Golden Grads: Watts’ Family Has Long History of Entrepreneurship in Gleason
By Kathy Williams Lawrence
Special to The Enterprise
Joyce Upchurch Watts was born at home in Gleason, Tennessee, on May 21, 1934, the only child to Louise Stigall Upchurch and Willie B. Upchurch. Her first memory of home was of living in one of the “Section Line Homes,” a row of houses located close to what is now Cox Oil/Stewart Oil. Her family lived there until Joyce was 12 years old, and then they built a house close to the overpass by the clay building called “The Pulverizer.” Joyce had an allergy to all the clay dust, so her family sold that house and built the house that she grew up in (across from Little General Store).
“My father was the best mechanic in Gleason. After working for a local gas station, he bought the Service Station in Gleason and provided for us by being able to fix anything with a motor. He was known in town to be fair and thereby never lacked for business.”
Her mother was known for her ability to “teach” her faith, serving as a beloved Sunday School teacher to countless children at Gleason First Baptist Church. Joyce was inspired to follow in her mother footsteps by being a member and Sunday School leader in that same church for years. Other important influences in Joyce’s life were Mrs. Maxine Taylor Ross, who was one of her Sunday School teachers at First Baptist, along with Mrs. Nelcene Johnson Dunning, who meant so much to her.
Her maternal grandparents were George Wilburn Stigall and Louisa Jane McGehee Stigall. Joyce remembers her grandmother working as a typesetter for Gleason’s only newspaper. Later Louisa worked as a switch board operator at the local phone service located in the top floor of the old bank. Wilburn was well-known all over Gleason as the “knife sharpener,” keeping everyone’s blade in top-notch condition.
“I remember at 6 years old hearing on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. My father said four frightening words for a 6-year-old to hear ‘We are at war.’ I had uncles to lose their lives in that war.”
That same year, Joyce began her school experience at Gleason School, which she remembers being one building with an upstairs and a basement area. It had running water and a bathroom. The heating system was a boiler located in the basement. She walked to school no matter the weather, as there was no bus to pick her up.
Joyce always offered to help her teacher by cleaning the chalk board that was covered in white dust from the day’s lessons. At that time, the principal was Mr. Charles Butler, whose wife, Mrs. Virginia Nealon Butler, was the school librarian. Her favorite teacher was Miss Lottie Garrett (Haskins), who taught third grade. “She was a very kind teacher with a soft voice, and always dressed very neatly. I had Mrs. Virginia (Edmonston) Smith in first grade and Mrs. Opal (Richee) Dellinger in second grade. The lunchroom was in the basement across from our classroom. At lunchtime, the smell of Mrs. Annie Wiseman’s homemade rolls was mouthwatering. I also loved those homemade peanut butter cookies.”
“Every year, school was closed for one month in the fall for cotton picking. Since my father did not farm, sometimes I would be hired out as a farmhand.” Joyce muses, “I was never very good at cotton picking. Usually, my chores were working in the house, ironing, washing dishes, or picking peas.”
Since she lived in the city limits, Joyce remembers fun times visiting her friends who also lived in town – Bobbye Lu Smyth Robison, Peggy Sue Dunn Fanning, and Ruby Frances Trevathan Snider. One of their favorite hangouts the girls enjoyed was the skating rink between McKenzie and Paris. She remembers spending the first money she ever earned on a new pair of roller skates. Joyce and her friends enjoyed the local movie theater located near the old hotel. Another meeting place for youngsters was the “Blue Bird Café,” located close to the Gleason First Baptist Church.
Joyce recalls other local businesses Gleason boasted when she was a girl. “There were two department stores – A.J. Bonds and Brummitt’s Department Store. Every chance we got, my friends and I loved to try on all the hats! Gleason also had two drug stores, run by the Smyth and Terrell families. Gleason even had a jewelry store run by Jim Dunning.”
In high school, one of her best friends was Clara Ruth Fowler Heath. One of her funny memories from those years, “Every Halloween, somehow a wagon mysteriously appeared on the front steps of the school. Even after all those years, never did the principal find out the culprit(s).”
She enjoyed Mrs. Estelle Holmes Bobbitt’s history class, which came to be her favorite subject. Math turned out to be her least favorite. “If it had not been for Lester Bingham’s help in study hall, I would have never gotten through math class. But it was a good thing I listened in class, because as the years rolled on, I had to keep the books first for my father’s business, and then for the restaurant, so those skills came in handy.”
“My favorite sport was basketball. Because Gleason School did not have a gym, we practiced on a dirt ‘court’ on the lawn in front of the school. Mr. Wendell Reed was our basketball coach.”
One summer Joyce worked at Nants’ Mill. Unfortunately, her foot got caught in the belt of a machine, severely cutting her leg. Joyce had to miss basketball for a full year, and still carries the scar of that horrible accident.
Joyce fell in love with the star football player of Gleason High School. “There was not a sport that Junior Watts was not good at. He was the star football player, star basketball player, and any other game that was played at Gleason School. In his junior year, scouts were coming to Gleason to watch him play.”
“Junior was such a great football player, that one night when Junior tore his pants during the game, Coach Flanigan made all the football boys form a circle around Junior and another teammate, James Harold Bradberry, and had them exchange pants so Junior could finish the game. The game just could not be won without Junior Watts.” His love for sports never ended, as he was always watching or listening to whatever game was on the radio or TV.
Joyce remembers feeling those first tinglings of love as Junior used to walk by her house, harassing her dog. Later, as they began to “like” each other, they had their first date, which was going to the movies downtown with another couple.
Joyce remembers proms and socials being held in the school. In her senior year, she was named as the First Maid in the football homecoming royalty. She wore a long blue dress that her mother made by hand. At her 1952 graduation, Joyce gave a speech titled, “What the World Needs is Peace.”
After they married in 1953, Joyce and Junior bought a house next to her parents’ home. “Our first car was an old Studebaker that burned more oil than gas. Junior would pull up at the service station and say, ‘Fill it up with oil and check the gas.’”
Joyce went to work at Kellwood’s, the same factory where her mother worked. She later joined Junior working at Bay B Shoe Factory in Dresden. After their daughters Becky and Susan came along, Joyce quit work at the factory. “Junior worked two jobs so I could stay home with the girls, which was such a blessing for our family.”
One of the two jobs Junior juggled was cooking at the local Dairy Bar. He enjoyed the restaurant life so much that they bought the place. For years, Joyce opened the restaurant in the mornings and Junior closed it in the evenings. Junior’s cheeseburgers became famous for miles around. Their restaurant built a reputation of being the friendliest place with the best food in Gleason.
The Watts built their business until eventually they sold that restaurant and bought another one out on Highway 22. Junior and Joyce named their new restaurant “J & J’s.” Junior’s cheeseburgers were as good as ever. J & J’s would become an institution over the 27 years the Watts owned it. Many young people in Gleason started their working career under the mentorship of Joyce and Junior, who modeled and molded the work ethic many carry today.
Joyce and Junior were married for 57 years until Junior’s death in 2009. Joyce aways loved to read in school, and to this day, still enjoys a good book. Her favorite books tend to be Christian-based. Now she enjoys lunching weekly with lifelong friends at “Simply Southern” restaurant, or having friends visit with her on her porch and share their favorite memories of their long-ago life at Gleason High School. She very much enjoys her children and grandchildren, and sweetly smiles, “I am so blessed that they all still live in this wonderful town.”