WJLE Mourns the Passing of Dr. W.E. "Doc" Vanatta

August 19, 2010
by: 
Dwayne Page
Dr. W.E. "Doc" Vanatta
Dr. W.E. Vanatta Receiving TAB Award in May 2008

He was not one of the familiar voices you heard on WJLE everyday. He never hosted a dee jay show, never served as a play by play announcer for any local sporting events, and never recorded a commercial, but he was a pioneer in local broadcasting.

Today, we at WJLE mourn the loss of Dr. W.E "Doc" Vanatta, the 91 year old founder, former owner and President of WJLE, who passed away Thursday morning at his residence.

The funeral will be Saturday at 2:00 p.m. at the Smithville Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Larry Green will officiate and burial will be at DeKalb Memorial Gardens. Visitation will be Friday from noon until 8:00 p.m. and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. at Love-Cantrell Funeral home and from noon until 2:00 p.m. at the church.

Dr. Vanatta was a Chiropractor and a member of the Smithville Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Dr. Vanatta was ordained as an Elder in 1950 and he had been an assistant Sunday School Superintendent since 1947 and a Sunday School teacher at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He was one of the first members appointed to serve as director on the Smithville Electric System board when the utility was established in 1969 and he remained an active member and Vice Chairman until his death. He was also a talented musician.

Dr. Vanatta was preceded in death by his parents, Jasper and Amanda Elizabeth Estes Vanatta and his first wife, Louise Corley Vanatta. He is survived by his wife, Nell Vanatta of McMinnville. Two daughters and sons-in-law, Jeanne and Donnie Foutch of Old Hickory and Mary and Oscar Boyd of Smithville. Two step-sons, James Timothy and wife Ruth White of Atlanta, Georgia and Gerald Harvey and wife Charlene White of Georgia. Step-daughter, Marilyn and husband Tom Angelo of California. Two granddaughters, Renee and husband Eric Renner of Alabama and Robin and husband Jeremy Mahlow of Knoxville. Five great grandchildren, Camden and Mark Renner of Alabama, Eleanor, John and Oliver Mahlow of Knoxville. Special caregivers, Sherry Brannon, Linda Stahl, Ashley Beth Hobbs, Tammy King, Martha Fults, Rhonda Peet, and Mina Lyons.

Love-Cantrell Funeral Home is in charge of the arrangements. The family requests that donations be made to the Lighthouse Christian Camp and Gideon Bibles in lieu of flowers.

Dr. Vanatta was one of the original owners of WJLE, which was established in 1964, and he remained an owner until 2007 when he sold his interest to fellow partner and co-owner Leon Stribling.

In a 2001 interview with the Smithville Review, Dr. Vanatta explained how he helped bring DeKalb County's one and only radio station to Smithville. "I looked around in the early 1960s and saw we didn't have a radio station in Smithville and I thought, why not? I didn't know much about it, but I had some friends knowledgeable in radio and I assembled those together and we went on the air in April 1964".

In addition to Dr. Vanatta, the other original owners were Franklin H. (Chick) Brown, Aaron and Hal Durham, Dr. C.H. Cope, and Herman Spivey. After the original owners wanted to pursue other avenues, Dr. Vanatta rounded up several prominent local business and civic leaders to buy the station, including W.H. Smith, Jack Smith, McAllen Foutch, Dr. N.R. Atnip, John Bill Evins, and James Herndon. Many of them served on the WJLE board of directors until 1987 when Dr. Vanatta and Stribling bought all of the company's shares.

Dwayne Page, Station Manager, said Dr. Vanatta loved WJLE and it will always be part of his legacy. "Dr. Vanatta loved this station as if it were one of his own children and he took great pride in it's service to the community that he also loved. He enjoyed creating part time jobs for people, a lot of them high school aged students who got their first taste of broadcasting here. The names of them all are too numerous to mention. Some furthered their education in communication and went on to work in radio and television in larger markets. Some chose other fields after their time here. Others, as Doc would often say jokingly, went to "oblivion".

"I will never forget the first day I met Dr. Vanatta in November, 1979. Ralph Vaughn, who was manager at the time hired me but wanted me to meet Dr. Vanatta. After shaking hands with him and exchanging pleasantries, Dr Vanatta looked at me and asked, "Can you Read"?

Doc had a sense of humor and would often jokingly admonish us to always adhere to his credo to "stay on the air", stay in the black (financially), report the news and not make or become the news, and never get scooped by the weekly newspapers."

"Dr. Vanatta did not seek praise for himself but I was very glad to see him honored during the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters 60th Anniversary Gala in Nashville in May, 2008. He received the association's Lifetime Membership Award."

