Extraordinary Cup of Joe

You never know who you'll meet at Pete's

Pete's Coffee Shop is a great place to finish homework before the sun rises. The weight of the old-school mugs makes the coffee taste better. One morning Pete set my breakfast down next to my computer and wondered if this town was bringing me new friends.

"Miss Olive, have you met Dr. Joe? He likes to sit at that table over there," he said. "Dr. Joe, this is Miss Olive, she's usually here right after we open on Wednesdays."

A few Wednesdays later I was dying for a biscuit and typing at Pete's counter when I heard, "How are you today, Miss Olive?" The good doctor remembered me. I meant to ask if he was taking any new patients, but his Peyton Manning story distracted me. Before I knew it the clock said 8:30, and Dr. Joe was promptly walking out the door.

Another chance to ask Dr. Joe about his work came a few days later. I was having Saturday morning breakfast with my Friday night date. There was Dr. Joe, sitting behind us with a pretty blonde woman about my mother's age. She smelled like gardenias and expensive hand cream. I was mortified; it was like being caught by your parents. The waitress noticed my attempt to smooth my headboard hair and clean up my hangover raccoon eyes. "Honey, Dr. Joe and Miss Pat have seen it all. Don't worry."

A few months later, I was eating lunch with a colleague at Pete's counter and a smiling Dr. Joe patted my shoulder.

"Hello Miss Olive," he said. "Keep up with your homework."

The man's halo radiated at a frequency somewhere between Andy Griffith and Atticus Finch. I definitely needed him as my doctor. When I searched the Web under "Knoxville physicians," I realized I did not know his last name or even if he specialized in family practice. Hell's bells.

Then a friend from the gym chided me for failing to find a physician since moving to Wonderville. "Our doctor's son is graduating tomorrow from UT. Why don't you come with us? You can see the spectacle of a Volunteer graduation and join us all for dinner. I'll put in a good word if you want to get on his list of patients." So off to graduation I went.

We perched in the rafters overlooking an ocean of sweaty smiles, whooping families, and academics in serious robes. Graduations can be a little boring when you are not the one graduating. My attention moved from the ceremony to counting the bedazzled mortarboards. I had spotted nine "THX MOM" signs when I realized the audience was laughing. The speaker sounded familiar.

Is that Dr. Joe? Why is he up there? What do you mean, Dr. Joe is not a physician? My Dr. Joe is actually Joe Johnson, the 19th president of the whole-damn-shooting-match we call the University of Tennessee?

I kicked myself for being an idiot while President Emeritus Dr. Joseph E. Johnson advised the 2012 graduating class to tell the truth, never embarrass your boss, and remember that a little charm will take you far in this world. Betwixt stories of the family dog and Andy Holt, he delivered a rock star performance that left Thompson-Boling arena suitably charmed. So much for being a stuffy academic.

I went home and Googled my Pete's breakfast buddy, Joseph E. Johnson. The list of his contributions to the University, Knoxville, and the state of Tennessee was jaw-dropping. Watching Dr. Joe in action reminded me of the historian Joseph Ellis, who wrote about another charmer from the South, Thomas Jefferson. Ellis said that Jefferson was a mystery and a miracle because he would enter his favorite tavern and converse comfortably with everyone from the village blacksmith to the local preacher.

Like the extraordinary Dr. Joe, the farmer and inventor who became the third U.S. president never knew a stranger. Wonderville has taught me that its mysteries and miracles rest in the grace of its citizenry. We don't brag because that would just be rude. We understand that charm, like discretion, goes a long way. Especially at breakfast.