Controversy: The "Memorial to a Little Boy" at the Gaisman Park Swimming Pool



Tomorrow, July 23rd, marks the 57th anniversary of the death of a little boy named Ronnie Jones. His demise is remembered today with the fine swimming pool in Gaisman Park on Macon Road, and in the curious "Memorial to a Little Boy" cast in concrete next to the pool.

If you think a swimming pool is an odd place to memorialize a drowning victim — for that's how 9-year-old Ronnie met his unfortunate fate — well, read on and I'll tell you how it came to be. And oh, how it upset so many people.

Ronnie Jones was one of three triplet brothers who lived with their parents at 4076 Westover, in the Highland Heights part of town. On a hot afternoon in July, Ronnie, Richard, and Robert walked about a mile north to a popular swimming hole in the Wolf River, near the Jackson Avenue overpass. One of the brothers later told reporters, "Ronnie could swim a little and he got out over his head. I tried to hold a branch to him but he kept going under." The little boy's body wasn't recovered from the murky river by rescue workers until the next morning.

So many children had recently drowned in that same stretch of the Wolf River that newspapers back then called it the "Ghost River." Nowadays, that same name is given to the Wolf many miles to the east, out past Moscow, Tennessee — but only because the headwaters seem lost and twisting and mysterious, not because it is haunted by the spirits of so many of its victims.

City leaders decided Ronnie's death was the last straw. At the time, there were few public pools in the city, and none at all in East Memphis, so they began raising funds to build the "Ronnie Jones Pool" in Gaisman Park. Inspired by the tragic death of the little boy, money poured in, and companies and individuals — painters, contractors, concrete workers, you name it — donated their services. The newspapers kept a running total of the contributions, and then reported that construction had begun.

Nothing in Memphis is ever simple, is it? Imagine everyone's surprise and dismay when the Memphis Park Commission rather abruptly announced that the new facility would not be named for Ronnie Jones after all. It would be called the Gaisman Park Pool and would be administered by the park commission. When contacted by reporters, commission chairman John Vesey said, "That little boy business is news to me." Yes, he actually said that. Well, donors weren't happy at all. They felt they had been duped into building — and paying for — a nice new pool for the park commission for free.

And they weren't made any happier when the imposing "Memorial to a Little Boy" carving was unveiled, since it didn't even mention who the little boy was and why he should be remembered. The Press-Scimitar ran a photo (above) of Ronnie's brothers and a friend posing around the empty marker,  trying to drum up support for a more fitting monument.

To no avail. Eventually, a simple bronze tablet was mounted in the niche shown in the photo, and an identical tablet was bolted to the outside of the building. The tablets read: "Dedicated to the memory of Ronnie Jones. Age 9. Drowned in Wolf River, July 23, 1954." But the name of the pool, then as now, remains Gaisman Park Pool.

PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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