JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As COVID-19’s Northeast Tennessee death toll nears 1,000, one area family is grieving the loss of not one or even two, but three members — and a huge swath of the community feels the loss as well.
It was just after Thanksgiving — a very scaled-down one — when Barbara “Bobbie Watterson” began experiencing symptoms, daughter Libby Murphy told News Channel 11.
By Dec. 1, Bobbie, a healthy 90-year-old whose mom had lived to 103, and her husband of 26 years, former Kingsport Vice Mayor Richard Watterson both had tested positive.
Bobbie Watterson was hospitalized that day, and while she appeared to be recovering a couple weeks later, the turnaround was short-lived. She never left Johnson City Medical Center and died Dec. 22.
Richard went home for several days that first week of December. Sadly, it was long enough for his stepsons, Keith and Charles “Buzzy” Love, to contract the virus while trying to help their beloved 94-year-old “Paw Daddy.”
All three were military veterans and all three wound up in the Mountain Home VA hospital. Only Keith survived.
Richard, 94, died Jan. 4 and Buzzy — a household name in the area’s basketball community for his years spent conducting free basketball camps — died Jan. 8 despite being quite fit for a 71-year-old.
Murphy says words are inadequate to describe what she, her three remaining brothers and her step-siblings have been through, along with dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren.
And prominent community members, from Kingsport’s former mayor to a former pro basketball player and Love protege to the director of Johnson City’s Langston Centre, all have glowing tributes to each family member’s community impact.
‘Like being a survivor in a war’
The wounds of loss well up quickly as Murphy discusses her family’s tragic six weeks from Thanksgiving to mid-January.
“It’s very devastating,” she says. “It’s so surreal. I feel like we are in the midst of a war and the casualties of war are the ones that are left behind.”
The war started when Bobbie told her daughter she wasn’t feeling well at Thanksgiving. Murphy thinks her mom was exposed sometime beforehand.
Family took her to the emergency room Nov. 30 after getting a COVID test the day before, a Sunday. Hospital staff confirmed she had COVID and sent her home, but a day later she was admitted and never came home.
At one point Bobbie rallied, Murphy says. The doctors even remarked upon her recovery and that things were looking good.
“I was still a little apprehensive but I thought, ‘oh, she’ll beat this, she’s a trooper, she’s strong, she always bounces back.’”
Meanwhile Richard — easily the frailest of the three — had gone home for a few days after his initial diagnosis. Murphy says her brother Keith had come down from Ohio and he and Buzzy had stepped up.
“Keith remained in the house here, and Buzzy came over after Paw Daddy came back home,” Murphy says. Buzzy was still coming back over helping Keith.”
Another brother, Steve, had decorated the outside of the Wattersons’ home for his mom, who loved Christmas, Murphy says.
“We said ‘let’s just decorate the inside so when she comes home, whenever she comes home she’ll come home to a decorated house, I don’t care if it’s January, I’m gonna leave it decorated.’ And she died that morning on the 22nd.”
Soon Keith was in the VA hospital, along with Richard. Buzzy — who was still dealing with the sudden loss of his wife of 49 years in March — was insisting his symptoms were seasonal, Murphy remembers.
“But then when he came up when Mama passed and he was telling me about his symptoms, I’m like, ‘you got COVID and you might want to go.’”
Keith Love got very sick, Murphy says, but he pulled through. His brother wound up next to him and sharing a bathroom at the VA hospital.
“When Keith got to leave Buzzy was like, ‘ok, I’m gonna be out soon, I’m gonna meet you,'” Murphy says.
“Only God knows what happened. I don’t know what happened. I know he didn’t give up. I know he fought.”
Community icons, community builders
Buzzy Love: Basketball life
Damon Johnson, who helped bring Science Hill High School a state basketball championship in the early 1990s and played professionally after two years at the University of Tennessee, says Love’s death shocked him.
“He still looked good, still was training kids,” says Johnson, who coaches at Providence High School and calls himself a product of Love’s community work. “He had a couple people in the family he was training, so it was no sign of him leaving us — it was a shock.”
Buzzy Love was the oldest of Bobbie and Charles Love’s sons. The couple divorced when Murphy was about 10. Buzzy served in the Army and then worked as a CSX railroad conductor for 25 years.
Basketball — and reaching kids — were always his passions. Johnson, who is the nephew of Love’s late wife, says “a lot of people fell in love with the game through Buzzy Love’s camps.”
When Johnson’s professional career finally wound down and he was grappling with post-player life, he knew Love had characteristics he wanted to model his own future after.
“The look you saw on kids’ face when they got around him, that’s just something that I wanted to be and something I wanted to emulate and portray,” Johnson says.
“And just his Godliness is something that I saw that I wanted to portray also. So it was a big piece of what I am today just watching him.”
Johnson says he is more one to examine his own flaws than to consider whether he’s walking in Love’s footsteps — but he’d be honored at the comparison.
“We both really love the game of basketball. There’s not much more that we know. God gave us a gift in the game and we chased it and we chased it and that was our life, it became our life.
“That’s the similarity. And now we want to give that back to kids and the community.”
‘You couldn’t help but like Richard’: The consummate elected official
Richard Watterson was born in Hawkins County and grew up in Kingsport. At a young age he met Harvey Brooks, a local businessman who built Allandale Mansion.
Watterson worked for Brooks as a chauffeur, butler and caretaker — common jobs for black men in that era. But his gift for human interaction and his desire to help Kingsport and the African-American community played themselves out for decades.
