By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
CENTERVILLE, Tenn., April 16, 2023 – The second oddest moment in the great 58-year friendship of Douglas T. Bates III and me happened out-front of his house here in west-central Tennessee on Thursday late-afternoon. When my wife Mary Riche and I drove up for a total surprise, there was Bates and his son Douglas T. Bates IV sitting on the front porch swing and rocker.
I’ve stopped right there many times since Doug Bates and I became best friends in our student years at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, back in the 1960s. I’ve shared stories about him and his family dozens of times over the years in my columns in the Des Moines Register, our website Offenburger.com and now here on Substack.
No, I wanted to say, just Mary and me.
Douglas T. Bates III and Chuck Offenburger, last Thursday afternoon on the Bates porch in Centerville, Tennessee. (Photos by Mary Riche)
A few minutes later, up drove another of the Bates family’s longtime friends, Kenneth and Kelly Dotson, from Chicago, as unexpectedly as we RicheBurgers had.
Our arrivals were the first real tip-off to the 75-year-old Bates that “a small get-together in your honor,” as he’d been told to expect, was going to be a whole lot more than that.
We hurried his wife Molly with her make-up, all got in our cars, looped the Hickman County square up town with our horns honking and lights flashing, and drove on to the Fairfield Baptist Church’s big hall where 200 people waited.
Kenneth and Kelly Dotson arrive at the Bates’ home and are welcomed by Douglas T. Bates IV.
The regional Boy Scouts of America organization had summoned everybody for a banquet and presentation of their “Good Scout Award” to Douglas T. Bates for his lifetime of good works and leadership in Centerville (pop. 3,500) and Hickman County (25,300), located an hour west of Nashville.
People came from across Tennessee, as well as from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Alabama and probably beyond. We’d been alerted two or three months ago to put April 13 on our calendars by the event’s organizer Allston Vander Horst, whole like Bates III, is a recently-retired attorney here.
We came from all walks that Doug Bates has taken through his life and career – education, athletics, college life, military, family, law, business, very ecumenical church involvement, the Knights of Pythias fraternal organization, and community leadership.
Allston Vander Horst presents Douglas T. Bates III with the “Good Scout Award.”
After the dinner, there were 22 speakers – count ’em – who told story after story about their experiences with Bates and his family. It went on until nearly 11 p.m.
It was a combination of a huge tribute to a bona fide leader, a roast of a grand character and maybe a Requiem High Mass for a person we love whose time with us may be shorter than we’d all like.
Douglas T. Bates III is one of seven Bates lawyers – covering five generations – who have practiced law here since 1871. As he has been turning the practice over to his son Bates IV, the father also had a bladder cancer experience and is now coping with Parkinson’s disease. The Bates family has had other challenges, too, including daughter Sarah’s husband B.J. King also dealing with Parkinson’s.
On top of all that, on March 3, a raging storm with 70 miles-per-hour winds thrashed Centerville, and the roof separated from the sidewalls of the century-old Bates law building, which is the anchor on one corner of the town square. The upper portions of the building were so damaged that it had to be evacuated, along with the closest of other nearby buildings, for fear of collapse.
The Bates law building on the corner of the town square in Centerville, Tennessee.
When building inspectors gave the Bateses a couple hours to empty the files, books, equipment and memorabilia of 150-plus years of law practice, townspeople rallied to cart it all to other places for storage. And they got Bates IV office re-established in an available office building a block away.
Work has now started to take the top off the old Bates law building, and try to make it a nice and much more accessible one-story building in its current location. If that doesn’t work, Bates IV said he’ll build a new facility, probably right there.
The damage to the building, where Bates III still had an office to hang out in, threw him into deep grief.
Vander Horst, the party organizer for the Boy Scouts, had to decide whether to continue or cancel the planning and preparations. “I decided this event and a big turnout by his friends might give Doug the lift he needs right now,” he said.
Doug Bates’ gratitude is evident after the remarks by his sister Anne Horner, of Harriman in eastern Tennessee.
The stories were amazing.
They recalled how, on his own initiative, he decided to go to services and spend some time getting to know the people in all Hickman County churches – and there are (or at least were) more than 70 of them. He wrote a weekly series of stories about them, “See You in Church,” in the Hickman County Times. “Sometimes he gave us good reviews,” one pastor said Thursday night, “and sometimes he didn’t.” I recall him telling how a visiting a Methodist district minister was visiting a local church the same Sunday Doug was, and the visitor led the service. The esteemed minister “is by all accounts a good leader and wonderful man,” Bates wrote, “but he can’t preach a lick.”
