By Ron Jennings
My Grandfather, Thomas William Light who was once the Johnson City Plumbing inspector when he was in his 80’s, started helping his father plumb buildings in Johnson City around 1910. Papaw was born in 1895. He served a stent in the army, F Company, 45th Infantry, 9th division. Around 1918 his Infantry boarded a train in Atlanta, Georgia and traveled to Montgomery Alabama. It was there that he refined his skills to become a professional, licensed plumber.
Many of the buildings in downtown Johnson City had their initial plumbing installed by Papaw. I recall the Kings Building and the Sears building in particular being two of the ones he talked about most often. Papaw met the love of his life, Stella Kate Gosnell, married her and had 13 Children. The last two children that were born were twin brothers, Ronald and Donald.
Memaw gave birth to all her children at home with the help of a midwife. On this particular day, she was about to give birth to her 12th child on the couch in her living room. Papaw was nervously waiting outside on the porch. As the midwife was cleaning her up, pains hit Memaw again in her stomach and to the surprise and shock of the midwife and Memaw she gave birth to her 13th child. As the two boys were being cleaned up, Memaw seemingly in desperation told one of the midwives to fetch Tom, quickly. Papaw, not knowing yet that he had twin sons ran to Memaw’s side. He asked her if she was alright. She said, “Tom, lean down here, a little closer.” At that point she slapped him across the face and said, “You old goat, when they start coming in twos, I quit. You ain’t touching me again.” From what Memaw told me, from that point on, he never did. They were married nearly 60 years.
Uncle Ronald and Donald became professional boxers, making the headlines in the local paper on several occasions. They joined the Navy where they continued their boxing career. When they return home Papaw had turned his plumbing skills into a thriving Plumbing Company. He convinced Uncle Donald to help him in the business. They along with Donald’s older brother Roy became very well known throughout the Upper East Tennessee area, especially when their business spread into the Kingaport area.
As a veteran, papaw became well acquainted with the folks at Mountain Home. They liked his work so well that at one time they employed him there to be their plumber where he worked for 50 cents an hour plus room and board. I wrote all of this to lead up to this amazing, once in a lifetime experience. About 1910 papaw as a teenager helped put in the plumbing at a Residential Building at the V.A. It was the building directly behind the lab. About 1975 the residential building was being tore down. His son Donald was with him on the day the V.A. decided to start taking out the plumbing. Papaw having authority over the plumbers on the construction site that day turned to the foreman and instructed them to let his son Donald take the plumbing out, letting them know, “I put this plumbing in this building in 19 and 10 and I want my son to take it out these 65 years later!”
Uncle Donald reminded me of this story last fall as he and my Aunt Beverly were visiting my baby brother Thomas (yes, named after my grandfather) and his wife Alonda in Chuckey. Thomas is also an Army Veteran (28 years) so he and Uncle Donald had a lot to talk about. Oh yea, although I’m not a veteran I was named after Uncle Ronald, Donald’s twin. Just had to slip that tidbit in. Last memory about plumbing, papaw helped many times with plumbing at the Shamrock store on Buffalo street (which as of this writing has been there about 90 years) where he would take me as a boy and buy me a delicious Mellowdew ice cream cone.
A business (grocery store) on Magnolia was built and ran by our Aunt (great aunt) Viola Maine and her husband Fate Maine. They opened about 1950. Uncle Donald helped them stock the shelves for the 1st time. It became a booming business known as Maine Grocery. Aunt Viola was Papaw’s (Thomas Light) sister-in-law. Their original house is still standing at the corner of Magnolia and not sure of the cross street. It’s just up from the golf course.
Thank you Uncle Donald for sharing this Amazing story of the Father and Son plumbers. R.I.P. papaw, your plumbing legacy lives on here in Johnson City, in 2019.