The honest truth of how the Derryberry eagle came to campus.
Tom Moran’s hand gripped the tin snips he had brought with him. Cutting through the base of the statue, he kept working in the dim light from the restaurant across the street.
He was alone, for the most part, as he worked. His partners in this caper checked on his progress before heading back through town, driving around to not raise any suspicion in the residents of Monteagle, Tenn.
It was wet and dark; rain had started on their drive from Cookeville, Tenn., earlier that evening. Moran thought that this was going to be worth the effort when they returned to Tennessee Polytechnic Institute with their trophy. The eagle would make its surprise debut at a pep rally before the annual Thanksgiving football game against hated Middle Tennessee State College.
In November 1952, three students at Tennessee Polytechnic (later to become Tennessee Tech University) wanted to do something memorable to get everyone fired up for the big game, said Moran, physics ’58, originally from Cookeville and now living in Arnold, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.
The three students, Moran, Roy Loudermilk, biology ’56, and Albert “Lewis” Brown hadn’t heard of the university president’s attempts to purchase a large eagle statue from the owner of the burned-out hotel.
Moran knew about the eagle because his work with his father’s telephone company took him to the small city north of Chattanooga.
Tom Moran (left), Albert ‘Lewis’ Brown (center) and Roy Loudermilk (right) were “the three guilty ones that had their hands on the eagle, according to Moran.
He discovered the eagle statue on one of these trips during high school. According to Moran, there was a bunch of buildings that had been abandoned.
“In the front of this main building was a rock mount and on top of that was an eagle,” he said.
The eagle statue is large, weighing more than 70 pounds with a six-foot wingspan. Made of block tin and perched atop a four-foot pile of stones, its wings spread for flight. Before making its home at the Monteagle Hotel, it had been an attraction at the Monteagle Episcopal Assembly grounds.
“I don’t know what happened but something clicked in my mind that I associated that eagle with Tech,” Moran said.
A few years later, Moran, who lived at home, got his father’s blue pick-up truck, went to campus to get Brown, also from Cookeville but living on campus, and Loudermilk, from Oak Ridge. At 6 p.m., they set out for Monteagle.
The main road in the town was highly travelled and had a restaurant directly across the street from the hotel.
“I had bought a pair of tin snips. That’s all. I had no idea of what would work,” Moran said. “We just wanted to bring it back. I think I had a blanket to cover it up.”
Brown and Loudermilk drove the truck out of sight as not to attract attention and Moran started working on the eagle. It was dark and the only lights were dim from across the street.
At first, Moran wasn’t sure how his snips were going to work. He started trying to cut at the globe, and discovered it was hollow and “just kept cutting.”
Every so often, the others would come back and ask, “How are you doing? How much longer is it going to be?”
Finally, they came back and Moran only had an inch left.
“I cut the final piece of the globe and then stood on the stone foundation and put my hand underneath the wings because it’s pretty big,” Moran said. “I had to spread my arms wide just to put them under the wings.”
“I put my hands under it and lifted it and it wouldn’t budge. Now we got the darn thing cut loose what are we going to do?”
“I just know that it was approaching kind of a panic. I’m still standing up there on this stone pedestal,” Moran said.
“I discovered that if I wiggled the thing, it moved slightly.”
It turned out there was a solid rod in the concrete with a rusted pipe in the statue that slipped over the rod.
“Then the idea was just twist it off and that would be fine,” he said. “But it didn’t want to break loose. There were several times when I had the eagle turned 45 degrees and a car would be driving by and I stopped.”
Moran said there was a half an hour when he had the “darn eagle” facing backward.
“Finally, it broke loose and we could lift it up,” he said. “We carried it to the truck and then headed back to Cookeville.”
They stopped in Rock Island, Tenn., for coffee. When two highway patrol officers came through the door, Moran and company hastily left their cups on the counter and returned to the road.
“Students almost went beserk. I bounded from my seat to the stage and asked Bill [Francis] how he got that eagle from Mr. Harton, and Bill stammered and stammered.”
The eagle made its way to its temporary home on campus as the trio arrived at the dorm room of Bill Francis, biology ’53, student body president. From there, the statue made its way to Brown’s home in Cookeville where it was given a coat of golden dimestore paint and prepared for the pep rally in a few days.
As fans at the pep rally looked on, Francis took the microphone and said “a strange bird has been seen flying around.” As he finished his sentence, he pulled on a curtain to unveil the eagle, suspended from wires in Memorial Gym.
As reported in The Alumnus, an early Tennessee Tech alumni magazine, the “most anguished cry” was from Tech President Everett Derryberry. He is reported to have said “Mr. [John] Harton will never believe that I knew absolutely nothing about this!”
“Students almost went beserk,” said Derryberry in a 1984 television interview. Derryberry served as president of the university for 34 years and died in 1991. “I bounded from my seat to the stage and asked Bill how he got that eagle from Mr. Harton, and Bill stammered and stammered.”
For Mancil Johnson, the archivist at Tennessee Tech, the stories that have grown over the 60 years since the initial “liberation” lead one to believe more than three people were involved.
“The way people tell it, there must have been an army of at least 150 students going down to Monteagle to get the statue,” Johnson said. “It seems that each year, more older alumni take credit for being in on the theft.”
According to Johnson, the whole incident was embarrassing to Derryberry, who is remembered as running the campus with close supervision.
Just a few weeks before the theft, Derryberry had met with Harton on a trip to Chattanooga when he saw the hotel had burned and offered to buy the eagle. The owner “couldn’t think of selling” the grand eagle, which had been part of his family for a long time and had great sentimental value.
Derryberry attempted to smooth over the situation, but Harton, a former state treasurer, was incensed. Attempts to purchase the eagle after-the-fact were rebuffed. Suggestions that the statue could be donated to the university were also refused.
Ultimately, it took an intervention from Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement to settle the matter. During a visit to campus, Clement took part in a student meeting and addressed the problem.
“We used to have chapel everyday,” said James Seay Brown, a former dean of Tech’s engineering college. “Gov. Clement came one day after the eagle had been stolen.”
According to Seay Brown, the governor said, “I hear you’ve been having trouble with an eagle. I can’t keep them from arresting you, and I can’t keep them from prosecuting you and putting you in jail. But I can sure as hell pardon you if they do.”
Harton eventually gave in, agreeing to sell the eagle to the university for $500.
The statue, which had been hidden in the rafters of the Industrial Arts Building (now Lewis Hall) after its debut to stop anyone from stealing it back, was perched atop the university’s new library building (now Jere Whitson Hall) in October 1954. It was moved to its current location on the Administration Building (now Derryberry Hall) in 1961.
To continue reading about the eagle statue, see our other article in this issue: Return the eagle?