"The award is presented to distinguished broadcasters who have committed to a lifetime of learning, observing, and growing with the industry"

"Although he had sold the station three years ago and had been in failing health in recent months, we still kept in touch and he would sometimes stop by to visit us at WJLE. During our visits, he would often reminisce about good times we had all shared together over the years and reflect on his efforts to always keep the station up to date with the changing technology. After being in the business so long, he missed it when he left."

Born on September 20th, 1918 to William Jasper and Bessie Amanda Estes Vanatta, Willius Eugene Vanatta or "Doc", as he was affectionately known, never knew his father who was originally from Alexandria.

His father had contracted the flu while in the army and passed away. Dr. Vanatta was 10 days old when he attended his father's funeral.

Vanatta grew up in Smithville and graduated from DeKalb County High School in 1937. Thinking he wanted to be an engineer, he attended Tennessee Technological College in Cookeville. But he later changed his mind and decided to become a Chiropractor, so he went to Illinois where he graduated in 1942 from the National College of Chiropractic in Chicago. He practiced with Dr. C.H. (Clyde) Cope in McMinnville for about six months after graduation, then went into the Navy during World War II.

Vanatta, in his Smithville Review interview, recalled his time in the service, " I stayed on an aircraft carrier for 27 months in the Pacific. This aircraft carrier was involved in 10 major engagements and two typhoons. The typhoons were worse than the naval engagements because the typhoons lasted 36 hours and torpedo attacks or kamikaze didn't last but a few minutes. We survived two typhoons, the Phillipines in 1944 and Okinawa in 1945. That was a harrowing experience. That was one time I thought I'd never see DeKalb County again."

After serving in the Navy for four years, he returned to practice with Dr. Cope in 1946 and continued to practice until his retirement in 2000. From 1946 until 1992, Dr. Vanatta's office was in the Walling Arcade in McMinnville. In 1990, Dr. Jeffrey McKinley joined him in practice. In 1992, they relocated the practice to 604 North Chancery Street in McMinnville. Although his office was in McMinnville, Dr. Vanatta would occasionally treat a patient at his home in Smithville.

Dr. McKinley said Dr. Vanatta had been a mentor to him even before he began his practice." He gave me the opportunity to begin my career and has continued to support me. I often time joke with patients that ask about him that Dr. Vanatta stops by the office from time to time just to make sure I am doing it right."

"Dr. Vanatta was always learning and asking questions. Whether it was about chiropractic, computers, or the internet, he was always learning. I was amazed at the anatomy and physiology facts that he could remember."

"On a more personal note, there are two things that he would always do with my girls when they were young and come to visit him at the office. He would keep gum in his desk that came in a long roll, and would let them unroll a piece."

"What he would do that would keep both him and my girls entertained was to place a piece of tape on the back of their hand and leave a length of the tape hanging. My daughter would reach and grab the tape, and pull it off of her hand. But then it was stuck to her finger, so she would pull it off her finger with the other hand. Now it was stuck to another finger. This would go on and on with my daughter giggling and Dr. Vanatta giggling right along with them. This would keep both of them entertained until the "sticky" wore off."

Dr. Vanatta inspired and influenced many people in his 91 years. Perhaps none so much as Ralph Vaughn, former WJLE Station Manager, who worked with him during the 1960's, 70's and through 1985.

Vaughn recently reflected on his time here at WJLE and his association with Dr. Vanatta. "There were many people who greatly influenced me during my 21-year career in radio broadcasting. But, Dr. W.E. Vanatta, whom most of us called "Doc", was the most influential. I really got acquainted with Doc during the almost 15-years that I managed WJLE; from 1971 until mid-1985. He was my boss, but more importantly, he became a friend and a confidant.

Doc was a steady-hand in guiding me during those years; along with direction from the entire WJLE Board of Directors. He was the president. It was Doc that I could really talk to; man to man, heart to heart. He would always listen to my point of view, never condescending or raising his voice. In his always-soft spoken manner, he would express his point of view, never making me feel rejected even when his opinion differed from mine.

During those 15-years while working almost hand-in-hand, Doc and I discussed practically everything from business, politics, personal issues, religion, to the humor found in daily living. He even gave me chiropractic adjustments at his home.

I remember the day, almost like it was yesterday, that I told Doc I would be leaving WJLE to pursue an opportunity with a radio station in Murfreesboro. Tears welled up in his eyes as he responded with, "What would it take to get you to stay? We've given you almost everything at WJLE, except the deed to the property. I would sell you some of my stock if you want it, even finance it for you, because I know that you have always wanted to own a part of WJLE."

