Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Neptune, musicians and writers paid visit to Knoxville's Hyatt
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   03/08/2002)

So ends Knoxville as we know it.

O.K., it feels strange to sit here waxing nostalgic about the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

After all, that hulking, soaring, futuristic pyramid of a building will remain rooted on its bluff above the Tennessee River for a long time to come.

Still, waxing nostalgic for the Hyatt Regency, which ends its lease in April, is what this column is all about.

For much of my life, the Hyatt has represented a portal to some space-time continuum beyond the mundane haunts of East Tennessee.

In the psychedelic 70s, my young friends and I would end an evening of rock 'n' roll or a night out at the movies by riding the "glass elevators" of the Hyatt, up through the lobby's atrium roof to the observation deck outside.

From there, you had the most futuristic nighttime views of Knoxville available. The sweeping streamlines of the business loop, the pools of light from coliseum parking lots, and cathedral arches of the Henley Street bridge reflected in the waters of the big Tennessee made for breathtaking views, especially for kids who hailed from the countryside.

I remember one friend taking another friend's hat and tossing it onto a balcony below. Oh how we laughed, but there was almost a fight before we managed to get a hotel attendant with a key to retrieve the prized possession.

The Hyatt served as haven for many favorite musicians who played Knoxville--bands such as The Who and The Moody Blues, which added to the hotel's mystique. But over the years it's cosmic vibe, if you will, reached much farther. In fact, one vivid memory of the Hyatt is of watching the planet Neptune arrive piecemeal in its lobby.

Let me explain. On Aug. 24, 1989, the first close-up images of beautiful Neptune were being beamed back from the Voyager 2 spacecraft, which had been launched in 1977 to explore Jupiter and Saturn. NASA had managed to keep Voyager alive long enough to explore far off Uranus, in 1986, and three years later, Neptune. Already it had discovered six new moons of Neptune and a ring around the planet, a radiant white clouds as wide as the Earth and much more. The Hyatt had joined others in sponsoring a direct satellite link to NASA, so that we could watch the closest images of Neptune ever recorded arrive from nearly 3 billion miles away, in real time as Voyager 2 flew past. Here's how I opened the story I wrote about it for this paper:

"The radio signal that was painting for us the whole luscious blue-green world known as Neptune--a planet large enough to hold dozens of worlds the size of Earth--was only one-millionth of one-billionth of one watt strong. That's watt, as in 60-watt light bulb.

"The wonder was not lost on the crowd that waxed and waned before the screen in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency...." I still remember those faces.

It's startling how many memories jump to mind when I think about the Hyatt.

I still remember a luxurious anniversary getaway there with my wife.

And I remember watching William Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Ironweed," limp briskly past the fountains and hanging greenery in the hotel atrium, smiling, right hand extended in Oct. 1992. Here to address the Friends of the Library, practically the first thing Kennedy said was, "Can we see James Agee's old neighborhood?" After I interviewed him in the lobby's bar--he had red wine--I drove him to the streets where Agee, Knoxville's own Pulitzer-winning novelist, once lived. As the sky took on all the hues of wine, we strolled Highland Avenue while Kennedy read the opening lines to Agee's classic, "A Death in the Family." I saw Kennedy interviewed recently on the "Charlie Rose" TV show, and he looked fit these 10 years later.

In March 1994, legendary journalist George Plimpton addressed the chamber of commerce at the Hyatt and I got to interview him.

Plimpton talked about everything from founding "The Paris Review" magazine, to thumb-wrestling Ernest Hemingway; from Muhammad Ali to poet Marianne Moore; from one nightmare inning he spent pitching against American League all-stars, to Sidd Fitch, a baseball player who had learned from Buddhist monks how to throw a baseball at the blistering speed of 168 m.p.h.. Fitch didn't really exist. Plimpton had created him for the April 1983 issue of "Sports Illustrated." The magazine received 2,500 letters, many of them from irate readers who had taken the April Fool's joke for a true story.

The article was all about how the game of baseball as we know it was coming to an end because no one on earth could hit a ball flying past that fast.

So time flies. So ends a piece of Knoxville history.