Dr. Jim Tumblin, Fountain City historian and old-school gentleman, dies at 95
Dr. Jimmy “Jim” Conner Tumblin was a generous resource when it came to Fountain City history. He died at the age of 95 on June 3.
Two years ago, Dr. Tumblin was The Knoxville History Project’s annual honoree for contributions to local history. “It was our first-ever virtual event, and Dr. Jim was a good sport, and met with us one sunny morning in Adair Park to film a socially distanced presentation,” said Jack Neely, executive director of The Knoxville History Project.
Neely considered Dr. Tumblin to be an old-school gentleman, and a longtime friend. Since the 1990s, Dr. Tumblin helped him research several of the stories he has written.
“He was a nationally renowned optometrist, but despite his hundreds of grateful patients, he may be better known to most of us for his second career,” said Neely. “Fortunately for Knoxville and especially Fountain City, he was a very good writer and historian.
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“There may be more histories of Fountain City in the future,” continued Neely. “But for the rest of our lives, his thick book, ‘People Who Made a Difference,’ will be our key source.”
“Dr. Tumblin was something of a living legend,” said Kelly Ellenburg, a former president of Fountain City Town Hall. “He was one of the wisest and most respected people I have known. To say he had a wealth of knowledge about Fountain City and its history is a huge understatement — he contributed so much, both on the Heritage Committee and by way of the countless archives and stories he shared.”
According to Ellenburg, many of the archives are available through the McClung Museum. “I am certain he would want people to know that, and to visit and keep learning about the community and its people,” she said via email on June 6.
“Dr. Tumblin didn't speak much, but when he did it was always some kind of brilliance,” added Ellenburg. “He really was an amazing man."
Charlotte Davis, Fountain City Town Hall treasurer, said she already misses Dr. Tumblin and is sad to think that she can no longer pick up the phone and check on him.
“We didn’t talk every day, but I always looked forward to conversations with him,” Davis said. “As sad as it is for us, he missed his wife terribly and now he is with his Peggy.”
Just as Dr. Tumblin put a lot of thought and effort into his conversations with folks, Davis said he did the same with his interesting articles. “He was probably the most gentlemanly gentleman I was ever in contact with,” she said. “He was just genuine and never wanted to say anything that would offend anyone.”
The Shopper News interviewed Dr. Tumblin on June 15, 2020, when he was honored by The Knoxville History Project and said it was a pleasure to be interviewed by Neely and filmed by Doug Mills, the former “Heartland” series cameraman.
Dr. Tumblin was a 1944 Central High School graduate and said he liked his American history teacher Nannie Lee Hicks because she led an “antique life,” and her wonderful collection of Fountain City photos was a major influence on him.
After graduation, Dr. Tumblin earned a degree from the Illinois College of Optometry and practiced behavioral optometry in Fountain City for 46 years.
“From my office in 1949, where the First Tennessee Bank building is now, I would look out over Parkview Manor, where Colonel J.C. Woodward lived,” said Dr. Tumblin. “I had an old timer patient and he would loan me photographs to copy.” Dr. Tumblin started collecting historical pictures in 1949.
“I was co-author of ‘Fountain City’ (Images of America, 2004) with 220 photos and was president of a postcard group,” he said. “Can you imagine a bunch of old guys and a few women, sitting around trading postcards? One member had all 44 postcards (of Fountain City). I was able to borrow those four that I didn’t have and made a copy.”
Dr. Tumblin wrote a column for the Halls Shopper called “History and Mysteries” for 10 years, and up until recently wrote a regular column for KnoxTNToday when he was not reading about the Civil War. “History has been the boon of my existence and I had hoped to have a Fountain City museum,” he said.
Family and friends were to gather Wednesday, June 15, at 10:45 a.m. at Lynnhurst Cemetery for an 11 a.m. graveside service. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The East Tennessee Historical Society Calvin McClung Historical Collection or Northside Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Dr. Jim Tumblin, Fountain City historian, dies at 95