photograph by Amie Vanderford
This guy gets around. You’ll spot him in alleyways and parks, on riverboat decks and tour buses. One day he may be telling tales to the student body at Memphis University School (his alma mater), the next he’s regaling retirees at Wesley Highland Terrace, where he says the residents tell him, he’s “more popular than Bingo.”
His schedule — neatly hand-lettered on a creased piece of paper — reveals few gaps of unclaimed hours. In 2011 alone, he gave 281 talks and tours. He shrugs off the idea of keeping his appointments on an iPad, saying, “I didn’t get cable or the Internet till three years ago and I’ve had the same cell phone 11 years.”
Meet Jimmy Ogle, whose official title is community engagement manager with the Riverfront Development Corporation, where he serves as the city’s liaison with the Great American Steamboat Company, owners of the American Queen. But on his lunch hour, weekends, or during a spare niche of time, Ogle can be found speaking to anyone who’ll listen about the history and lore of his native city. And a whole lot of folks listen. Whether he’s holding forth on “the origins and oddities of local streets and bridges,” or pointing out the designs and purpose of manhole covers at his feet, he holds attention with flair and a rich knowledge acquired over decades. “I get out a lot and wander,” says Ogle. “I’m a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all, and everything I ever did before brought me to this.”
“Everything” includes learning sports stats he’d devour as a boy growing up in East Memphis. “I’d memorize averages and percentages and lineups,” he says. “And my older sister, Linda, said if it hadn’t been for the sports page of The Commercial Appeal I’d never have learned how to read.” He gradually earned his B.S from the University of Memphis — “I did it on the 10-year plan,” he says with a smile — while working in recreation programs at First Baptist Church and later at the Memphis Parks Commission. He started there as special events supervisor and ultimately became the system’s deputy director.
“Everything I get into is kinda like the Forrest Gump philosophy,” says Ogle. “Something good’s gonna come from it.” Certainly that’s true of Ogle’s management jobs from 1985 forward — at Mud Island, the Memphis Queen Line, Beale Street, and the Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum. “You had to really know your story,” he recalls, “and all those years of memorizing stats, [audiovisual] programs, and a million facts — they’re just part of who I am today.”
“It’s a world that dates back more than 100 years . . .”
In 2008, while employed in operations for the Ericson Group marketing company, Ogle wasn’t giving daily talks or tours and discovered how much he missed them. Knowing he could still work them into his schedule, he approached the Center City Commission — now called the Downtown Memphis Commission — “and I pitched all sorts of things. I’d throw anything at the dartboard to make it stick. They weren’t interested.”
Then he came up with a novel idea sparked from years of riding his bike and walking the streets and seeing the ornamental manhole covers around downtown. “They’re round, square, rectangular, with rosettes, florettes, and hexagonal patterns,” says Ogle, “and they have seven different uses — telephone, water, gas, storm drains, traffic signals, electrical, plumbing.” Between Danny Thomas and the river, and between A.W. Willis and G.E. Patterson (formerly Auction and Calhoun), the roving raconteur discovered 2,000 slabs of metal that were beautifully crafted by foundries around town.
"I'm a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all, and everything I ever did before brought me to this." -Jimmy Ogle
Knowing he couldn’t include all 2,000, he developed a 40-minute tour that stretched down Union Avenue between Riverside and The Peabody. The Commission agreed to the Great Union Avenue Manhole Cover & History Tour, which, Ogle explains, opens a huge network of utilities below the surface of Memphis streets, alleys, and sidewalks. “It’s a world that dates back more than 100 years,” he adds, “and it has kept our city running.”
The Commercial Appeal got wind of the event and Ogle met the photographer near some manhole covers. “The next day they ran four big pictures,” says Ogle, “and 90 people showed up for the tour. After that, the Commission told me, ‘Do whatever you want.’”
Ogle soon created several free public walking tours on Tuesdays and Saturdays. “I’ll do Court Square, Beale Street, Cotton Row, the Shelby County Courthouse. I’ll take folks down Adams, Jefferson, Monroe. People really enjoy walking along, seeing old buildings and learning what was there then and what’s there now.”
“Nobody does the variety I do.”
Last fall, a new event was launched: the November 6th Street Tour — a street whose name commemorates the day in 1934 when Memphians voted in favor of the Tennessee Valley Authority power system, This tour, with 27 turns over 17 streets and a few alleys to boot, drew 116 people. “We were within eyesight of all tall buildings and major thoroughfares and could see parks and plazas, the river, statues, urban art pieces,” says Ogle, “so it’s a wonderful way to learn about downtown.”
Another urban feature that appeals to Ogle, though it’s not included in his tour lineup, is the Gayoso Bayou. Made up of slippery tunnels beneath the city, the “bayou” was a natural drainage canal when Memphis was founded in 1813. Though it’s generally off limits except to city engineers, Ogle holds lectures about the historic waterway and describes it as “the last great downtown adventure.” And that 11-year-old cell phone he owns? “It survived being dropped in the Gayoso Bayou.”
"People really enjoy walking along, seeing old buildings and learning what was there then and what's there now." - Jimmy Ogle
Often Ogle is invited to be a step-on guide downtown for motorcoach tour companies visiting from out of town. And while he gives credit to other guides or groups, he takes unabashed pride in what he offers: “Nobody does the variety I do.”
