Here's another in the late Joni Adams' series "Profiles."
Photographer Lou Peukert took several photos of Charlie Hutson, but only one was used with the article. I've interspersed several of the others in this blog.
Published June 21, 1994, in the Southeast Missourian:
Cape Girardeau businessman Charles Hutson enjoying some of his favorite antique cars. (Lou Peukert ~ Southeast Missourian archive)
PROFILES: THIS DOWNTOWN DREAMER HAS KNACK FOR GETTING THINGS DONE
By JONI ADAMS
Charlie Hutson grew up in the furniture business, and can still be found on the sales floor most any day -- working hard in the third-generation business he loves.
But he's not always business.
His mischievous nature still relishes a good prank or colorful joke. And oh how he cherishes his antique cars.
A study in contrasts, Hutson is often goodnaturedly outspoken. His personable ways have furthered endless community causes that he has championed.
But with that Cheshire grin -- you always suspect he's up to something.
The Manhattan Project
He was born 56 years ago in Eldorado, Kansas -- where his father, Glenn, managed the Montgomery Wards store.
After the war broke out, his father struck out with a friend, who was also the furniture department manager. They returned to Cape Girardeau and opened Hutson and Green Furniture. But times were hard, and furniture supplies were hard to come by.
When Hutson was about 4, the family moved to Kirkwood, where his father worked at a small arms plant.
One day the family was notified of another move -- to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His father's background in personnel management earned him the new job.
"He didn't know it at the time, but he spent the war working on the Manhattan Project," explains Hutson.
That project was responsible for development of the atomic bomb.
At age 7, Hutson can remember it all very well.
"The town built up overnight with pre-fab homes. It was completely sealed off from the outside by military police and double- barbed wire fence. All incoming and outgoing mail was censored. I remember some letters coming in with holes cut in them."
The sidewalks were all wood, and their house was built on stilts into the side of the rolling hills.
Anyone 18 years older wore a picture I.D. "It always made me mad I didn't have one," he laughs.
His dad worked in the personnel office there.
"When the bomb dropped, we all learned the news," he says incredulously, with a shake of his head. "But I think Dad was proud he had a part of it."
Memories of Chief Hutson
Hutson's life is colored by a man he never knew personally -- his dad's father, Nathaniel Jefferson "Jeff" Hutson. He was the first Cape Girardeau law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty.
"He was a friend of Rush Limbaugh Sr.," explains Hutson as he reached back beyond the years to a dark Saturday in 1922 -- Oct. 7 to be exact.
"Rush was a young attorney back then. His offices were in the old First National Bank Building. My grandfather was in talking with Rush that day when he got a phone call, and the police car came and picked him up," he explains.
Less than an hour later, Chief Hutson was dead.
An escaped convict had been spotted at a house on William St. Chief Hutson was to hit one door, while two patrolmen were to scale a fence and enter a second door.
The chief was confident the cornered suspect would surrender.
"Granddad hit the door first, armed only with a billy stick," he said. Willie Willeford was apparently shaving and saw the chief in his mirror.
"He emptied his pistol in Granddad's chest."
The patrolmen then shot Willeford dead.
Recently, Hutson's dad gave him his grandfather's police revolver.
"He didn't have it that day. If he had, perhaps things would have turned out differently."
Chief Hutson -- just 49 years old -- left behind a determined widow and six children, including two sets of twins.
A close-knit family
The entire family was very close knit -- and remains so today.
When the war ended in 1945, brothers Glenn and Lynn returned to Cape Girardeau, pooled their resources and opened Hutson Bros. Furniture Co. It opened in the same building that now houses the Cape Girardeau License Bureau.
The family business is the only place Charlie Hutson has ever worked -- "except for one summer between high school and college when I took off to Madison, Wisconsin, to pick peas. I thought I was going to get rich quick," he chuckles.
It's not always easy working for a family business, he admits with a shrug. "We all probably screwed up and tore up more. But we always knew we'd have a place to work. The same was true with my kids," he says.
His father never handed out allowances -- the kids had to work for it. "My dad was quite the gardener and he put in a huge garden at our house at 2020 Thilenius -- it's where the junior high is today. He set up a wagon with scales and my brother and I sold vegetables in the Sunset area every summer -- corn, beans and potatoes. I can remember it so well."
As they grew older, the kids could earn money by assembling furniture in the basement of their home.
"We'd get a nickel for every smoking stand we'd set up and a dime for every lawn chair. It was the way he broke us into the business," he smiles at the memory.
Always a prankster
"My mother put a curse on me," he laments. "She told me many times, 'I just hope when you grow up, you get kids just like you.'"
His sons --- David and Chris -- now manage La-Z-Boy Showcase Shoppe and Furniture Fair.
Hutson believes in this genetic tie.
"My whole family was known as fun loving. Dad was a prankster, too. When my grandfather was chief of police, my Dad and uncle would go out and grease the trolley car tracks on the incline. One day, they got locked up in a meat store and they got mad cause they thought Mom had left them. The story goes that they spit on all the meat. It's kind of like the stories you hear about the preacher's kids."
Over the years, Hutson has carried out some of his greatest pranks -- with or against -- his good friend Sam Unnerstall, a Cape Girardeau pharmacist.
Hutson recalls one prank that backfired on his friend.
