With eye on future, Obion County native reflects on past
Posted: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 9:05 pm By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
“What has changed is the immediacy of the thing. We must do something right now in Washington and the first thing I will do is cut spending — 10 percent cuts across the board in every program and agency.”
So says Union City native son Dr. Ron Kirkland. It is the Jackson physician’s goal to represent Tennessee’s Eighth Congressional District in Washington as a conservative and the choice of GOP voters and others from a range of political allegiances who are concerned about the direction in which the nation has been headed.
Kirkland is one of five Republican candidates asking for the voters’ consideration in the Aug. 5 primary. The others include Stephen Fincher of the Frog Jump community in Dyer County, Dr. George Flinn and Ben Watts, both of Memphis, and Randy Smith of Mercer. The GOP choice will face either state Sen. Roy Herron of Dresden or Kimberlee Smith of Memphis — the winner of the Democratic nod in the primary — and Independents Donn Janes of Brighton and Mark Rawles of Jackson. The final showdown will occur Nov. 2, when voters in the Eighth Congressional District will select the actual candidate to replace longtime Democrat John Tanner of Union City.
Kirkland was born in Union City, the second son of the late Hayden Kirkland and the late Sadie Kirkland. His memories of his hometown are among those he values most.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up. We lived on South Sixth Street and there must have been 30 kids within a couple of blocks. My brother, Bob, was six years older than I was. Just down the street was the Jernigan family. Tommy Jernigan still lives in Union City and he had three sisters. One of them has been among the people I’ve met again as I’ve been on the campaign trail this year. One of the great things about this effort has been rekindling old friendships and making new friends with people who share concerns about the trouble we are facing and want us to go to Washington and get to work right away.”
The future physician and candidate began his education at the former Westover School, which accepted students in first through fourth grades. It was within walking distance of home when he first trooped up the steps and through the front door. But soon, the family moved to what was then the “edge of town” on East Reelfoot Avenue, where the Obion County Public Library sits today. His parents, who owned the former Ben Franklin Store in downtown Union City, would drive him to school from that new home site.
“Westover was a great place to go to school. There was another school in the same neighborhood — the Catholic school that was housed in a sort of Gothic- looking building on South Fifth Street down near Main Street. Ms. Icie B. Pepper Ms. Allen, Mrs. Jack Burchard and Mrs. Mattie Temple were my teachers at Westover. Then, after fourth grade, it was time to go to (the former) Central Elementary. There were the same great people from my Westover class, but then we got to meet new kids who had already been going to Central. I knew some of them from church and other places, but there were also some new ones. I’ll never forget starting band there in the sixth grade in what was the old high school building (since torn down). Mr. Reithel started us out and Union City has had a treasure in Marion Reithel all these years. The sour notes he has put up with,” Kirkland says with a laugh, “but he always hung in there with us and was so positive and affirming and urging us to do our best.”
When his class of 100 or so students moved on to Union City High School (now Union City Middle School) as seventh-graders, they were a tight-knit group.
“We were terrors in the seventh grade,” he recalls. “We had a Mrs. Brandon who was in her first year as a teacher and I think she quit after that. Mr. John Ed Miller was principal and his son and namesake was a big basketball star. The worst thing you could get caught doing in school back then was smoking in the bathroom. That would get you suspended, but some of the junior and senior girls tried it anyway. Other kids would go out to their cars to smoke. One day, someone had done that and their car caught on fire.
“We had remarkable teachers there, too. Mr. Roberts and Mrs. Lucile Thompson and Mrs. Allie D. Pentecost. She was so memorable to me because she ignited a desire to learn. I had been an average student in Algebra I and was on course not to use talents God had given me. A couple of months after I got in her Geometry class, we came in one day and there was a race track on the board. We each got a little car with our name on it. She would give us ‘extra credit’ math problems and if we worked them correctly, our car moved up. Of course, you had to learn Geometry to be able to work the problems. It was a great experience. I developed new skills, learned to face problems and figured out how to solve them and get an answer. It has served me well all these years. Pretty soon I had that car around the track and was laughing at the ones behind me. I even went on to regional and state Geometry contests and did well. I had her again for Algebra II and, by that point, I was turned on to math.”
UCHS chemistry and physics teacher Wilford Gray also has a hold on Kirkland’s memories, as do Agnes Newton, Gertrude Bingham and Monya Sanders.
Out into the world
Graduating in 1962, Kirkland followed in his older brother’s footsteps and took up residence on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
“I didn’t even apply anywhere else. Because of my math background, I started out in engineering, but after a summer working at Oak Ridge laboratories, I decided it was rather isolating and I didn’t want to do that. I turned to Liberal Arts and, frankly, put in a couple of years of non-productive work when I really let things slide.”
By 1965, Kirkland had returned to West Tennessee and enrolled at UT at Martin.
“I did pretty well there and I had some wonderful experiences with a guy named Jimmy Trentham. UTM had an outstanding faculty — especially in the biology department — and it had small class size and teachers whose main objective was to teach students. Meantime, Vietnam was heating up.”
At loose ends in many ways, Kirkland took his new college diploma and enrolled in law school — but it didn’t take long for him to determine that his future did not lie in the courtroom, either. In 1968, he married the former Carol Glasgow, whose family had recently moved to Union City, and in July of that year, he entered military service to his country.
Army Intelligence School in Maryland and language training at Fort Bliss, Texas, were followed by a year of service in Vietnam as a counter-intelligence officer.
