JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Bob Cooper remembers one of the most recent times he saw fellow 1962 Science Hill High School alum Joe Biddle. He’d just entered a room at a class reunion, and he didn’t even need to see Biddle to know the renowned sports journalist was holding court.
“It was obvious that Joe was there, ’cause he was over in one corner and he had a crowd around him, and he was obviously telling a good story,” Bob Cooper said.
That gift of gab took Biddle far in the world. He returned from a four-year Air Force stint that took him to active duty during the Vietnam War, went back to East Tennessee State University and found his ultimate calling in journalism.
“I remember our son hearing him on the radio talk show he had,” said Cooper, who lived in Franklin at one point. “I think I got a couple extra brownie points once I told my son that we grew up together, because he was pretty impressed with Joe’s knowledge about sports.”
Biddle, who lives in the Nashville area and has a closetful of journalism awards to his credit, is needing every friend he can get right now. Biddle began showing signs of dementia a couple years ago, and recently a neurologist got more specific with his diagnosis — Lewy body dementia.
“It’s getting more and more difficult physically,” Biddle’s younger sister Sally Heydel said of the efforts of Joe Biddle’s wife of 45 years, Sharon, to care for Biddle at home. So Sharon Biddle has begun researching long-term care facilities — and learned that because of COVID-19 and waiting lists, the VA isn’t currently able to accommodate Biddle.
But even Tennessee Sportswriter’s Hall of Fame journalists aren’t typically getting wealthy plying their craft, and long term care costs thousands of dollars a month.
Several weeks ago, Heydel’s husband suggested she consider a GoFundMe effort, and on Oct. 28 the “I Back Biddle” link went up on the internet. The goal was ambitious: to raise $95,000, enough to guarantee admission and a couple years’ cost for a private care center.
The campaign’s results have been staggering, and they’ve included plenty of support from his friends “back home.” Tom Hager is another of those and also a fellow Vietnam veteran.
“When you look at the list of people who’ve donated there were people who’d given $18 all the way up to $20,000,” said Hager, who graduated a year after Biddle and was a varsity basketball player with future NFL quarterback and SEC football coach Steve Spurrier.
“I think that just shows what kind of guy he is,” Hager said. “As far as I know even in his profession he was a pretty well-liked guy because he was a straight shooter in his reporting.”
“I’m amazed, actually,” Heydel said. “I don’t think I ever really expected that.”
The I Back Biddle effort was nearing its goal and had 500 donors and 1,200-plus shares at 5:30 p.m. on Veterans Day. It can be accessed here.
‘A classic extrovert’
Sally Heydel is 10 years her half-brother’s junior. She told News Channel 11 that Biddle’s dad died of polio when Biddle was 2. Their mom remarried and had two more kids including her, and the family grew up in Johnson City, settling in the Tree Streets around the time Biddle was entering high school.
“He’s always been very outgoing,” Heydel said. “Great sense of humor, just a great guy to be around.”
Heydel remembers her brother bringing her a nice piece of jewelry he picked up in Bangkok during stint of leave when he was serving in Vietnam. And she said he’s stayed proud of his service.
“He’s proud of the fact that he’s a Vietnam vet. In fact, yesterday he had on his Vietnam vet hat that he wears a lot.”
Heydel said it’s tough to confront the irony of her brother’s illness. A man who made his living with words, both written and spoken, and traveled the country covering Super Bowls and Masters tournaments exhibited his first symptoms verbally.
“He was missing words — he wouldn’t find the words he was looking for,” Heydel said. “Sharon (Biddle’s wife) knew too. He wouldn’t go see anybody and I finally talked him into seeing a neurologist.”
Heydel’s recollections of Biddle as wordsmith extend all the way back to when she was a young girl and he sent letters from Vietnam. She said she’s written a note in her prayer book about the sad irony of dementia’s robbing Biddle of something so deep-rooted in his personality.
“For somebody who has lived his life and made his living off of using words, that’s got to be pretty hard,” she said.
“It’s hard for him to have a conversation now, and some days are better than others.”
Fellow Vietnam vet Hager said he took note of one comment on the GoFundMe page from a donor who referenced Biddle’s “columns, voice on the radio, and your attempt to do impersonations of Spurrier and Majors (former UT football coach Johnny).”
“He had quite a following on his radio show,” Hager said.
He said the two never discussed the war. “Most of us guys from Vietnam didn’t have much conversation about it, but he did serve and from what I gather was proud of his service, which he should be.”
Hager remembers Biddle following the Hilltoppers basketball team when Hager was on the varsity under coach Elvin Little. “He was very supportive of those of us who did play basketball,” he said.
“I just remember a pretty fancy dresser in our day,” he added. “Still later, with that white hair when you would see him at these games he was a pretty fancy dresser.”
More than that, Hager, Cooper and Heydel all commented on Biddle’s genuine goodness.
“Joe was one of those guys that fit in everywhere,” Cooper said. “I mean, I think he was voted most friendly in our high school class and he literally was.
“Every time I ran across him and we had an opportunity to be together it was a great time, and even back then he was a sports kind of guy.”
Heydel said the whole family was into sports. She said Biddle didn’t know what career path he would take when he returned to the classroom after Vietnam. A friend pushed him toward journalism and a lifelong passion was stoked quickly.
His extroverted ways and his friendliness helped, Heydel reckons.
“He’s always been outgoing, great sense of humor, just a great guy to be around. He’s funny, and just a good person.”
Two photos provided to WJHL tell that story well. In one, Biddle sits with Heydel and their brother, with sister in the middle. Behind her head, Biddle’s fingers are held up like rabbit ears and his trademark grin adorns his face.
The other photo shows dozens of 1962 Science Hill graduates at a reunion recent enough for Founders Park to have been opened. Biddle is near the top right — grinning — and his left hand is on Cooper’s shoulder, his right on the shoulder of another classmate.
“He’s a really nice guy,” Hager said. “I really, really hate it for him — I’ll be pulling for him.”