There are many words that could be used to describe R. Jack Fishman, and community notables took advantage of Thursday’s roast to share a few of those that could be revealed in a public setting.
Participants included former Hamblen County Mayor David Purkey, who served as master of ceremonies; Father Louis “Smokey” Oats, priest at All Saints’ Episcopal Church from 1989 to 1999; Roland Zitt, retired president of MAHLE; Randy Corlew, executive engineer for the Morristown Industrial Development Board and James Craine, senior member at Craine, Thompson and Jones, who serves on a number of community boards with Fishman.
Oats caught Fishman’s attention while being interviewed for his position at All Saints’ — by raising a hand to silence Fishman and thereby immediately being confirmed by the search committee, he said.
“He was clearly not used to seeing the hand,” Oats said.
Oats included the story of leading one of his first services at All Saints’ during which a particularly festive song was played; and as the procession headed toward the exit doors — a procession that included Oats and Fishman — Oats’ daughter, Jessica, then a second grader, began to dance on a pew. Oats, chagrined at the potential affront to his new congregation, attempted to shush her as they passed.
Fishman grabbed the new priest by the robe, according to Oats’ re-telling, and said, “If you could get all the blue hairs in here to do that, think what this place would be.”
“His love, his absolute love for this region, is surpassed only by his love for Nancy and his family,” Oats said. “He has worked tirelessly on behalf of our community; he knows what needs to be known and when it needs to be known and is always ready with the right answer, the right connections, the right solution … He has led the charge, over and over, to make this place, in which we live and move and have our being, what it is: by being a driving force in our state and in our nation; and what it is becoming: better educated, more prosperous, better connected and more diverse.”
Oats said Fishman epitomizes a statement by Booker T. Washington: “There is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, pure, simple and useful life.”
One speaker not on the official roster was Fishman’s grandson, Lucas.
Lucas revealed that Fishman, whom he refers to as papaw, does indeed change out of his business suit at home, only to “lounge around” in casual business attire. The lounging around typically includes reading emails on his laptop, Lucas said.
One of Lucas’ favorite stories came from his teenage lawn-mowing days, when Jack drove him, along with a trailer and lawnmower, to the Tribune offices where Lucas admitted “there wasn’t a lot of grass.” During the return trip, Jack and the company vehicle he was driving became mired in the Fishman’s back yard and demonstrated Jack’s never-give-up mindset. Lucas and his business partner, Jonathan Shockley, escaped into the house where they could laugh out loud and watch papaw “spin tires, make ruts in the yard and get mud everywhere.”
Zitt and his wife, Kenny, celebrated 38 years of marriage on Thursday, leaving him in a generous frame of mind.
He thanked Lucas for revealing “the person we know is in there, but we really don’t see.” He also claimed that Jack spent more time at his MAHLE retirement party talking about Kenny than the honoree.
“Instead of praising all the wonderful work I’ve done for this community, he couldn’t stop talking about my wonderful wife,” Zitt said.
“We know him, behind his back, as a bulldozer, gruff, not taking no for answer,” Zitt said, adding that Jack always started conversations with the words “I need you to …”
Zitt described Jack’s wife, Nancy as beautiful, sensitive, graceful and charming — “She makes it so much easier to accept Fishman,” he said.
His first encounter with Jack was during a surprise visit in 1976 to the top brass at MAHLE’s corporate headquarters in Germany, accompanied by former Gov. Ray Blanton, former Morristown Mayor John Johnson, and First Tennessee Bank President, the late Dwight Nelson.
“He convinced them that while Morristown had nothing to offer in tax incentives, it had a lot to offer as a community for industry,” Zitt.
Zitt said the average of 1,100 employees at MAHLE over the past 42 years translates to $2.5 billion in payroll contributions.
“If you combine that with all the industry represented, or that should be represented here tonight, pretty much everybody here has a job because of Fishman. Every manufacturing job triggers nine associated jobs in the community. If you do the math, without Jack Fishman, we wouldn’t be here,” he said.
In a dramatic moment during the roast, Purkey submitted to the audience an incident that he said is disputed to this day.
Purkey bolstered a longtime claim that he saved Nancy Fishman’s life during a taxi ride in London, by opening his arms to her as she was thrown out of the seat opposite his when the driver suddenly hit the brakes. Jack took umbrage with the claim and has insisted in the years since that his wife’s life was never in danger.
“This is a point of great controversy that still exists between Jack Fishman and myself,” Purkey said.
Corlew told a number of stories about industrial recruitment, including the fact that Jack could accurately predict the weather on any given day.
One particular company representative enjoyed getting under Jack’s skin, as Corlew described it, and insisted on touring some unusual spots in Hamblen County during a visit: the city’s wastewater plant, Morristown Housing Authority units and all of the existing landfills.
“Do you know where the hell these things are?” Corlew quoted Jack as saying, since they were not part of standard tour plan for the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce.
Craine ended the succession of roasters, describing his 30-plus years of work with Lakeway Publishers that began immediately after his graduation from UT in three, concise words: “It’s been hell,” he said. He described typical vacations as being interrupted by Jack via hotel staff, long before cell phones came on the scene.
Craine said the self-appointed “aviator” term carried by Jack was revealed to him on the first flight on the Tribune corporate plane, dubbed “Air Fishman” and piloted by Captain Billy Chandler. Craine added that Jack does not have actual flight credentials.
Craine questioned the fact that there was just one pilot on board, to which Jack replied, “Don’t worry. I’ve watched him a thousand times. I can put it on the ground, I’m sure.”
“In all seriousness, I love you. And thank you,” Craine said.