Piggy and His Pals: An Afternoon's Investigation Into a Winter Mystery at Union Ave Books

Union Ave Books, one of my favorite refuges from the cold, carries mostly new books, but does a little trade in quality used books. Owner Flossie McNabb had a bit of a surprise when she opened an incoming copy of John Dos Passos' autobiographical novel about World War I, Three Soldiers. The surprise was a typewritten letter, folded in sixths, and yellowing, dated Oct. 22, 1934.

It was on the stationery of Dr. John Quincy Adams West, a well-known local intestinal specialist who had studied in Europe. The address on the letterhead was 712 Walnut St., where Dr. West practiced for years. That got my attention, because it was the address of one of the two buildings St. John's Episcopal tore down in September. Number 712 was the address of the smaller but more appealing of the two, the more symmetrical, ornate one.

The salutation is addressed "To The W.M. Tennessee Pi."

The letter extols the virtues of a "Worthy Master," specifically "for all the things you have done to further the advancement of this organization." The organization is unmentioned by name. The addressee is unmentioned by name.

"We are indebted to You more than we can express by word or deed," it continues. You is capitalized. "We wish that you will take this ring as a token of our Brotherly love and appreciation and wear it to show you that we are behind you in every thing you do. We offer it as a humble gift only to show You that we appreciate your work."

To the pedestrian, a "Worthy Master" might sound like an evil interplanetary chieftain in an old Buck Rogers movie. The fact that the Worthy Master and his organization are unidentified led some bookstore visitors to surmise that "this organization" was secret, and perhaps controversial, if not disreputable.

At the end of the letter are the names of 19 men, typed, without signatures.

Near the top of the list is one name that jumped out at everyone who saw the letter: Piggy Word. You don't see that name much, but I knew I'd heard it somewhere before. It rang a dim bell that sent me first in the wrong direction.

Roscoe "Piggy" Word was one of the Vols' first big stars, back around 1905, a generation before Neyland.

I got out Russ Bebb's book The Big Orange. Though it offers only a scant outline of the Vols' early history, it's still the best thing available, and it lists all the known players of Piggy's era. I went down the list, and there it was.

On the 1934 letter, right after Word's name, was that of DeWitt Weaver. And in Bebb's book, he's the captain of the Vols in 1936. The next name, James Porter, was also that of another Neyland-era football Vol. I thought we'd stumbled across evidence of some forgotten secret society of Vol heroes.

But after that, among the 19 on the list, there were no other obvious athletes. I took the letter to the McClung Collection and pulled out the 1934 City Directory, to see what these fellows might have in common. The Piggy Word who'd been an early Vol was still in town in 1934. He was a practicing attorney, a partner in the firm of Word & McCallum, soon to be working with the staff of the new Tennessee Valley Authority.

But I discovered Knoxville was a big enough city to include more than one Piggy Word. The early Vol star had a son named Roscoe Jr. After asking around some, I discovered that he was also known as Piggy. Some narrow-minded people might be grateful to shed a nickname like that, but in the Word family, they embraced the Piggy, and passed it down.

After graduation, Piggy Word Jr. became a Marine. In 1942, he found himself in the Philippines, at Corregidor, at a terrible time.

When his 60-year-old father received news that his son was missing, the one-time Vol star died of a heart attack. For two years, the family knew nothing. Only in 1944, thanks to a Filipino correspondent, the soldier's mother learned he was still alive, but a prisoner of the Japanese. He'd been forced to work loading Japanese ships in the Philippines, then in a coal mine in Honshu. But he survived the war, and came home to tell the story, and to be a longtime executive for Home Federal. He died about 15 years ago.

But back to that letter.

Most of the men listed at the bottom, 16 of the 19, are described in the 1934 city directory as "students." And here was something weird. Seven of the 19 all had the same address. It was a house in Fort Sanders, 1401 West Clinch.

I used to live near it, a big rambling place that's still there on the corner.

What sort of young men would all pile in at the same address? Thinking of the unrelated men I'd known who lived in the same house, I first pictured illegal immigrants, musicians, or clowns.

So I looked up that address, and realized there was one more demographic group characterized by multiple men sharing the same address. In 1934, it was the Alpha Tau Omega house.

Frat boys. "Tennessee Pi" is still the name of the ATO chapter. That explains the Worthy Master part, too.

Flossie wasn't sure where the book originated. But she remarked that she found it in a box in her own house. She has lots of books in her house, as you might expect, and she wasn't sure where this particular box came from. But her father, Charles McNabb, was a big reader. He had been an FBI agent working in espionage during World War II and later a Knoxville attorney.

And before all that, he had also been a prominent ATO at UTK in 1934. This might have been his book. Is it possible that he was the unnamed Worthy Master? She's not sure. Or maybe she's just not at liberty to divulge that information.