We Just Make the Signs, Ma'am

We honor famous people by naming roads after them. It is meant to be a significant gesture of good will. But is it an honor? If we don’t even know who they are, are they truly being honored? If you’re a television star or a musician, we’ll remember you forever, with or without a road sign. But Americans have extremely short attention spans about anything remotely historical or educational.

For example, how can we be expected to know after whom Austin Peay Highway, Walter K. Singleton Parkway, Paul Barret Parkway, WB Fowler Expressway, or Bill Morris Parkway was named ? Unless you lived while they were in the news, were a long-time resident of the area, knew someone related to them, or actually took the time to ask or research, you’d never know. I would never take the time to investigate these faceless names on the signs unless I’d been given this assignment.

Only being a resident of Desoto County for three years, I had no idea who to call to find out about the memorial roadways in Memphis. The Tennessee Department of Transportation referred me to the City Commission who referred me to the County Commission who referred me back to the City Commission who then referred me to the Memphis/Shelby County Department of Transportation who referred me to the Public Works Department. Surprisingly, these people had more information than the others. After being transferred six times, a man on the other end of the phone informed me, “Oh, we wouldn’t know anything about that. We just make the signs, ma’am.” I had officially learned something.

When researching anything and all else fails, I always end up at the libraries and the city archives. And the Memphis archivists couldn’t have been more helpful. It was so unusual and refreshing, I even called back twice just to thank them for their time. Essentially, they referred me to archives of the local newspaper. Again, I had learned something.

Austin Peay Highway was named for Austin Peay IV, known as “The Maker of Modern Tennessee”. Peay served an unprecedented three terms as Governor of Tennessee from 1923 until his death in office in 1927. He was specifically known for initiating and passing an administrative reorganization bill which eliminated sixty-four government bureaus and re-grouped them into eight departments, lowering the state deficit by millions of dollars, and also for implementing a tobacco tax which was spent on highways and education. He served during the difficult controversy of the 1925 Scopes Evolution Trials in Dayton, Tennessee. He was honored for his unselfish, “for the people” style of government with a road, a big road, and a sign, a big sign. And a university in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Sergeant Walter K. Singleton, United States Marine, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart for heroism in the Vietnam War. His platoon was attacked by intense enemy fire. He advanced, shooting at the enemy and moving injured men from harm’s way, and eventually disorganized their operation. He was mortally wounded, yet saved many of his comrade’s lives. He is the only person in Shelby County ever to receive the Medal of Honor. He has an annual run, a road, and a sign. But better yet, he is honored on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall

Paul Barret was a well-known businessman, banker, and political leader in Barretville, a town in northern Shelby County established by his family in the 1840’s. Barret died in 1999, leaving assets valued at about $75 million and funding trusts for various libraries and buildings scattered around Memphis. He now has a library at Rhodes College named after his money, I mean, him. He was also honored with a road and a sign.

William Bingham Fowler was Memphis’ city engineer from 1927 to 1957. During his career, he worked with the Department of Public Works, designed the Memphis Zoo, worked on the sewer systems, and many other projects throughout the city. His sign is on the southern extension of I-240 circling the town.

William N. Morris was Shelby County sheriff for six years and mayor for sixteen years. Morris was elected in 1978, 1982, 1986, and 1990. Mr. Morris proves that you don’t have to die to get a road and a sign. After he dies, I would imagine more information will be available about his contributions. Only then will we honor him appropriately.

I think the signs are certainly honors to these great contributors to Memphis and Tennessee. We just don’t take the time to think about or even thank the people who came before us for their many accomplishments that have made our lives better or easier. We may ask our passengers while driving down the road, “Do you know who Austin Peay is?” But more than likely they won’t know who he was either. We shrug and drive on, checking our voice mails, emails, palm pilots, or pagers. Or better yet, we pick up our cell phones to chat with our friends so we don’t waste the thirty-minute drive home.

If you ever find an extra minute and would like further information about the roads of the Memphis honorable, a columnist for the Commercial Appeal, Ann Meeks, has written several articles on the subject since 1990. You can meander through the archives at www.gomemphis.com and purchase, for $2.95, as they say, “the full story”.

But in the meantime, slow down. Smell the roses. And take a minute to really read the signs.