Tour guide Jimmy Ogle enlightens, entertains, and enjoys every minute.
photograph by Amie Vanderford
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This guy gets around. You’ll spot him in alleyways and parks, on riverboat decks and tour buses. One day he may be telling tales to the student body at Memphis University School (his alma mater), the next he’s regaling retirees at Wesley Highland Terrace, where he says the residents tell him, he’s “more popular than Bingo.”
His schedule — neatly hand-lettered on a creased piece of paper — reveals few gaps of unclaimed hours. In 2011 alone, he gave 281 talks and tours. He shrugs off the idea of keeping his appointments on an iPad, saying, “I didn’t get cable or the Internet till three years ago and I’ve had the same cell phone 11 years.”
Meet Jimmy Ogle, whose official title is community engagement manager with the Riverfront Development Corporation, where he serves as the city’s liaison with the Great American Steamboat Company, owners of the American Queen. But on his lunch hour, weekends, or during a spare niche of time, Ogle can be found speaking to anyone who’ll listen about the history and lore of his native city. And a whole lot of folks listen. Whether he’s holding forth on “the origins and oddities of local streets and bridges,” or pointing out the designs and purpose of manhole covers at his feet, he holds attention with flair and a rich knowledge acquired over decades. “I get out a lot and wander,” says Ogle. “I’m a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all, and everything I ever did before brought me to this.”
“Everything” includes learning sports stats he’d devour as a boy growing up in East Memphis. “I’d memorize averages and percentages and lineups,” he says. “And my older sister, Linda, said if it hadn’t been for the sports page of The Commercial Appeal I’d never have learned how to read.” He gradually earned his B.S from the University of Memphis — “I did it on the 10-year plan,” he says with a smile — while working in recreation programs at First Baptist Church and later at the Memphis Parks Commission. He started there as special events supervisor and ultimately became the system’s deputy director.
“Everything I get into is kinda like the Forrest Gump philosophy,” says Ogle. “Something good’s gonna come from it.” Certainly that’s true of Ogle’s management jobs from 1985 forward — at Mud Island, the Memphis Queen Line, Beale Street, and the Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum. “You had to really know your story,” he recalls, “and all those years of memorizing stats, [audiovisual] programs, and a million facts — they’re just part of who I am today.”
“It’s a world that dates back more than 100 years . . .”
In 2008, while employed in operations for the Ericson Group marketing company, Ogle wasn’t giving daily talks or tours and discovered how much he missed them. Knowing he could still work them into his schedule, he approached the Center City Commission — now called the Downtown Memphis Commission — “and I pitched all sorts of things. I’d throw anything at the dartboard to make it stick. They weren’t interested.”
Then he came up with a novel idea sparked from years of riding his bike and walking the streets and seeing the ornamental manhole covers around downtown. “They’re round, square, rectangular, with rosettes, florettes, and hexagonal patterns,” says Ogle, “and they have seven different uses — telephone, water, gas, storm drains, traffic signals, electrical, plumbing.” Between Danny Thomas and the river, and between A.W. Willis and G.E. Patterson (formerly Auction and Calhoun), the roving raconteur discovered 2,000 slabs of metal that were beautifully crafted by foundries around town.
Knowing he couldn’t include all 2,000, he developed a 40-minute tour that stretched down Union Avenue between Riverside and The Peabody. The Commission agreed to the Great Union Avenue Manhole Cover & History Tour, which, Ogle explains, opens a huge network of utilities below the surface of Memphis streets, alleys, and sidewalks. “It’s a world that dates back more than 100 years,” he adds, “and it has kept our city running.”
The Commercial Appeal got wind of the event and Ogle met the photographer near some manhole covers. “The next day they ran four big pictures,” says Ogle, “and 90 people showed up for the tour. After that, the Commission told me, ‘Do whatever you want.’”
Ogle soon created several free public walking tours on Tuesdays and Saturdays. “I’ll do Court Square, Beale Street, Cotton Row, the Shelby County Courthouse. I’ll take folks down Adams, Jefferson, Monroe. People really enjoy walking along, seeing old buildings and learning what was there then and what’s there now.”