In closing, I can honestly say I have never met a man that I believe was more representative of a Christian than Doc. I believe that he personally knew and followed closely in the steps of our Lord Jesus. His integrity, his character, his conversations, and his manner in dealing with others were always on the "high road".

"Doc, in my opinion, was a man among men; someone to model as a mentor, and someone I could count on if needed. I thank God and Dr. W.E. Vanatta for all the sweet memories."

Dennis Stanley, another former WJLE employee and now Administrator of Elections, also remembers Dr. Vanatta fondly. "'Doc was a first class citizen. He was very loyal to the people who worked for him and was always fair and honest. He genuinely cared for people. The time I spent at WJLE in the mid to late 1970s was some of the most enjoyable times in my life. His community and civic contributions may not have always been highly visible, but many of us know firsthand just how much the town will miss him and his service."

Tom Duggin began working at WJLE while still in high school. Today, as editor of the DeKalb County Times, Duggin gives credit to Dr. Vanatta for giving him his start in this business. "Dr. W.E. Vanatta has been a pillar of this community for many years; one that may not always be recognized for what he has done, but one who has done a tremendous amount of work not only for the community itself, but for the citizens who live here. His vision, along with those who worked with him to found WJLE Radio in 1964, brought this community a resource that we have all come to depend on as part of our daily lives.

"On a personal note, I owe a vast amount of credit and thanks to Dr. Vanatta for helping me become the person I am today, both personally and professionally. His willingness to take a chance on a 16-year-old high school kid several years ago led me into a field of work that I have had the opportunity to enjoy for a number of years now. He was more than a friend, but like family to all who have known and worked for him. He will be deeply missed."

Dale Carroll, a current employee of WJLE, remembers Dr. Vanatta as a caring and generous man. "Doc Vanatta was a friend to a lot of people including myself. He gave me a job when I needed one. He was a very kind and caring person. I recall a time when I was in the hospital in Smithville and he came twice to visit me and offered anything he could to help me. It was the encouragement he gave me that mattered the most and I'm thankful to him for that."

"I recall the many emails he sent me. Many of them were funny little jokes
but most of them were of a political nature."

"Many times when he would come by the station for a visit, he'd come back to the control room where I was and lean against the console and tell me how much he appreciated me and sometimes hand me a $20 bill. He'd say this is just a little extra for you, for doing a good job."

"I miss you Doc. And the good thing is, I'll see you again someday", said Carroll

Kathy Crouch, traffic director for WJLE, remembers how Dr. Vanatta welcomed her to the staff in November, 1991. "When I was hired by Dr. Vanatta he said that WJLE employees were a team. I remember him saying, you don't work for me, you work with me, and he always made you feel that way. Doc came by the station almost every day. Sometimes he only stayed for 30 minutes or so and other times, he sat and talked for an hour or two. I got to know him very well. He was a kind man, intelligent, and also very funny. He was one of a kind and he will never be replaced. Doc, for all the advice you gave me, all the times you cheered me up when I was sad, and for being not an employer but a friend, I love you and I will miss you."

Dana Cantrell, the last employee at WJLE hired by Dr. Vanatta , says he values the short time he worked for him. " I was looking for a job and got a call from Ricky Arnold, a WJLE employee at the time, letting me know that they were looking for someone. I applied and spoke with Dwayne and Dr. Vanatta, and as it turns out I was the last person hired before Dr. Vanatta left the station, as owner. Although my time knowing Dr. Vanatta was short, I will always be grateful to him for his valuable advice and encouragement. He was kind and courteous and cared about all the employees who worked for him."

Dora Estes, another WJLE employee and a relative of Dr. Vanatta, also shared a few memories. "Until November 1991 when I started working for WJLE on a part-time basis, Doc was Gene to me as he was the oldest grandchild of William and Dora Estes and I was the youngest. During the years prior to that, Doc was the cousin that taught the Wednesday night Bible study I attended, the elder who served communion along with my father, and the neighbor that my father loved to visit. After I began working at WJLE, he became Doc to me as he was to all of the other employees. He was a good and fair boss and was open to all of the latest technology. He and I went to McMinnville to buy the first computer and software for the station. After this purchase, he bought the first of many personal computers as he loved the Internet and the knowledge that he would have access to it. "

"After I started working at WJLE, I realized just how much Doc was like my father. I told him that again recently when I visited with him and said that this was the highest honor I could pay him. "

