Two old friends have passed in the last week, one day apart. I got to know Al at Pete’s Coffee Shop, in their old location in the Sprankle Building, mainly thanks to his extraverted nature and our shared interest in local history. I feel as if I knew him well, and he’s helped me with more than one column over the years, but come to think of it, except for a few phone conversations, that popular lunch spot on Union Avenue accounts for nearly 100 percent of my acquaintance with Al Heins. He was known as the Chairman of the Board, even to the other chairmen of boards who eat lunch there every day.
Al never much minded talking about himself, about friends who died 60 or 70 years ago, about his old neighborhoods. His favorites were old North Knoxville and the old Asylum Street area, just northwest of downtown, the location of Heins Street and the old family business he ran, A.G. Heins: “Building Materials Since Anyone Can Remember.”
Like most men of his famous generation, he was in the big war, an enlisted man in the Army on troop-transport ships in the Atlantic. Picture a guy who’s a World War II veteran and longtime owner of a building supplies company, it won’t look much like Al Heins, who’s hard to picture in a hardhat. His sensitive blue eyes and expressive gestures and sometimes-gleeful lilt might put you in mind of someone in show biz. He’d been an actor, in fact, in the late ’40s and ’50s, when the Carousel Theatre was new. He met his future wife Sue when they were both in a production of You Can’t Take It With You. In the ’90s, he was thickly involved in the efforts to restore the Bijou Theatre.
Later he was involved in backing Knoxville’s first shot at a professional hockey team, the Knoxville Knights, in the early ’60s. Hockey and theater share a certain kinship. He had an interest in animals, and was at one time director of the Appalachian Zoological Society. He shepherded a colony of stray cats in North Knoxville. At Pete’s he always ordered one of the big well-balanced daily specials, with cornbread. Al didn’t eat the cornbread, but packed it home to feed to his favorite raccoon.
Early this year, Al, at 84, was amused at the attempt to re-brand his company’s almost-forgotten industrial neighborhood underneath the Western Avenue Viaduct as an entertainment-oriented “Warehouse District.” I wrote a column about the area which was long ago known as Asylum Avenue, with his help. His descriptions made that once dense and complex neighborhood sound almost like the Lower East Side in the ’20s. When it’s warmer, he’d said, come down, and we’ll walk around the neighborhood, I’ll give you a tour of old Asylum Avenue, and I’ll tell you some more stories.
At the time, I was under some deadline guns. In about three weeks, we agreed. But his daughter died, which tore him up pretty badly. That is, they say, the hardest thing to recover from. I saw him only a couple of times after that, and he wasn’t quite the same guy.
I don’t know whether Al ever even met my other very old friend Ed Coleman, whom I’ve known as a friend and neighbor for most of my life. He was one of those guys who was always around, and always knew your name, even if you were just a kid. He preferred to talk about people other than himself, which is a good strategy in life. If you’re more interested in other people, people tend to like you; also, it’s prudent to learn more about other people than they know about you.
I always suspected Ed knew much more about me than I knew about him. I’m grateful to him for offering early encouragement in my writing, and he was a better reader than most of my old friends. If I surprised him on the street, he would always have a cogent remark on my last column. Knowing he was reading was flattering, but also kept me on my toes. But he was offering me encouragement years before I ever even knew what he did for a living. He seemed too modest to be a medical professional, I thought, but he was a dentist, and he must have had the most durable active license in town. He’d been a dentist, in fact, since the Roosevelt administration. He was still practicing this year, at age 89. I gather he cut back some in his later years, but he kept his shingle hanging at his office on Concord Street and was happy to go in when a patient needed work on a crown or a bridge.
And I didn’t learn until about two years ago that he was also a multiply decorated veteran of World War II. A Texan back then, he was in the Pacific, off the coast of Iwo Jima, in Naval Dental Corps. His ship, the U.S.S. Pickaway, was part of the landing at Iwo Jima. He didn’t brag about it; I learned about his war record only because his church solicited him to contribute to what turned out to be an especially interesting collection of war memoirs, published about two years ago, called We Were There. All the 30 contributors have in common is that they’re members of First Presbyterian Church, and they saw the war from all points, from bomber crews to POW camps. Though Ed said he was never directly shot at, he manned battle stations when an air attack was anticipated, carrying a loaded .45, and though he worked mainly as an on-board dental surgeon, he sometimes treated wounded men.
I knew him all these years mainly as just a nice old guy who always seemed to be in an infectiously sunny mood.
Ed and Al were inspirations to me, skinny, happy, old, bald guys who made life beyond 80 seem almost worth the trouble to get there.