By Jim Bridges
Some people know from an early age that their career will be in a particular area. Take Johnny Whitaker, for example. When he was just 10 years old and the family was living in Manchester, TN, he and his father had taken a load of scrap metal to be sold. He spotted a push lawnmower on a scrap heap and asked his father to buy it for him. After they got home, he found it was almost like new but needed a head and crank assembly. That problem was solved when he removed the parts from a mower they had been using and installed them in the “new” mower. It worked fine and they used it for a number of years. His father asked him how he knew what to do to the mower? He was honest when he said, “I don’t know. I just knew.”
At age 14, he rebuilt a 175 cc Honda motorcycle. All the while, he was keeping his dad’s vehicles running. One day, as his Uncle George pulled in the drive in his 1968 Chevy Bel Aire, the right front wheel came off. Johnny came out and looked over the situation. He went inside, came back out and jacked up the car. He told his uncle it was the top ball joint. His uncle asked him how he knew that was the problem? Just as he had told his father a few years earlier, “I just know.” Ball joints are riveted in place and it takes a special tool to remove them. Johnny hung out at a garage so he could observe welding they did. He had become friends with the employees so he asked one of them if he would come over and remove the ball joint. After that, he installed a new joint and his uncle’s car was ready to go. When he was 16, he rebuilt the engine of a 1972 Chevy Cheyenne pickup.
John Whitaker, who was born in Manchester, has gone by the name Johnny for many years. His parents were Ruben and Nannie Vaughn Whitaker. Ruben was employed as a hot press operator at the Wilson Athletic Goods baseball and softball plant in Tullahoma, 11 miles from Manchester. He had been employed there a number of years when one day he was helping move a large, heavy crate and injured his back. He could no longer work at his job so he bought property in White County, out from Sparta, built a house and a shop and moved his family. There was Johnny, his brothers Perry and David and sister Gladys, who died when she was just 16.
Johnny attended school in Manchester through the 10th grade. When the family moved up near Sparta, their property was in White County but very close to the Cumberland County line so he was allowed to attend Cumberland County High School. After enrolling at CCHS, he attended classes at the school for half a day and spent the other half day in VoTech classes and in hands-on training. He enjoyed this format since vocational courses in Manchester were available only after the end of the regular school day. He didn’t have time to hang out with school buddies because he had chores to do at home. His dad had equipment in his shop that Johnny could use while working on cars and trucks.
His first car was a 1966 Chevy Corvair with a rusty body. (Corvair was the only American-made, mass-produced compact car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine.) His brother Perry bought a Corvair 2-door hard top body for $15. He also bought a Corvair convertible for $40. Johnny changed out the engine and transmission from the convertible to his car. Next he replaced the rusty body on his car with the hard top body.
Johnny started working at Lake Tansi Village in 1981, when he was 17. He worked on anything that needed servicing. At that time, LTV operated a garbage pickup service and owned the truck, a 1986 Ford cab-over. His brother David was the operator. The landfill they used was at the bottom of a steep hill. David had to gear the truck down to make a safe descent. This was very hard on the gears. Johnny replaced the truck transmission three times in two years. He talked to Chattanooga Truck and advised to go to a Clark 5-speed transmission. That took care of the problem.
In addition to mechanical, he also does paint and body work. He told about the time he had prepared a 1977 Mazda GLC to be painted. Cliff Payne wanted to spray the car but Johnny said if he was going to be painting vehicles in the future, he needed to do it himself. As he moved the spray gun across the surface, the paint ran a little bit. “See there,” said Cliff. “That’s why I need to do the spraying.” He was surprised when Johnny asked him to leave the room, after which he locked the door. He knew Cliff would do exactly what was recommended on the label of the paint can. Johnny had talked with a man from a body shop who told him if he wanted a beautiful shiny finish on a vehicle he needed to add hardener to the paint. That’s exactly what he had done. In fact, he added quite a bit. He finished the job and left. When he came back, there was no indication Cliff had been there. In fact, it was several days before they met. Cliff told Johnny that he had been painting vehicles for 30 years and had never had one turn out with that shiny a finish. Johnny told him what he had done to get that look.
Johnny is married to the former Tisha King. They met at the nursing home where his mother was a resident for a number of years. Tisha is a LPN and was his mother’s attendant. I asked him if it was “love at first sight,” and he said “pretty much so”. They were married in a little white country church in Pleasant Hill on Christmas Day, 2011. His brother Perry, a Presbyterian preacher, performed the ceremony. Tisha has three children: Dylan, 11; Cody, 9; and Shayli, 6. A question I had to ask was, “Are they interested in mechanics?” He says they enjoy taking things apart; it’s putting them back together that isn’t as interesting. He is very willing to help them but is taking it slowly.
Johnny bought five acres in White County, out past Pleasant Hill. In addition to their residence he has a shop where he enjoys restoring vintage automobiles and trucks.
In closing, Johnny said he looks forward to working with everyone as the new maintenance manager. “I will try my best to meet everyone’s expectations.” Those of us who have been acquainted with Johnny over the years know he will put his heart and soul into the job.