The Bishop of Fort Sanders

An afternoon with Gideon Fryer

Secret History

by Jack Neely

In many ways, Gideonâ’s like any other bachelor living in Fort Sanders. Heâ’s a skinny guy in a ball cap and shorts who likes to loaf around his apartment barefoot. His refrigerator is full of Beckâ’s Dark. He has modern art on his walls and a big window with a view of 12th Street, and a motley assortment of loose friends who drop by unannounced, just because they know theyâ’re welcome. Like a lot of his neighbors, he has nothing against marijuana smokers, and heâ’s known to say things you wouldnâ’t want your mom to hear. His loony grin is one of the few constants in this life. It takes the sharp edge off his opinions, which are otherwise unapologetic.

When thereâ’s nothing going on at his apartment, he wanders downtown to a pub or two, just to see whatâ’s going on. People tend to like Gid. Women holler at him on the street. Heâ’s the coolest guy most people know.

Among several significant features that separate Gid Fryer from his Fort Sanders neighbors is that heâ’s a veteran of World War II. Heâ’s a retired professor of sociology and social work. A couple of weeks ago, he turned 86 years old.

To see him barefoot on a stool, drinking beer on a hot weekday afternoon and looking out over 12th Street, you might not immediately gather that there was ever very much serious in Gidâ’s life, that friends and enemies have recognized his subversive influence, that he was part of a civil-rights lawsuit against UT, or that he co-founded the East Tennessee Community Design Center, on which dozens of public and private projects in the region have relied for architectural and planning advice for 37 years.

Gid was born in Union Hill, Tenn., and remembers the familyâ’s 1926 relocation to the more metropolitan town of Goodlettsville. â“It was a move of social significance,â” he says. He has now spent most of his life in Knoxville, but still speaks in the measured, courtly rhythms of Middle Tennessee.

As a kid, Gid had a bad case of lazy eye. â“It just never decided to see,â” he says. As therapy he was issued a patch to wear over his good eye to force his lazy eye to work harder. Gid wouldnâ’t have it. â“Stumbling around blind is no way to live,â” he says. So, 80 years later, his left eye is still lazy, and tends to pull to the right. â“So I donâ’t see out of my left eye,â” he says. â“It has never been a great inconvenience.â”

He came to Knoxville in 1939 to study history at UT. â“I started out in Fort Sanders right there on the corner, at 14th and Clinch.â” He points over toward the spot, two blocks away, as if he can almost still see himself there.

Soon after he started UT law school, in the summer of â‘42, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. An accelerated recruitment program overlooked the minor detail of his eyesight, but thanks to his disability he was offered the option of staying stateside. He preferred Europe. â“That was where the adventure was,â” he says. One of his early bunkmates was fellow Tennessean Peter Taylor, the author; they became good friends. Gid spent time in Rouen, Paris, and Nuremberg as part of the occupation forces. He was a private, but he did well on the army IQ tests, and was soon promoted to master sergeant.

In Germany he learned to ski, and in Paris he saw new plays by George Bernard Shaw, but he learned more from the war itself. â“I came out of the service with a strong interest in international understanding, intercultural education. What youâ’d now call diversity. I knew that war is pretty stupid, and there ought to be ways of getting around it.â”

Back home, after a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College, and a wedding to Bette, a fellow grad student, in the â‘50s and early â‘60s he taught at UTâ’s new Nashville branch. Back to Knoxville in the 1960s, he found himself at the front of civil-rights and antiwar movements.

There he made the acquaintance of Rita Sanders, a black teacher at historically black Tennessee State who wanted to work at UT but was turned down. She filed a landmark lawsuit against the state, and its university. â“The most unloyal thing I ever did was to side with that suit against UT,â” Gid says, with no detectable undertone of regret. Rita Sanders Geier made the news last week when UTâ’s Loren Crabtree hired her as an aide to govern UTâ’s diversity efforts.

Gid later became a mentor to UTâ’s antiwar movement. Some charged that Gid was the Svengali behind the Knoxville campusâ’s early-â’70s unrest, provoking kids to demonstrate. â“Their opposition believe that youths had to be guided, or misguided, to protest the war,â” he says, but insists it was all natural; he just watched and approved. â“Any red-blooded youth would have to begin to bristle up for some kind of protest,â” he says.

He befriended Peter Kami, the young Brazilian activist leader who challenged UT President Ed Boling to a pie fight in 1970. Gid helped him escape federal inciting to riot charges by fleeing the country. â“I knew him well enough to know that he was an honorable person.â”

Gid co-founded the design center with architect Bruce McCarty and others in 1970, in part to mitigate the problems caused by the ham-fisted tactics of urban renewal.

Meanwhile, he and his wife built a sturdy house on Bunker Hill in the Martha Washington Heights section off Alcoa Highway. He designed it for retirement and potential disability, with lots of flat surfaces.

â“Being three years older, and not having avoided smoking and drinking, as she did, and having high cholesterol myself, I didnâ’t think Iâ’d ever be living there alone.â” Bette contracted Lou Gehrigâ’s disease and died in 1996. Gid gravitated back to Fort Sanders and bought one of the first places he looked at. He doesnâ’t much like shopping around.

â“Some people would be put off by coming in and smelling dog piss,â” he says. â“But I was enticed by the access to the street.â” Itâ’s handy to some of his favorite places. He walks from here to Church Street United Methodist, where heâ’s a longtime parishioner, to Jubilee events at the Laurel Theatre, and to Community Design Center functions; heâ’s been on its board for 37 years.

Lately heâ’s even given up driving. â“People think I canâ’t drive,â” he says. â“I can drive.â” He learned to drive in 1932 and keeps up his license. â“Iâ’ve gone all these years since I was 11 without a moving accident. In order to keep that record intact until death, I thought Iâ’d get out of the driving business.â”

He has some property, and a will that leaves most of it to the Community Design Center and Jubilee Community Arts. â“And all debts will be forgiven,â” he says. â“It has a nice New Testament ring to it.â”

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