Douglas T. Bates III, it turns out, has done many things for the people of Hickman County that I was totally unaware of, including raising a few million dollars for good projects.
“Yeah, I’ve done a lot of fundraising over the years, and I’ve learned I’m good at it,” he once told me. “The reason I’m good at it is because I hate doing it so much.”
Ol’ Vanderbilt friends from all over. Front left and right are Berry and Connie Brooks, of Nashville; standing with them are Caryl Privett, of Birmingham AL, and Henry Hecht, of New York City, and the two men behind them are Al Hubbard (with the sweater over his shoulders) from Indianapolis, and Jim Martin, of Franklin TN.
You may be surprised that of the 22 speakers in the Bates tribute, I was the briefest of all, coming closest to the “two minutes & 15 seconds time limit” that Vander Horst insisted on but didn’t enforce. “That’s how long the Gettysburg Address was,” he said, indicating that if that was enough for President Abraham Lincoln it should be enough for all of us, too.
Here’s what I said:
Doug Bates and I have been the closest of friends for 58 years, going back to our freshman year at Vanderbilt University, where he and I bonded as small-town guys – he from right here in Centerville, Tennessee, me from Shenandoah, Iowa.
Three quotes about that:
–Toward the end of our Vanderbilt years, after I’d spent some time in Doug’s home here, his father Douglas T. Bates II said to Doug’s mother Catherine: “I’m afraid much mischief is going to come from this friendship.”
–Years later, after I’d written a Des Moines Register column gushing over how Doug and I had just enjoyed a second-generation confirmation of our friendship – with our families so obviously enjoying each other on a victorious Vanderbilt Homecoming weekend — his mother told us: “You two are the most sentimental old slobs I know.”
–When my son Andrew Offenburger started classes at Buena Vista College in northwest Iowa, he didn’t find close friends as quickly as he’d anticipated he would. About the end of his first semester, he said he wanted to ask me something. “Dad,” he said, “when you first met Bates, did you know right away that he was going to turn out to be your best friend for life?” Deep down, that really pleased me. But here was my answer to him: “Andy, when I first met Doug Bates, I thought he was the biggest nerd I’d ever seen. And I still do!”
But Doug Bates is also one of the best I’ve known in these categories: Man, alumnus, soldier, husband, father, grandfather, citizen, attorney and friend. And he’s the best story-teller in Tennessee history.
K.C. Potter, 83, retired dean and disciplinary chief at Vanderbilt University, is in retirement a Hickman County farmer. Besides seeing us all through Vandy, Potter has been a close friend ever since. When he spoke at the tribute, he wound it up this way, “I love you, Douglas.”
Chuck Offenburger consulting with another Vandy classmate and forever friend Steve Caviness, of Gulf Shores AL.
Now, I began this column today saying the surprise arrival of my wife Mary Riche and me at the Bates’ home was the “second oddest moment” in the long friendship between Doug and me.
Preceptive readers may wonder what the oddest moment was.
In 2009, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s follicular lymphoma. That was starting me down a long road of cancer treatment, which after a near-miraculous stem cells transplant, has turned out O.K. for more than a decade since then. But when I got that diagnosis, I was of course shocked, scared and depressed.
I was really worried about telling my friend Bates. But I summoned some courage, called him one early afternoon and caught him at his office. After quick hellos, I said, “Doug, I’ve got some news and I wanted you to be one of the first I tell this to.”
He said, “All right,” the abruptly stopped and said, “Wait just a second.” I could hear something in the background, and then he said, “(President) Obama is coming on TV to speak right now” about some major news break. “I want to hear this, so let me call you back.” Click. He hung up!
Knowing and understanding Douglas T. Bates III like I do, I laughed out loud and thought, “This is going to be good when it happens.”
A few hours later, my phone rang, I answered and Bates said, “O.K., I’m sorry I pulled away but I wanted to hear Obama.”
I told him my news. Before I was a minute into it, I could hear him moaning, then crying.
“I am soooo sorry,” he said. Pause. “But we’ll find a way to get through this.”
He paused again. Then continued.
“Offenburger,” he said, “the one constant of our friendship over more than 40 years is you continuing to find new ways for me to make an ass of myself!”
Of course, I love the guy.
More of the Bates brigade, left to right: Caryl Privett, great family friend Abby Dansby of Centerville, Chuck Offenburger, granddaughter Kitty Bates, and Al Hubbard.
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