If the walls of the Bridgestone Arena or LP Field could talk, they would not utter a word about the current troubles of the Titans or ask when the hockey lockout will end. They would not speak of trade rumors about CJ or whisper backstage gossip about country music stars.
No, they would tell stories of the passing of a friend, and as fine of a public servant as has ever graced this city. Last week the executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Authority, Emmett Edwards, died. He was 59, taken down by a short, intense battle with lung cancer.
While his job had a formal official title, in reality he was the Mayor of the Arena. His people were the men and women who work at our sports venues and keep us safe at a game or event. They scan your tickets, show you to your seat and clean up after you leave. We mostly look past them, but he didn’t. He didn’t hire or necessarily have the ability to fire them, but he was their friend and advocate, and he wanted the best for them and they knew it.
Edwards was born in Covington, Tenn., graduated in his high school’s first racially integrated class and later attended the University of Tennessee at Martin. He was a student government officer, served the president of the UT system and the chancellor of UT-Martin. His fellow students selected him to serve as the first student from UT-Martin — and the second student ever — on the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees, where he was that board’s first African-American member.
Edwards worked for the late congressman Ed Jones, held management positions at Knoxville’s 1982 World’s Fair as well as positions of great trust under Gov. Ned McWherter, Mayor Bill Purcell and Vice President Al Gore. But there was more to Emmett than a list of high-ranking positions.
On paper Edwards was more accomplished than most, but in person he was even better.
The staff at the arena and LP Field would tell you the same. Most of them probably didn’t know he was a guy who for decades had worked for and with the so-called elites. No, Emmett was 6-foot-4 of hug-for-no-reason other than to let you know you were his friend.
When the word started getting around last week that Emmett had passed, friends started emailing one another for consolation. Here are a few thoughts they shared:
•“My daughter was in a school play a couple of years ago, and towards the end of the production, Emmett shows up, unannounced and unexpected. Shortly after the closing curtain, he presented her a bouquet of lovely flowers. It was a great moment, and she beamed with surprise and happiness. A classic Emmett touch. He was very kind and thoughtful in that way. Always.”
• “The thing I remember most was he was a guy that asked lots of questions about you. He really wanted to know how you were, what you were working on and how he could help. He was never self-centered and never in need of something himself.”
• “Emmett was the best at staying in touch with his network even long after working with someone. I don’t recall him ever asking me for anything, but always offering to assist. Emmett was not a household name, but his influence in his community was far-reaching.”
There were many others who shared similar thoughts and stories, ranging from text messages that came every Christmas Eve to befriending a friend’s wife for the first time at a stuffy political gathering where she knew no one else — and spending three hours sharing bread recipes.
Edwards was genuine in a sometimes disingenuous world.
Throughout his career he worked to make sure that the people of Tennessee and the city of Nashville got the best he could give as a public servant — a calling he took seriously in a time where the idea of public service doesn’t come with the reputation that maybe it should.
He wanted your experience at a hockey or football game to be the best. He wanted you to come back, because he knew that the people who come downtown for a game also come to eat and drink and buy, and provide livelihoods for more than just high-priced athletes.
While his work and impact were not limited to his last job, it is perhaps the one he will be most remembered for.
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch used to wander his city and famously ask, “How am I doing?” Koch got it wrong; Emmett Edwards, the Mayor of the Arena, got it right.
“How are you doing?” was his question. And he meant it.