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Whether church, family, sports or work few have been so faithful

For over 50 years, Tommy Lillard Jr. has been attending Newport’s
First Free Will Baptist Church off Jimtown Road. He is a Bogard community
native and at age 70 has gone to church most all of his life, rarely missing
a Sunday morning service.
Published: 8:50 PM, 10/11/2013 Last updated: 8:53 PM, 10/11/2013

Author: David Popiel
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

(Editor’s note: I am taking a detour from my Quinton Parrott talks and ride through 1930s Newport but will return to Quinton soon.)


October is the perfect time for football in Tennessee and among ardent orange fans in our hometown, few have equaled the attendance records of Tommy V. Lillard Jr., of the Bogard community.

After more than 50 years of attending University of Tennessee home games, Tommy finally made it into a skybox. That happened during the Tenn. Vs. Georgia game on Oct. 5 and it gave him an overview well worth waiting for. And it can serve as a theme for my October talk with a man I’ve known all the years at the Plain Talk. I say “thank you” to the Lillard family for being such great and ardent supporters of this community newspaper. In recent years I had been thinking about visiting Tommy to review his life on the occasion of his birthday Oct. 11, when he turned 70. This gave me a good reason to push towards this goal, and pardon the pun.

Of course he was wearing a sports shirt with orange T and maybe he has a tattoo but knowing his strong Christian beliefs I doubt this. And seeing his smile at the Newport First Free Will Baptist (FWB) Church when he told me of the skybox venture, this may be as close to heaven on earth as he will get, and that’s my opinion. As we sat and talked he made it clear that of highest importance is his church work. So I am setting out to reveal some things about him and the family you don’t know in much the same as crafting a four-legged chair: Family, church, sports, and work. I’ve got a lot of good things to say and it may take some time over the coming weeks but well worth listening and relating.


A family of Tommys


I didn’t hear “Thomas” mentioned so it’s Tommy and let’s go back to Tommy Vincent Lillard, Sr. or better known to you old timers from Bogard as “TV.” We are talking with his only son, Tommy Jr. And you know his sister, Beth James, retired educator and accomplished musician married to Freddy James. She lives just across Bogard Road. Tommy has only one son: Tommy Vincent Lillard, III and you can call him Vince. His young son was at church too: Tommy Vincent Lillard, IV or Vinnie. I’ll get back to more detail on Tommy and his wife, Carolyn (Betty Shelton) Lillard and their children who gathered for a group photo during the homecoming of First FWB on Oct. 6 where pastor Jeff Davis was ministering. The church is notable to me for having lots of children and young adults and plenty of good cooks, too.

TV married the former Hazel Murrell of Bogard. And they lived most all their lives at the historic 1790s home off Bogard Road. I shot photos at this two-story house in the 1970s and found out it is gone, dismantled for the logs. Tommy lived in the old home on the 140-acre farm from 1943, when he was born, until 1964. TV died relatively young at age 64, but his wife lived until the early 1990s. This was known as the Brook Lawn Farm and included land on both sides of Bogard Rd. to McGaha Chapel Rd. Had Ronnie Lane lived long enough to take me on a tour of “his neighborhood” he could have pointed out all the landscape and landmarks to me. TV was born in 1886 and inherited the homeplace and it looked likely there would not be a future generation of Lillards, because he did not marry until he was 54. Tommy, a young helper on the farm, was born when TV was 57. Hazel was teaching at the English Creek School about a half mile from the Lillard’s current home and just off Cosby Hwy. The land is still in the family as all Tommy and Carolyn’s children live on it. I found it interesting, but probably not unique, that TV was a democrat and Hazel a republican, so they could cancel each other’s votes out. I hear that Tommy is a democrat and his younger sister a republican. As happened to many families, the Civil War separated them. The Murrells were sympathetic to the North and the  Lillards, the South.


28 Years at Bush Brothers


By 1949, Little Tommy was attending Newport Grammar School where Lacy Wayne Vinson was principal. “He was a great Christian man whom I admired.” Tommy bragged on a new teacher, James “Jay” Gaddis whose first year was 1956-57. Tommy’s father died in May 1950. Many from this era attended the old Cocke County High School as did Tommy graduating in 1961. “My favorite teacher was Don Boley.” Close schoolmate friends to him were Roger Bryant and Toby Ford. Tommy remarked that he was born at St. Mary’s hospital on Oct. 11 and Toby at the same hospital Oct. 12. From here it was the University of Tennessee and that set not only his career but lifetime love of sports in gear. By 1966 he graduated in agricultural engineering and joined Bush Brothers April 1966 becoming farm manager. C. J. Ethier was president and Tommy’s boss.  Calvin Byrd was plant superintendant, and a fellow Tommy worked with many years was Fred Garver. This was the era of Bush’s continued push and success with fresh packed greens: turnip, mustard, collard, cabbage, and kale. Not only did he oversee Chestnut Hill operations but the company had 800 acres in Greene County. A smart fellow, he created the pivoting irrigation system for the farms. Bush continued fresh pack until the mid 1990s. At that time, recall interviewing former board chairman Jim Ethier about his idea to transition the company to dry pack and its multiple bean lines. This proved to be lifesaving and a huge success for Bush Brothers. Many people like the Grahams, Williams brothers, and Larry Fish of Fish farms worked with Bush to provide corn and other vegetables. But with change on the farm, it was time for Tommy to go and he was hired by “a great man,” John Wallace of Wallace Hardware. At first Tommy was a pricing clerk then later handled merchandising and did some sales. His son Vince also worked for Wallace Hardware. I did not realize it until Tommy told me so but Mr. Wallace made huge donations of building materials to churches, and, like our late friend Jay Gaddis, was a fervent Gideon. The Great Recession in 2008-09 caught Wallace in its grip and so Tommy was laid off but was fortunate to have extended unemployment and eased into retirement.