“It was a good discipline experience and ultimately it reinforced love of country and appreciation for those who have sacrificed and those who have served, especially in time of war. Many people in Vietnam had far more risky assignments that I did and my hat is off to them — to those who laid it out. Without those veterans, we would not exist as the USA.”
Back home in Union City again, with a wife and a child (Arthur), Kirkland went to work in the family business, but the advent of new shopping experiences exemplified by Gibson’s and Big K were already spelling the end of the local “five and dime.”
“Carol knew I wasn’t happy in what I was doing. We talked about it and I told her I wanted to be part of a profession that helps people. She agreed, so we began praying about it, as we do every major decision, and we talked to our families. They were supportive, so I applied to medical school.”
And was promptly turned down.
“It was because of my college track record. They advised me to go back to college and take the most challenging science courses I could, so I went back to UTM and that was the first time I renewed a relationship with Jimmy Trentham. I found him and asked for a job as a grad student or a teacher and he said he had a position open. I got paid about $3,000 a year to teach biology labs, but I also got to take all my courses tuition-free. It was a demanding schedule, but it was OK. Along the way I took 11 quarter hours and made all A’s, except in the last quarter I got a B-plus in a physical chemistry lab. I reapplied to med school.”
And was promptly turned down.
“This time, I went to work for my brother at one of the new businesses he was opening — the old Shop of John Simmons in Nashville. We moved there because I had taken all the courses I could at UTM. I interviewed and got accepted to grad school at Vandy, but I didn’t have any tuition money so I was working in the summer cleaning and repainting apartments. I did well there, though, and half way through the semester I got a letter saying I had been accepted to med school in Memphis. Our second child (James) was born while we lived in Memphis and our third (William) while I did two years of general surgery primary work in Birmingham. Then it was back to Memphis for three more years of Ear, Nose and Throat specialty work. Our daughter Frances was born there.”
Kirkland completed his residency in 1982 and went to work with an ENT group at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, but two years later, the Jackson Clinic came calling and the six Kirklands packed up and moved north.
Taking on Washington
“My decision to run goes back to my time in the service. I love this country and I think veterans have a special place in their hearts for it — especially if they served in time of war. We are poised to lose our country if we don’t do something right away. We have no time to waste,” Kirkland says.
In a field of several conservative candidates, what separates the former Obion Countian from others who want to take on the Washington challenge?
“Experience,” he says immediately. “It’s the fact that I’ve already held leadership positions. I was commander of the American Legion post in Union City and was sergeant-at-arms for the State of Tennessee American Legion. In medical school, I received the leadership award and I was president of the medical school fraternity. Since coming to Jackson, I’ve been president of the Rotary Club and the UT National Alumni Association. These two are both positions someone comes to through a seven-year ladder of involvement by serving on the board of directors. I was a member of the Jackson Clinic board of directors for 10 years and for five of those I was chairman. And most recently, I’ve spent seven years on the board of the American Medical Group Association. In 2008, I was chairman of the board.”
Kirkland says people in the Eighth District are telling him they are tired of tax and spend solutions. He says they fear the deficits being run up by the nation’s leaders will add to the national debt and destroy the country.
“They know it’s not sustainable,” he says. “I would put us on a simpler footing with a flat tax or a fair tax and I would reduce the size of the IRS by two-thirds or three-fourths. Then I’d dissolve the Department of Education. Education issues need to be returned to the states and to local government.
“Next I’d take on the Department of Energy. They have done us no good at all. The department was supposed to make us less dependent on foreign oil and instead we are more so because of the department’s restrictions. They prevent us from doing so much that would free us from foreign oil, like drilling on our own land. They are the ones ultimately responsible for the mess in the Gulf, because their restrictions pushed drilling so far out in the ocean.”
Turning to taxes again, the candidate contends: “When we cut spending, we can cut taxes. Then we’ll create jobs. We have to get the government out of the way. Government rules and regulations are preventing the growth of new industry in this country. People are just sitting on the sidelines right now waiting to see what will happen next out of Washington. Credit is frozen by new regulations and there will be even more restrictions if this new regulatory bill goes through. It will make it even harder to get loans.”
And then there’s the issue of card check and the unions.
The candidate says: “There is a place for unions, but their workings have to be transparent and the votes they take have to be by secret ballot. When those things don’t happen, it also makes it less likely that new businesses will start up and succeed. We have to make America a great place to start a business. This healthcare bill is another huge negative for America. It is a job killer rather than a job creator. There are so many things we could do positively in the realm of healthcare, such as tort reform and the promotion of the private delivery of care rather than the public side. Government-delivered healthcare will always cost more and this healthcare bill will push us into a single-payer government system.”
the home folks
Sixth Street in Union City in Obion County was a wonderful place to grow up, according to Kirkland. And the gifts he received from his community in his formative years have shaped his life. Today, however, he sees the values he learned here derided by the popular culture, the work ethic he witnessed around him undervalued by those with political power, the opportunity to achieve success with hard work short-circuited by misguided Washington policy and the drain on the public purse hurtling the nation toward disaster. He wants a chance to fix it. He wants an opportunity to alter the course. He is appealing to old friends to help him take the first steps.
Early voting to choose the faces and voices of the major parties will begin July 16 and continue through July 31, with the regular day for primary elections to be Aug. 5. Early voting for the general election, in which candidates from opposing parties will face each other for a variety of local, state and national offices, will be Oct. 13-28, with the regular general election set for Nov. 2.
Registration for the primary election has just passed. The last date to register for the general election is Oct. 4.
Published in The Messenger 7.7.10