Tragedy in Knoxville

My interest in vintage church cookbooks is something of an intersection between two hobbies. One is cooking, of course, and the other is history.  But not like you’d find on the History Channel history or in a textbook.  I have an insatiable fascination with understanding how ordinary people experienced history.  Most history books are written about important individuals and events, with the general population almost as an afterthought or backdrop.  And yet, if I use my own life as a measuring stick, each individual has a ‘story’ filled with experiences and events as poignant and meaningful as any nation’s history – even if the events are only of local importance.   

Very few of the church cookbooks I own have any historical context beyond the name and location of the church.  Occasionally I’ll get a few words about the founding of the congregation or a couple of pictures.   But most of the time all I have is a recipe and a name.   A cursory internet search will usually give me a little bit of history about the community and the church which can start to paint a picture.  Most of the time when I search for individuals I come up dry, but occasionally I’ll find an obituary or news article that gives me a little bit of insight into that person’s life.  If I’m adapting one of their recipes I’ll throw in some biographical information for color, but I studiously try to avoid including any personally identifying information to respect people’s privacy. 

But I’m going to make an exception in the case of the former pastor of Thorn Grove Baptist Church.  In part because, as pastor, he’s something of a public figure.  And, in part, because of his proximity to an extraordinary tragedy.  As much as the common man historian in me is thrilled to have so much detail, this is a story I almost wish I had never known.

When Favorite Recipes of Thorn Grove Baptist Church was compiled in 1978 the pastor was one Reverend Benjamin Calvin Thomas. Reverend Thomas was in his early 50s, an Army veteran and life-long bachelor.  His contribution to the cookbook was a novel recipe for Meat Balls in Dill Sauce.  In addition to his pastoral responsibilities he was principal at Sam E. Hill Elementary School in nearby Knoxville (now Sam E. Hill Primary).  

In July 1979 Reverend Thomas met nineteen-year-old drifter David Earl Miller, who was hitchhiking along Interstate 75.  Thomas picked him up and put him up for the night in his home in South Knoxville in exchange for some household chores.  Miller left the next morning but maintained a relationship with Thomas and would visit and stay when he passed through Knoxville.  There’s some intimation that the relationship was sexual, at least at first, though it would evolve into more of a father-son dynamic. 

After a couple of years of bouncing around, Miller moved into Thomas’ home in 1981.   Reverend Thomas came home one night from a worship service and found Miller cleaning the basement, and his living room sprayed with blood.  Miller spun a story about having been in a bar fight and having to come home and clean up.  Thomas gave him until morning to gather his things and then took him to a truck stop and sent him on his way with some spending money.   It wasn’t until he returned that night that he discovered a bloody blouse hanging in his backyard tree, and the body of twenty-three year old Lee Standifer a few yards away in the woods.

Without delving too deeply into the grisly particulars, it appears that Miller bludgeoned Ms. Standifer to death with a fireplace poker and then dragged the body into the woods.    Police caught up to Miller a few days later in Ohio.  He was later sentenced to death and, after the usual appeals and legal wrangling, died in the electric chair in 2018.  Reverend Thomas was later quoted as saying:  “You know, I would have liked to redeem him … I just wanted to help him by showing that there was somebody in this world that cared for him. I am sorry that I failed.”

Now the real tragedy here is for the victim and her family.  Ms. Standifer was intellectually disabled and, before her murder, had been making important strides towards independence and self-sufficiency.  She had her own apartment and a job in a chicken-processing plant and called her mother every night.  As of this writing I have disabled children at the same stage of life and can’t imagine the parents’ pain.

The story of the murderer, David Earl Miller, is also a tragedy.  Miller’s upbringing was one of constant abuse.  He had made multiple suicide attempts before leaving home at age 17.  The life of a transient is no picnic, and Miller’s was filled with drug abuse and alcoholism.  None of this, of course, excuses him of his crimes, but it is a tragedy nonetheless.

And then there’s the tragedy of Reverend Thomas.  While Thomas wasn’t implicated or in any way responsible for the murder, I imagine that details of his sexual proclivities came out in the course of the investigation.  And while it’s all presumably between-two-consenting-adults sort of stuff I have a hard time imagining that this was viewed favorably by his flock in this time and place.   It may have also put his job as a school principal in jeopardy.  I can’t find any contemporary information to help understand the fallout either to him personally or his congregation, but I imagine it wasn’t pretty. 

And yet the one glimmer of hope I have is a good friend, a fellow congregant and author of the superb Fire and Ice Tomatoes recipe.  In the cookbook her name is listed immediately below his in the list of members, and she is listed as his ‘best friend’ in his obituary.  I don’t know the personal or professional price that Reverend Thomas paid, but I find some comfort in knowing that he had a friend to see him through it.