Take them to church


Lillard children didn’t have a choice as to whether they went to church or not. They went to Sunday School and church every week. “Dad went to the old Methodist church in Newport and was the treasurer.” And Tommy went with them and learned the good habit that he carried over to his children. Of his father, he said, “He was a faithful man.” When a big snowstorm rolled across the county, Tommy Sr. walked at least seven miles from his home to church in Newport and back. “I remember Jim Franks” and others. These strong Christian men were a big influence on Tommy Jr. His father developed leukemia and died leaving Tommy and Beth in the care of their mother. Hazel was a faithful and humble woman, too, and sought out a church for the children and so became the first charter member of English Creek Baptist Church in 1953. She led singing, played piano, and taught Sunday School until her death in 1994. Beth continues attending there to this day and carries on the family’s Gospel music tradition. Carl Ogle was an early church pastor. Tommy was baptized by Jim Holmes at the sycamore on Cosby Creek.


Neither snow nor illness


Thanks to Joe Kyker Sr., the English Creek Mission came to be as Joe provided his old store building that remains to this day on church property. He furnished seats, piano and upgraded the building for the small, new congregation. Joe also deeded the store and an adjoining lot to the church as long as it remained a Missionary Baptist Church. By 1953 the church was self supporting.

In his scrapebook, Tommy has a copy of the Newport Plain Talk story on the 1952 Victory Crusade at which he was saved. He began his perfect attendance record at English Creek Baptist. To show how important church was to the Lillard family, another heavy snow closed the roads to vehicle traffic. So, Hazel bundled herself and the children up, got on the farm tractor, and Tommy drove it to church and back. It’s no surprise then that Tommy has 59 years perfect attendance. He collected the pins year after year but shared with me that during a home break-in many were stolen. “It was God’s way of keeping me humble,” he smiled. “I raised my children like I was raised. At one time we had over 100 years perfect attendance in our family.” To get over half century perfect attendance you can’t let many things become stumbling stones. For example, he was at Valentine-Shults Hospital admitted before Sunday and when church time came, he got out of bed and went to church. Even if he got sick at church he toughed it out. “I had a kidney stone attack but stayed until the service was over” and then he drove folks home in the van before daughter Kim took him to the local emergency room.

I wondered about the transition to First Free Will Baptist Church. And yes, a woman was behind it all. Carolyn also attended this church and was Tommy’s high school sweetheart. They were married July 5, 1964, while he was still at UT and she worked at the Magnavox plants. As a young couple they attended the old Gregg’s Chapel FWB Church. Let me introduce the children, Kim, Julie, Lori, and Vince, and grandchildren. Kim, a teacher at Cocke County High School, is married to Donald Suggs, who works at Sonoco Products. They have three children: Logan, 20, Hunter, 17, and Alexis, 15. Julie and Steve Souder, of Johnson County, have two children: Mackenzie, 12, and Karlie, 9. Lorie and Randy Runions, of Claiborne Co., have three children: Dylan, 13, Isaiah, 9, and Sophia, 3. Vince and Julie have son, Vinnie, 2

Julie is also a teacher with NGS where Steve teaches, too, and is boys and girls basketball coach. Lori is a Cosby School teacher and her husband Randy is a product engineer for Howmet of Morristown. Vince is a software engineer with Melaleuca of Knoxville and his wife Julie, takes care of the home. Carolyn Lillard was a long-time teacher and special aide assistant at Northwest School and is currently a substitute teacher at CCHS. She has been doing this work for 29 years.


Free Will Baptist home


Newport’s First Free Will Baptist Church was built in 1965, and early church pastors at First FWB were Harley Brown and later Eddie Young. The pastor I recall was W.H. Teague and his son, Jim. “My father and mother set the example and so all my children are in church today.” I believe they attend with the family but Kim and Lori go to Lincoln Avenue Baptist. Lori’s husband, Randy Runions, is interim pastor at Lincoln Avenue after the departure this summer of Craig Ward. Kim is the church pianist. At FWB church Julie Souder leads the choir. She and husband Steve are Sunday School teachers. Vince is an assistant Sunday School teacher and usher. He also operates the video camera for the church. You can tell that Tommy truly enjoys his church attendance and membership, and fellowship. He said, “I was born in a Catholic hospital, saved in a Methodist church, and baptized in a missionary Baptist church and am a deacon at the Free Will Baptist Church.”

He does not brag about his accomplishments, so far as church, because I am sure he gives the praise to God. For about 52 years he’s been at FWB church and taught Sunday School for 50 years, served as a trustee and treasurer. Among the many rewards he counts as most important are the fellowship with Christians and “learning more about the Bible. It’s a road map to Heaven.”

He continues to be a deacon, loves singing in the choir and has driven the church van for many years. He observed that some of the older women do not drive and he is happy to help them get to church.


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