Luke Hall had a name like a hero in an old Western — simple, strong and uncompromising. It was fitting.
He could be tough if you crossed him, and he suffered no fools. But, if he liked you, Luke was the best friend and ally a man or a woman could have.
Luke held the firm belief that there might be a lot of good singers and even more mediocre ones in this old world, but Hank Williams was the best. What was the point, then, of listening to less than the best? So he didn’t. Not much, anyway.
He loved dogs. He was partial to a few breeds: the Belgian Bouvier, schnauzers, corgis. He wasn’t a purebreed snob, however — anything but. He loved almost any old dog that came into his life, from a three-legged beagle to numerous mutts of mystery origin. He couldn’t stand to see a homeless, hungry stray. In a county with no official humane shelter, Luke’s home served. And it wasn’t just dogs he loved. For over three decades he owned a chatter-happy bird named Baby.
He had interesting friends, to say the least. When Luke and his beautiful wife Sue celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, the mysterious Prince Mongo from Memphis — and the Planet Zambodia — showed up to help celebrate. Mongo, barefoot and flamboyant as usual, but always the gentleman, shielded the arriving local ladies from rain with his umbrella.
Luke cooked amazing turnip greens and red beans and rice and had a drink of Crown Royal at the end of the day. He loved true-crime books, American-made pickup trucks, old Cadillacs and antiques, especially fine clocks. At any given moment, one of the hundreds of clocks he’d collected and made shine would be chiming, ticking, tocking.
He judged junk emporiums by the price of old Ball canning jars, figuring their prices were a bellwether for everything else in the store. It was just one trick Luke had up his short sleeves. After retirement, he seldom wore neckties, dress shirts or an overcoat.
Luke might drive hundreds of miles in a single day to auctions or estate sales, always looking for the unusual bargain. Speaking of driving, he did his share. He left the Mississippi farm for Memphis at age 14. He worked as a bicycle delivery boy and at other odd jobs before becoming a Memphis bus driver and beginning his long and distinguished career in urban transit.
After heading the bus drivers’ union in Memphis, he rose through the ranks and became international vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, a labor organization that represented 190,000 working people — everyone from bus drivers to baggage handlers — all over the U.S. and in Canada. Luke was a tough negotiator and had war stories he liked to tell you, if he liked you.
No matter how often or where he traveled, Luke kept his Mississippi Hills accent and down-home manner. His professional position was to him just another way to help those who were where he’d once been, and he never, ever forgot. He was honest, fearless and funny.
He mowed his own yard, shampooed his own carpets, clipped his own dogs and vacuumed the house every day for his true love, Sue. Despite major success, the most important thing to him remained family — Sue, three devoted children and three adoring grandchildren. Luke might kid them all mercilessly, but at day’s end, he was in their camp.
My neighbor and good friend Luke Hall died Monday of cancer. He was at home, surrounded by family, dogs, creatures great and small who loved him.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.