The characters who worked at the Knoxville newspapers in the 1960s were not confined to the newsrooms. One of the more memorable—the powers-that-be would have said “notorious”—was a pressman named Jerry Miller. No one called him Jerry. He was known as Ace.
I had encountered Ace Miller a couple of times before I went to work at the Journal, probably in a poolroom, and had laughed at his patter. But it was during my time at the Journal that I really got to know him.
When there were union-management disputes at the newspaper, the pressmen held a strong position—they could hold up the printing of the paper, a major problem for a daily publication. And the pressroom, with its newsprint and the dust that resulted from a massive press running at capacity, provided tinder for dangerous fires.
During the seven years that I worked at the Journal, there were several pressroom fires. They would always be small, confined to one corner of the pressroom, but they would always bring both the fire department and lengthy delays of the paper’s publication.
And they would almost always happen during thorny contract negotiations.
So when I saw Ace, I would jokingly ask him when the next fire was scheduled, just so “I can be prepared to get out of the building.” Or, if I ran into him on the street or at the poolroom when I was with someone else, I would introduce him as being “in charge of setting fires in the pressroom.” He would just laugh and launch into a story, often about his role as a boxing coach/manager.
In 1971, through a connection at the newspaper, Ace became the main force behind Knoxville’s boxing scene. Gene DeMont, a News Sentinel employee and former boxer, had been in charge of it for years; when he retired, Ace took it over. He soon made Knoxville a nationally known magnet for would-be masters of the boxing ring.
Though he had never been a boxer—he may have fooled around in the ring a few times when younger—he parlayed a keen skill as an observer and his native smarts into a well-deserved reputation as one of the best coaches in the country.
He was a master of promotion as well. Knoxville was soon attracting boxers from other parts of the country who wanted to train with Ace. Success often followed. Ace recognized those with the necessary skills and drive to succeed. And he was an expert motivator.
Olympians Clinton Jackson, Bernard Taylor, Big John Tate, Johnny Bumphus—all trained with Ace. But his influence wasn’t only with ring skills. His interest in the well-being of his fighters was well known. At the 2012 memorial service after his death of a heart attack at age 72, testimonials to the things Ace Miller did to keep kids off the streets and off drugs went on and on.
The former boxers’ emphasis was on his influence on their lives, on how much he cared about how they were doing outside the ring as well as in it.
On Saturday, Sept. 19, at 5:30 p.m., a 90-minute movie on Ace by documentarian Blake McKinney, The Ace Miller Story, will air as part of the Knoxville Film Festival at Regal’s Downtown West complex.
The movie came about, McKinney says, when he was talking with his cousin BreAnna Miller, Ace’s granddaughter, about “how he touched so many people in and around the Knoxville area; I was also telling her about how I would like to make a personal documentary about someone that could tell a good story while also illustrating universal themes.
“We kind of put two and two together and decided to make the film about his life and what he meant to the people around him.”
Part of the idea was the creation of something that BreAnna’s children could see to get to know who their grandfather had been. “What we did not realize was that it would serve as a learning experience for BreAnna as well,” McKinney says. “Many of the stories she was hearing for the first time gave her a better understanding of what Ace meant to the community.”
As befits a great yarn-spinner like its subject, the film includes many tales of Ace—from the East Knoxville boxing gym that now bears his name to New York City, to South Africa, to Finland. In Helsinki, hankering for a biscuit like he enjoyed at Ruby’s, the longtime Burlington café where he was a regular, he joined the hotel chef in his kitchen and showed him how to make them. For a gregarious storyteller like Ace, there was no language barrier. He was just teaching, like he did with the kids who showed up at his gym.
Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.
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