Asked if a question had ever stumped him, Ogle shrugs and says, “Yeah, but that doesn’t bother me.” What bothers him is people who are too lazy to look up answers to questions themselves. “And some will actually say, ‘Will you give me a copy of your notes?’ No. They can take notes from my tours or lectures, but I’m not handing mine over.” He explains that it took 15 hours of walking city streets and 300 hours to build a PowerPoint presentation for a continuing education class he has given at several institutions: “That’s a lot of work, and I’ve got to be protective.”
“It’s a real honor to talk to people about Memphis.”
Ogle’s favorite tour is on the American Queen Line. Readers may recall the vessel’s arrival at the revitalized Beale Street Landing in April, when the Great American Steamboat Company established its home port here. The American Queen, billed as the largest paddlewheel steamboat ever built, makes several voyages each year from such cities as New Orleans and St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. “It’s a real honor to talk to people about Memphis,” says Ogle. “They come from the West Coast, the East Coast, and whether it’s about our history or music, I can really get into it. And I wear a double hat with them, “he adds, “because when they land, in my role with the [Riverfront Development Corporation], I’m in charge of their docking and operations on the ground.”
Ogle credits the RDC for allowing him to continue his speaking engagements and tours while developing new ones for riverfront parks. “I can make my own bookings,” he says, “but still be available for the RDC business” — like the 43 Hard Hat tours of the Beale Street Landing construction site he gave earlier this year.
Another big plus about the American Queen, he adds, is how Ogle rewards himself after a tour. “The boat has a 24-hour snack shop and my room is just seven doors down from the self-serve chocolate ice cream machine!”
“He lost a leg, not an arm!”
Ogle also ushers history fans on field trips to nearby counties, and nature lovers to the Old Forest Trail in Overton Park. And if he’s not on far-flung excursions or wandering down streets, he’s standing at podiums or sitting at head tables. Now and then, he admits, he’s a little uncomfortable. While giving a talk to the General Nathan Bedford Forrest chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, he told the audience, “I really don’t like being here. Y’all know more about this than I do. You’ll kill me!” The presentation went well, says Ogle, except for one detail. “J. Harvey Mathes was an editor of the newspaper then,” Ogle explains. “He’d gotten engaged before the Civil War, and in telling about him, I said he lost an arm in the war and was worried about coming home to his bride.” A member of the audience quickly set him straight, saying, “He lost a leg, not an arm!” The person who spoke up happened to be Mathes’ great-grandson, explains Ogle, “and I said, ‘Why don’t you finish the story?’” Laughing about the incident now, Ogle says he’d seen Mathes’ armless bust at Confederate Park prior to the luncheon and that image caused “my mouth to disconnect from my brain. But it also helped me find an interesting source,” he adds, “Mathes’ relative.”
Sometimes Ogle receives calls from out-of-towners asking for customized tours, and one came from a couple who lived in Greenwich Village. “I could tell from the start it would have an Elvis bent to it,” says Ogle, “and that they were sincere in their interest.” In addition to showing them such sights as Lauderdale Courts and Humes High School (where the King lived and attended school), “I took them to see certain photos I had collected over the years, and to visit George Klein in his Graceland Sirius studio.” Of particular interest to the wife was Plastic Products Record Plant, at 1746 Chelsea, which mastered many of the early Sun, Stax, and other record labels. She was so impressed by this gem, says Ogle, that she donated $2,000 for a commemorative plaque, which will be dedicated on August 17th at 9 a.m.
“You’re ham enough. You’re in.”
With a website that claims his motto is “have mouth will travel,” Ogle says that mouth got him in trouble as a boy. As a kid in church he’d sit and chatter on the back row, and it never failed that when the family got home from church the phone would ring with “some busybody in the choir loft” reporting his behavior. He’d hear his mother say, “Jimmy talking again?” Then: “Jimmy, go to your room!”
But his gift of gab, not to mention his love of history and dedication to research, has not only shaped his reputation as a solid tour guide; it also landed him an acting job with historic Elmwood Cemetery Costume Players. “They were there at Court Square one year with their Costume Twilight Tour. I went to the director and said, ‘I’d like to be in that tour,’ and he said, ‘You’re ham enough. You’re in,’” recalls Ogle, who got the role of a railroad engineer.
During rare moments away from his “hobby” or his real job with the RDC, Ogle works in time to see his family — his mother, two brothers, and one sister, who all live in the area and who show up for some events in T-shirts bearing the slogan “Team Ogle.” He recently made a trip to Knoxville to see his grandchildren, Macie Lynn, age 4, who calls him Pops O, and James Ogle III, born June 29th. And he finds time to serve as scoreboard operator for the U of M’s men’s basketball, and on the stat crew for the school’s football team, while also serving as an instructor at Rhodes College’s Meeman Center for Lifelong Learning.
He’s garnered a few awards along the way, including serving as Honorary Duckmaster for a day at The Peabody, receiving the Harcangel Award from the Highland Area Renewal Corporation for the many tours and lectures he’s given in that area, and being named 2011 Volunteer of the Year by the Memphis Charitable Foundation and The Blues Ball.
Not bad for a guy who makes a living and pursues a pastime doing exactly what he wants to do. “I’ve always been good on my feet,” says Ogle. “And I love learning new things.” Sharing what he’s learned with others has become more than just a hobby. Says Ogle: “It keeps me going.”