He was the city’s first black alderman and served from 1973-1997 — more than half that as vice mayor, including during Hunter Wright’s mayoral term from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s.
“We had a very strong and good relationship not only during that time period but the period before and the period afterwards,” Wright remembers.
He says Watterson left “a major footprint.”
“He was instrumental in doing so many things that I felt were valuable to Kingsport. He was a politician there’s no doubt about that, but Richard had the ability to say the right thing at the right time.”
Kingsport faced challenges during Watterson’s tenure, as all cities do — and Wright says he was “right in the mix” as a group of five officials spent about a decade serving together and accomplishing a list of things.
Wright says Watterson helped bring needs and concerns of Kingsport’s black community to the table without ever putting one community above the whole.
“He always felt that when he was supporting an African American that it not only enhanced that community but it also enhanced the Kingsport community.”
Wright says Watterson achieved his objectives with an affability that was undergirded by toughness and savvy.
“You couldn’t help but like Richard. He didn’t like to aggravate anything, but I don’t think you wanted to cross Richard because then he could pinpoint some things that would put you on the defensive pretty fast. But that was on of his assets.
“We’re very fortunate to have Richard give 24, 25 years of his time to public service in Kingsport.”
Love wasn’t just in her name
Watterson was pushing 70 when he flew the Kingsport coop to be with his best friend. Wright forgave him for it.
Bobbie Love, long divorced and a content single parent and by then grandparent, “had to love him a lot to remarry,” Murphy says of her mother.
“He had a great influence on individuals,” Murphy says of the man her siblings and the rest of the Love clan came to call “Paw Daddy.” “Everybody who knew him loved him.”
“They were good buddies,” Murphy says of the pair, who wed in January 1994. “They were friends.
“They had this little thing between ’em that she would start fussin’ and then he’d get her riled up and then he’d go, ‘now what did you tell me to do?’”
Before the pair married, “Miss Bobbie,” who had worked in several community jobs and was in the middle of a 30-year stint at the Johnson City Housing Authority, spent months caring for Murphy’s sister Marcinia before she died.
Then came the wedding, and more than a quarter century of wedded bliss for a very mature, influential couple.
“She was happy,” Murphy says. “He loved her, I know that for a fact, she loved him, I know that for a fact, and they made it work and they created a beautiful family, extended family, we all blended and we got along well.”
But long before the Watterson-Love union, Bobbie Love was a working single mom.
“Bobbie Love, she was a mess,” Murphy says, laughing. “She was involved in all kinds of things, she was so active with us.
“I mean she’d go down and play baseball with us out in the park. At night and I don’t know even if my brothers know this but she and I had street roller skates, so at night in the summertime she and I would sneak and go skating up and down the road.”
Bobbie was nearly an octogenarian when Adam Dickson met her. The multi-term Jonesborough alderman and now director of the Langston Centre says “Miss Bobbie” was the kind of black female community leader who quietly but persistently got things done.
“Miss Watterson’s symbol was a smile — big bright smile,” Dickson says. “‘Baby’ when she’d see you. ‘I love you baby. How you doin’ baby.’ And just a very kind soul.”
But a soul with purpose, Dickson says. “Miss Watterson would say things like ‘we’ve got to get people registered to vote. People have got to vote. We’ve got to get people out.’
“And she cared a great deal about children through her work with the Housing Authority.”
He remembers a time when a group was planning a Martin Luther King Jr. event and wanted a certain speaker.
“Miss Watterson made it abundantly clear without saying a word and still keeping her composure and a smile and her loving ways she made it abundantly clear she was not in favor of that particular character.”
The group found a different speaker.
“Some people after the meeting came back and said they were just astonished at how one person could direct everybody because even I said, ‘well, Miss Bobby doesn’t want it, we ain’t gonna do it.’
“So there’s something to be said about that quiet strength but also that maternal quality as well.”
Dickson says the area could use more civically engaged people with Bobbie Watterson’s approach to life — which included still working part-time at Carver Recreation Center into her late 80s.
“People like Miss Bobbie, they weren’t concerned about a name, they weren’t concerned about certain other particulars, it was just that they loved their community and they loved to see people grow and thrive and they were willing to do what they could do.,” Dickson says.
“I’m sure at the right moment at the right time there’ll be a new cadre if you will of community activists and leaders to come on the scene.”
Moving forward with loss
Murphy says seeing the love that poured out in comments about her mother and brother and Paw Daddy was gratifying — but it doesn’t make the current days any easier.
“My mother loved life and she loved the people in it. I have no doubt that her love touched so many individuals and probably helped a lot of people overcome situations they may not have overcome,” she says.
“She was a very special individual and I guess when she’s your mom you don’t see it initially but after her passing it was apparent to me that, ‘wow,’ my mama touched a lot of people’s lives.
“It didn’t matter where you were in the scheme of things in this earth, you are a child of God and my mother would reach out to you.”
Murphy and several siblings were able to be with Miss Bobbie at the end of her life, and she says it was peaceful. She says her sons are helping her now, along with God, as she grapples with the losses of the past couple months.
“She understood and she always made sure that we understood, this is a part of living. And even though it is part of living, it doesn’t make the pain feel any easier or better. It just don’t.”
Murphy says if there was one thing Barbara Love Watterson would tell anyone, it’s probably this:
“Live life, don’t wait and say, ‘oh, I’m gonna do this tomorrow.’ You do it now. If at all possible do it now.”