The Long Walk: One More Visit with the Bishop of Fort Sanders

Professor Gideon Fryer’s black beret suggests an affinity for guerrilla campaigns. He emerges from his apartment in Fort Sanders on the last day there’s ice on the sidewalks. He pokes the ice with a long, stout, bamboo staff.

That stick comes with a story. A while back, in the parking lot of the Ace Hardware store in Bearden, he was approached by a gentleman with a truckload of bamboo. The stranger said he used to be a partner at Parker Brothers, the old hardware store that was near that spot 20 years ago. Though retired, the hardware man was back on his old block, making and distributing bamboo canes.

He custom-made one for Professor Fryer, capped with rubber tips. The man asked for no money. “Just do a kindness for a stranger,” he said.

“That was a year ago. I have not retaliated,” the professor says. “I don’t encounter many strangers.”

Gideon Fryer is only 92, and doesn’t have much use for a cane except when it’s icy, as it is today. Stepping out for a bowl of tom yum soup at Chaiyo’s, he stops every now and then, when he’s walking uphill, as if to enjoy the rare winter sunshine.

He’s known in some circles as the Bishop of Fort Sanders. He still loves the place, and doesn’t mind that most of his neighbors are about one-fourth his age. “Fort Sanders is home to a hell of a lot of people. From my perspective, it’s done exceedingly well at that.”

But after a pneumonia scare over the holidays, he has become convinced he might be better off elsewhere.

His acquaintance with this old neighborhood began back in 1939. On the walk to lunch, we pass the site of his first Knoxville home, the Kappa Alpha house on Clinch, now part of a parking lot.

Up the hill is Laurel Theater; the big gallery room is named for Fryer, who almost half a century ago helped establish the old church as a cultural center.

When he was married, he lived in a subdivision, but ever since his wife Bet died 18 years ago, he’s been living alone in that apartment with a bay window overlooking 12th Street.

Today he’s remembering the postwar 1940s, when he was returning to a different campus than the one he’d left. A war veteran perplexed by the waste of war, he joined a campus salon called the World Affairs Discussion Group, enjoying the lively debates about the Israeli partition and Indian independence. “It was later determined to be a subversive organization,” Fryer says, a note of glee in his tone. There’s a charm in idiocy, and he’s become a connoisseur of it.

The mass of students, including some of his fraternity brothers, were suspicious of anything out of the ordinary. When Fryer wore a red sweater, some were convinced he was demonstrating an allegiance to the Communist Party. “It was just that sort of climate.”

It might seem surprising that after some time in New York, at Columbia, he might return to Knoxville, but he was here to witness the establishment of UT’s School of Social Work. Fryer began teaching there, by degrees, first as a graduate assistant.

“I joined the faculty the same year Andy Holt did,” he says. More an administrator than an academic, future UT president Holt was a specialist in education, working closely with politicians.

Fryer taught, and became the second director of UT’s school of social work, now the College of Social Work, and ranked among the best in America.

He talks about that only if you ask him. In retirement, he’s been more interested in extracurricular projects, like the Community Design Center, which organizes staff and volunteer architectural work for worthy projects all over the region. Fryer’s surprised when new board members haven’t encountered some of their prominent work, like Haley Heritage Square. Without the work of the CDC, he says, it might not even be there.

When he moved to his place on 12th Street, he considered it downtown, and inquired about joining downtown residents’ organizations. His friend Mary Ewing, who then lived at the Pembroke, objected when she found out where he lived. “That’s Fort Sanders,” she said. “That’s not downtown!” But for 18 years he’s been treating it as if it is downtown, walking to lunch on Market Square.

And more Fridays than not, he hosts an informal get-together, a beer and wine potluck that’s become known as Gid Friday.

Fryer has no use for euphemism. He regrets the “infantilization” of institutional care for the elderly. “I’m closing myself out of being an independent person by associating with this place where people go to die. But I don’t have much choice. I’ve got to face an invalid future, at some time,” he says. His two daughters, Carol and Nancy, both professionals, live in Switzerland and Colorado.

“And my tendency is to anticipate it more directly than just think about it. You know what they say. Old professors never die. They just go to Shannondale.” He likes that place’s long corridors. “I’m always fascinated by that long walk,” he says. Down that hallway is a good friend, a retired Oak Ridge chemist who has become an imaginative animal portraitist.

“I think I can make myself a comfortable niche there.” He’s looking into keeping Gid Friday going with his change of venue.

He seems resigned to it all, but Fryer, for whom urban design has become an avocation, brims with something like exuberance about recent developments in the center of town.

“I’m generally happy with the turns Knoxville has taken,” he says, “and in my participation in and enjoyment of that. Knoxville has had such a plethora of interesting people who have grasped this area as one that was unfolding. Knoxville has been Out to Lunch, and began coming back.” He seems moved just to think of it.

“It’s just a beautiful re-emergence that you, me, and others like us have been standing around watching, with our mouths open. It’s been a great experience to be around that.”

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