Contributed by John E. Davis
When the newly recruited medical workers and community workers of the Student Health Coalition gathered in Nashville in June 1970, beginning a week of orientation for the SHC’s second summer in Appalachia, they were introduced to several people from East Tennessee who had volunteered to serve as their sponsors and hosts. Among the most memorable was the “Old Man of the Mountain,” Byrd Duncan (1900 – 1986). He was to become one of the SHC’s staunchest allies during the years ahead.
Byrd Wilkins Duncan Sr. was born in the Cumberland Mountains near Briceville, Tenn. on August 31, 1900. As a teenager, he entered the nearby coal mines. He eventually spent a total of 33 years working as an underground miner, interrupted only by a short period of service in the U.S. Army during World War I.
In 1933, he built a four-room, tin-roofed house on 28 acres of land that he had purchased in the shadow of Pilot Mountain, ten miles northwest of Briceville. Electrical service wouldn’t wind its way up the switchbacks and gravel road to his property for another decade, so the house was constructed with hand tools. It was lighted for years with kerosene lamps. It was heated by lumps of coal, burning and hissing in a boxy stove in the middle of the front room. Byrd lived there for the rest of his life. His brother Sammy and other family members settled nearby, causing the area to become known as “Duncan Flats.”
After the death of his first wife, Byrd married Laurie Patterson. Together, they raised a daughter and five sons. On their small farm, they produced much of the food their family needed, growing corn, beans and potatoes, milking a cow or two, collecting the eggs of chickens and turkeys, and butchering a hog every year.
Byrd was already 70 years of age when introduced by Bill Dow to new members of the Student Health Coalition in Nashville. He looked even older, a slight, wizened fellow with white, wispy hair. He stood around 5’2” tall and walked with the aid of a cane, slightly bent over. He spoke in a high, breathless voice, the result of an affliction shared by many Appalachian coal miners, Pneumoconiosis – Black Lung.
Not only did he appear ancient to the much younger people of the SHC when they first saw him standing at the front of a Vanderbilt classroom in 1970, he seemed fragile and frail. It was only later, when they encountered him in his natural habitat, that they came to appreciate the energy, endurance, and sinewy strength that were threaded into his diminutive frame. That realization dawned for some members of the SHC when Byrd gleefully out-walked them, pushing a plug of tobacco into the side of his cheek and then tramping relentlessly through the woods and up the mountain behind his house. For others, their earliest glimpse of the youthful ferocity that had somewhat mellowed (but not disappeared) over the years came when they were sitting beside Byrd as he watched professional wrestling on television. To their astonishment, he would suddenly spring up from his worn armchair, flailing his arms from side to side and shaking his fist at the TV set, manically hollering “Git em! Git em!”
Once the “rasslin” was over, he would calmly invite his guests to join Laurie and him for dinner. He would gallop through grace, serve himself a plateful of pinto beans (“miner’s strawberries” as he called them), and start passing food from their garden around the table. As he crumbled cornbread into his glass of milk, collected from his cow that morning, he would tell achingly corny jokes collected from Grit, a weekly tabloid he received in the mail. Delivering a punch line, he would squeal with delight, laughing in a high-pitched Hee! Hee! Hee! “Don’t mind me,” he would say, “I just like playing the fool.”
He was anything but. Beneath his mischievous good humor, there was a seriousness that made Byrd the undisputed leader of his community. He was the longtime president of the local PTA, the only person every faction in a splintered community could agree upon. He was elected repeatedly to the County Court in his younger years and remained a Justice of the Peace into old age. Neighbors would come regularly to his weathered front porch to have him notarize documents, but that was often an excuse to solicit his advice as well. Byrd would don his slender spectacles, read over the papers put before him, and make sure that everyone knew what they were getting into. Then, if asked – as he usually was – he would render an opinion about the soundness of the transaction being contemplated.
Politicians running for re-election would seek his endorsement. Organizations raising money for charitable causes would ask him to chair the campaign or, at a minimum, to use his many personal connections outside of the mountains to coax contributions from donors in Clinton, Oak Ridge, and Knoxville. Churches wanting gospel music for a special event would invite him to lead shape note singing at a service or revival.
Sometimes these commitments overlapped, as in the case of his favorite charity, the March of Dimes. For 54 years, Byrd and a shifting line-up of family and friends rode the circuit among the mountain schools and backwoods churches of East Tennessee, raising money for the March of Dimes by singing old-time gospel tunes.
The charitable cause to which he devoted the most hours after joining forces with the Student Health Coalition was the Briceville Health Council. Elected president of that local group, he led the organizing and outreach efforts to prepare for Briceville’s first Health Fair, held at the elementary school in July 1970. Over 1300 men, women, and children showed up for free medical examinations in a single week, many of whom had not seen a doctor in years. This unexpected turnout, along with the high number of serious medical problems detected during the Health Fair’s screenings, convinced the Health Council of the need to establish a primary care clinic in their community.
Byrd was instrumental in persuading the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to contribute a surplus trailer to house the clinic. He also finagled the donation of a quarter-acre site from a local landowner on which to put the trailer. The People’s Health Clinic of Briceville opened its doors in 1971.
Two years before his death, Byrd was interviewed by a newspaper reporter from the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Prodded to talk about himself, he spent most the interview telling stories of others, especially folks who had visited his mountain home over the years, some of them famous like Joan Baez and Caroline Kennedy; most of them unnamed friends and neighbors seeking his company or counsel. He gave all his stories a humorous twist, ending each one with a pleased chuckle. Byrd Duncan was someone for whom laughter came easily. As he told the reporter that day, in words that seem a fitting epitaph: “Boys, I’ll bet you’ll never find another man in your life who had the fun I have. I had fun everywhere I go.”
On the resourcefulness, work ethic, and generosity of people and communities in the mountains
Bill Dow as a community organizer in Appalachia
Article: “Second Health Fair in Progress,” from the Oak Ridger
“For several years after that episode, the family sent me a card on their daughter’s birthday, thanking me for saving her life.”
On the joy and impact of living with local families in East Tennessee
Perry Steele on the summer of 1972
Progression of black lung care toward government-funded clinics, 1973
Lobbying for the Rural Health Clinic Act
Deborah Cogswell Photograph Album, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill
Janie Hiserote on Byrd Duncan
Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
Sir George Pickering visits East Tennessee
On institutional benefit of student-led Coalition energy and notoriety
Memories from the mountains
Lewis Lefkowitz recalls the legacy of Marie Cirillo and impact of local nurses
More on local opposition to the Petros Clinic
David Morrow on the personal legacy of his student activism