"This goes back to the time when we had parking meters," he explains. "I used to go up to Suedekum Hardware or eat lunch at Al's Midtown Lounge and I'd always have a parking meter ticket on my windshield."
Hutson would put the obligatory 50 cents inside the envelope and place it in the box.
"After the fifth or sixth one, I really got disgusted and I took a hard look at it. I realized the license plate was not mine but Sam Unnerstall's, and I'd been paying his tickets for quite some time."
Hutson went to his store and wrote the chief of police, complaining about police harassment. "I told him I refused to pay any more tickets given out by the police. When he received the letter, he naturally looked up the ticket and, of course, found out it wasn't my ticket at all."
An apologetic call from the police met with some good-natured teasing from Hutson. "I told them to find out who that ticket belonged to and go down there and clean his plow. ... That's the last I ever heard of it, although I know that an officer who knew Sam real well went down to break the news."
He chuckles at the thought -- all these years later.
Another reflection of the prankster in Hutson are his off-color Christmas cards, which are mailed from as far away as Japan.
Hutson has been an active member of the Southeast Missouri Hospital board of directors for years. But he's also learned a lot about the medical field first hand.
In 1976, a warehouse accident almost cost the entrepreneur his sight.
"I was working with my cousin and I hit a nail. My eye was watering, and I thought I just got some sawdust in it. My cousin told me I should get it checked anyway," he recalls.
What Hutson didn't realize at the time was that the nail had actually punctured his left eye, which was leaking fluid. An infection set in.
Since that time, he's had dozens of operations on his eye -- including two cornea implants. "At the time, I was the youngest person in Memphis ever to have this implant. Today, they're doing it on babies," he says.
For a time, he feared the possibility of blindness.
"I came very close with the infections. About a year after the transplant, my eye rejected it and I couldn't see out of the scar tissue. I had to have a second implant," he says quietly.
He will soon receive his third implant. "Medicine can do about anything, but they can't transplant an eyeball. You never get a cornea graft exactly like yours, and the curvature changes."
A brush with death
But his closest brush with death came two years ago -- during his annual trek to the furniture market in Greensboro, North Carolina.
"I still have flashbacks about it."
He was walking a few blocks from a nice restaurant to his motel, when he was hit from the back by two big fellows.
"One of the guys got his hand around my neck, and they hit my head with the butt of a pistol. It dazed me. They hit me again and put the pistol in front of my face. It nearly scared me to death. I just knew they were going to kill me," he says with a shake of his head.
Luckily, a Domino's Pizza delivery man was passing by and hollered at the muggers. A couple driving by added their shouts.
"They grabbed my wallet, but didn't find my money clip in my pocket or take my ring or watch. I staggered to the hotel."
Hutson got a good look at the suspects. "The police detective later told me that these people never leave someone who could identify them -- they usually just blow them away."
One of the muggers pleaded guilty and received 30 years in jail. About six months ago, he was called back to court -- to identify the other suspect. He ended up with a 30-year sentence as well.
Hutson says the experience forever changed him.
"I'm much more cautious. I don't walk anywhere alone," he says. "I just feel lucky to be around."
The love of cars
He's always loved cars -- driving them and admiring their beauty.
Hutson bought his first antique model in 1964 -- a 1928 Model A Coup and proceeded to restore it in his shop garage.
"I remember the night they landed on the moon, I was down there working on the car and I didn't want to leave it," he laughs.
Since that time, he has added more cars to his collection -- personally restoring a number of them. His pride and joy is a 1949 Willy's Jeepster. "I have three of them, but two are in pieces. I'm driving one that's not been restored. I had one in high school and sold it."
A gambling rift
A deacon in the First Baptist Church, Hutson found himself in the middle of a squabble over riverboat gambling.
"I don't gamble ... I don't have the money to gamble. Growing up, my grandmother wouldn't let a deck of cards in the house," he states flatly. "I'm a fifth generation Baptist."
But as president of the Downtown Redevelopment Corporation, Hutson asked the city of Cape Girardeau to place the gambling issue on the ballot. "I did it because it will be good for downtown," he explains. "Downtown redevelopment had been struggling. We were looking at something that would help not only downtown, but the city and schools. In the chamber, we would actively pursue businesses with 10 or 20 people. Here was a business with 800 employees that would bring $2 million or more to town. How could we say no?"
But many people "had the reaction of putting their hand into a bucket of ice water -- they didn't stop to think about it."
The Baptist church had adamantly opposed riverboat gambling, and many church members chastised Hutson.
"It hurt," he says quietly. "I always hoped people would judge me by who I am, not what they think you are."
As the gambling debate in town heated up, Hutson chose a lower profile. He hopes the bad feelings will fade over time.
"I've let it go, but I don't regret what I did. I've always tried to speak my mind ... my Dad taught me that. I just want what's best for this city."
A love of glitz
Over the years, the Hutson name has become synonymous with the animated Christmas windows. He's already started work on this year's theme.
He also led the project to light downtown year round with white sparkling lights.
"I still think it would be great to light the Mississippi River bridge. I'm hoping the state will consider leaving a place for these lights on the new bridge."
A downtown dreamer with a knack for getting things done, Hutson says:"I like the glitz....I guess I'm still a kid at heart."
Charles L. "Charlie" Hutson passed away Dec. 16, 2003, at the age of 65.