Dr. Vanatta was a man of faith, a deeply religious man. For many years, he was an active member of the Smithville Cumberland Presbyterian Church. E.H. Denman, Jr., a former minister there, said Doc was always very supportive of him and the church. ‘When I first came (in 1973) he let me know that anything I wanted to do, he was confident that he could stand behind me and help do it and he did all the way through my years here. I found out that he was the most influential man in the church but that he wanted to do what was good for the church. He always agreed with me on what I felt was good and I usually always agreed with him. When it came to raising money for buying property and building a building that we built and a lot of things like that, he would always say,"make me chairman of the finance committee because I'm going to give a considerable amount of money and I'll tell a couple of other men in the church that are able to give and this will enhance their giving so let me be chairman of the finance committee". He said "I want to work with you every way I can" and he was very cooperative with me. And in the session meetings, I felt like he was very willing to cooperate with everybody else too. He was just good natured and a good man who was very faithful to the church, very faithful to his friends, just a good solid man you could count on who wanted to do the right thing and the thing that was best for the church and best for the community."

In addition to his involvement with the radio station, Dr. Vanatta served his community in other ways. Both he and John Robert Nixon were among the very first men appointed to serve as directors on the Smithville Electric System board when the utility was established in 1969 and over the past 41 years both men have remained on the board with Mr. Nixon serving as chairman for the entire 41 years and Dr. Vanatta as Vice Chairman for 40 years. They were recently honored by SES for their service to the city and the utility.

In reflecting on his service to Smithville Electric, Nixon said Dr. Vanatta always had the best interest of the utility at heart. "We have worked very closely together and I have always found Dr. Vanatta to be one of the finest, honest, caring persons that I have ever come into contact with. He was an excellent board member and for the right purpose which was good service, at the lowest price. He was always for the right thing. He did not care for accolades for himself or for anybody except the people of Smithville. He was very concerned about people that was less fortunate than some of the rest of us. I think he was a complete man, an honest person. A person who had integrity. If he couldn't help you, he certainly would not harm you in any way. I don't know of anybody in all of these years that I have been associated with Dr. Vanatta that has ever said a bad word about him. He was always very positive. He was honest as the day is long and would do anything for anybody that he could."

"When we started Smithville Electric System all we got was a debt and a manager. We didn't get any frills of any type. Money was tight. We had to borrow an extra quarter of a million dollars before we ever got this thing going back then. They had an old typewriter in the office that was terrible. They needed to buy a typewriter. It was only going to cost three hundred to four hundred dollars. I remember Dr. Vanatta saying to the office staff, if you need a typewriter, then you need to get a typewriter, but we've only got a limited amount of money so you had better prioritize whatever that is because we can't buy two or three things, we'll just have to buy one thing at a time. That's where we started. We just didn't have enough money hardly to get along. In fact, the city let us have an old wore out police car for the manager to drive around over town. I give Dr. Vanatta a lot of credit for the success of Smithville Electric. He was my good friend and I'll certainly miss him."

Dr. Vanatta loved music and was a talented musician. Donnie Kelly, former minister at the Smithville Church of God remembers Doc's musical abilities with the saxophone.

"When you think about "Doc" as most referred to him, you think about a devoted Christian, a student of God's word, a family man, a successful business man, a good neighbor and friend. When you think about Doc you think about a caring doctor who would go out of his way to care for his patients. Certainly Doc is to be remembered in each of these ways. However, I was privileged to know him in a way that many did not. I knew him as a skilled and talented musician."

"I will never forget the day when Doc met me at the Smithville Church of God to rehearse for a performance at a special fellowship gathering at The Presbyterian Church. He had asked me if I would accompany him on the keyboard. He came into the church carrying a case that had seen a few years. When he took the saxophone out of the case it was obvious that the instrument was not new. I did notice how carefully he held it and even took a cloth out of the case to wipe it down. A special appreciation was visible as he held the instrument. After tuning up, Doc blew a few notes and I immediately began to appreciate how well he could play. He told me that he had not played in a while but it didn't take long before melodious sounds of music filled the church. After that day Doc and I played many times together: church fellowships, revivals, senior activities and sometimes just when we could find the time to jam."

"I was able to learn and appreciate some very outstanding attributes about Doc during those times. He loved music. Maybe that was the reason for his ownership of WJLE. He always gave his best. He always wanted to rehearse until he felt we were prepared to perform. Doc never did anything in a haphazard way. If we ever did mess up (how could we with all the practice) he would just laugh. He was never selfish. He would always insist that I would play a verse or two even when it was his show. Doc was like that. He loved doing things he felt would bring pleasure and enjoyment to other people. With all the great memories I have, I guess the most memorable is after we would play one of those beautiful Christian songs: "He Touched Me", "Amazing Grace", or "Just a Closer Walk with Thee", Doc would just hold that old saxophone and you knew that the music had come from his heart in worship. His music had just expressed his love for his Lord."

"My life was touched and inspired by this great man and his many talents. Doc was my musical friend."

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