Charley Dickey: Renaissance Man

By H. Lea Lawrence

For a long time I didn’t know his name was Charley. To me, it was “Chum.”

The reason for this is that, when my family moved to Morristown, Tenn., in 1944 and I met David Dickey, who became my best friend, he always talked about his older brother, “Chum,” a naval torpedo bomber pilot on duty in the Pacific theater. “Chum” had won the Navy Cross for sinking one of the two largest Japanese battleships. This top honor came in addition to his three Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals. David was immensely proud of him.

But why “Chum”? David says that the nickname originated when he, Charley and his mother moved to Morristown after his father’s death. During the summers when Charley was home from college, he served as an assistant scoutmaster. Not having known any of the kids previously, he called everybody “Chum,” just as others might use the term “Buddy.” Of course, the Scouts turned it around and applied it to him, and it stuck.

The Morristown years were the beginning of many teenage adventures. Charley and a friend, Ben Moore, were fans of Mark Twain. They built a 16-foot, flat-bottomed boat named Sea Biscuit, christened it with a bottle of 7-Up and embarked on the Holston River for points south. This was before most of the Tennessee Valley Authority dams were built. They sailed and paddled through Knoxville and Chattanooga and into Alabama before hitting the biggest reservoirs, where they struggled until the end of summer. They terminated their voyage at the point where the river passes through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. He and Ben sold the boat to some fishermen and hopped freight trains to get back home.

Another summer, Charley worked the wheat harvest in Kansas then moved on to building irrigation ditches in Colorado and working as a ranch hand. When he was home in the summer, which wasn’t often, he worked as a soda jerk, as a laborer unloading produce from railroad cars and as operator of a turning machine at a machine shop. During the first school year, he attended Carson-Newman College at nearby Jefferson City, then he went to the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque to study geology. That’s also where he learned to fly.

When World War II broke out in Europe, Charley wanted to get into the action. America wasn’t involved yet, so he headed for Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. Before he was out of the country, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he got off the train and joined the U.S. Navy. By the time the war ended, Charley had three tours of duty, serving on the Lexington and the Enterprise, flying Grumman Avengers.

After the war, he finished his college work at the University of Tennessee and then worked for two years as assistant state geologist, as the editor of the Robertson County Times and as a reporter for the Knoxville Journal.

In the late 1950s, he went to New Haven, Conn., and worked in customer sales for Winchester. Later he was assigned to Greensboro, N.C., as a sales representative. Next, he was promoted to southern district manager, based in Atlanta, but he was recalled by the Navy to serve in the Korean War before he could assume the position.

Upon returning to the states, he was a reporter for the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun then rejoined Winchester as a field representative for the newly formed Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer’s Institute (SAAMI), where he worked to establish private shooting preserves. He worked in that capacity out of Harrisburg, Pa., Greenwood, S.C., and both Fresno and Shell Beach, Calif.

Meanwhile, SAAMI had transformed into the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and Charley was asked to serve as executive director in New York City and Riverside, Conn.

He resigned that job in 1972 and moved with his wife, Bunty, and her three children from a previous marriage to Tallahassee, Fla., to try full-time freelancing for outdoor magazines. He was a columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat and soon began to win national attention as a writer and photographer. His byline, as well as the byline of Sam Cole, his pseudonym for the back-of-the-book column in Petersen’s Hunting, “Backtracking,” was known to readers across America.

I first met “Chum” when he came home following World War II, but we became best acquainted when he was with Winchester. We hunted and fished together. One of his favorite sports was hunting crows, which he claimed, tongue in cheek, had both Yankee and Southern accents. In 1950, he, David, a friend, Bob Lowe and I spent an unforgettable week on the south end of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That trip never ceased to be a subject of conversation when we were together.

I miss this Renaissance man with the droll humor, partly because our friendship extended back more than 50 years, but also because he was a mentor who helped both David and me get into freelance writing. You should have heard him scold us!

H. Lea Lawrence was born in Hammond, Ind., June 8, 1930, and grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

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