas Walker: Stories on his Life and Legend, edited by Joshua Hodge, a graduate student in the UT Department of History who lost his two-year battle with brain cancer May 2019.
“I can’t think of another city I’ve lived in that has a person like Cas in its collective memory,” said Ernie Freeberg, professor and head of the history department. “Those stories, many shared in endless variation, serve as a window on Knoxville in the 20th century. He was so ubiquitous in Knoxville from the 30s through the 80s, and many who lived here feel an obvious nostalgia about his place in their lives. Others remember him as a barrier to the city’s progress, and a master of a form of politics that Knoxville is better off without.”
Members of the UT community gathered in Hodges Library November 5 to view rare film footage from Cas Walker’s television programs. Louisa Trott, assistant professor in the UT libraries and co-founder of Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound (TAMIS), helped discover and restore the collection of clips for the public. The event also paid tribute to Hodge’s memory and legacy.
During his time at UT, Hodge focused his research on revealing the history of people whose lived experiences are often hard to recover. He recognized that the historical record favored those who were able to write it – not necessarily those who live it. His work eventually led him to gathering stories of Cas Walker and recording the oral histories of those who knew the man behind the legend.
“Josh did a masterful job on this project, tracking down 20 people who knew Walker well, and gathering stories that reflect many different angles on the man’s long career in Knoxville,” Freeberg said. “Cas is beloved by many, while others remember him as a negative force in the city’s development. Josh captured that complexity, and gathered the legends that reflect Walker’s role as a grocery tycoon, a coon hunter, a populist politician and editor, and as a music promoter.”
In addition to the collection of Cas Walker stories, Hodge’s memory will live on in an endowment established in his honor. The Joshua S. Hodge Award will recognize the task graduate students in the UT Department of History undertake when they decide to research and recover lost voices. Hodge’s research highlighted his commitment to ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard.
Established by Freeberg and Max Matherne, a fellow doctoral student, the endowment preserves the memory of a young, committed UT scholar who, despite the fact that his life was cut short, was dedicated to research and history while helping future scholars reach their dreams.
“When Josh learned in July 2017 about his terminal diagnosis, he did not simply retire and give up on his work,” Matherne said. “He not only continued working on his dissertation, but remained active in the historical field. He continued to submit articles for review, organize conference panels, and participate in the dissertation writing workshop, all the while working on his dissertation and the Cas Walker project.”
Recipients of the Joshua S. Hodge Award will be announced annually during the Department of History awards ceremony. Click here to make a contribution to this endowment.
The Cas Walker Stories Project gathers the tales and legends told about one of 20th century Knoxville’s most famous citizens. The project has recorded oral histories with many who knew Cas Walker, as friends, employees, and political rivals or allies, and collected others from the public.
Many of these are gathered in Cas Walker: Stories on his Life and Legend, published by UT Press. This book was edited by Joshua Hodge, a PhD student in the History Department who passed away while the book was in its final stages of completion. An endowment fund is being raised in his name, which will be used to support graduate research.