University of Memphis alumnus Jimmy Ogle knows how to walk the walk and talk the talk
when it comes to Memphis’ colorful history.
By Gabrielle Maxey
Jimmy Ogle likes to set the record straight: he is not a history teacher. "I’m a history
presenter," he declares. "Definitely an adventurer."
By day, Ogle is community engagement manager for the Riverfront Development Corp.
He works on projects such as Beale Street Landing and American Queen steamboat cruises.
His goal is to cultivate grassroots activities along the riverfront.
Ogle, though, is better known for his manhole cover and history tours of downtown
(For the record, there are about 2,000 manhole covers. They come in three shapes and
have seven different usages.) Scouring the streets for manhole covers sounds a little
quirky, but there’s an infinite amount of history that can be gleaned from them. (Did
you know 100 years ago there were two competing telephone companies in Memphis: Western
Union and Continental?)
"Everything fascinates me," Ogle explains. "I notice things — manhole covers, sidewalk
stamps, street signs."
|The urban historian makes a point during a tour around the University area.
His 15 unique lunchtime tours average four blocks, and might take in anything from
Confederate Park, Cotton Row, Beale Street or Court Square. For the more adventurous
— or athletic — Ogle’s Saturday Super Tours of downtown run about three hours, with
routes from Civic Center to the Pinch District or along the Trolley Loop.
Other tours may cover only a particular street, such as Adams, Madison or Monroe.
Last year Ogle (BSEd ’80) led his inaugural tour of November 6th Street — which he
notes is "more of an alley." It was named for the date Memphis voted to join the Tennessee
Valley Authority in 1934. Sporting his signature blue sweater vest and bow tie, Ogle
climbed on top of a large flower planter on Main Street to point out sights during
the tour, which covered 17 blocks through 27 turns. "It was supposed to be a 90-minute
tour," he recalls. "I started with 114 people. Three hours later 85 people were still
During the U of M’s centennial celebration, Ogle is presenting a series of "Know Your
Neighborhood" programs on the history of the University area. The lectures and walks
cover everything from the history of the six University-area neighborhood districts
to its 13 churches.
With unbridled enthusiasm, Ogle will stop traffic on Walker Avenue to snap a picture
of a square manhole cover. He can rattle off the exact number of crape myrtle trees
along the railroad tracks and points out his favorite fire hydrant — one painted bright
red with a Dalmatian at Patterson and Watauga.
He is exhaustive in his research. When Tom Mendina, formerly with the University Libraries,
approached him about the University neighborhood series, Ogle spent four weekends
driving around the area and taking 1,500 photos. He has read more than 300 books on
the Memphis area and its history.
Ogle’s connections with the U of M don’t stop with talks and walks. He’s the sideline
clock operator for Tiger home basketball games (an "adrenaline rush") and keeps radio
statistics for Tiger football.
At one point he decided the only angle he hadn’t viewed Memphis from was from underneath.
He climbed into the Gayoso Bayou and walked from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
to FedExForum, an expedition that ended up taking five-and-a-half hours. "I took some
wrong turns," he explains. "I came out of a manhole — luckily in a sidewalk, not in
A self-described urban historian, Ogle never misses an opportunity to learn. "It’s
better not to be a know-it-all and open up your ears and listen," he says. He often
picks up new facts or clues from comments made during a presentation. People often
give him items, which inspire him to delve further into the lore of the Bluff City.
After a recent lecture, a woman handed Ogle several books, including
|The urban historian engages visitors on a trolley tour.
Settlers of Shelby County and Adjoining Countiesand Metropolis of the American Nile: A History of Memphis. He also received a church pamphlet, which described how President Abraham Lincoln
was convinced to order occupying federal troops out of Second Presbyterian Church
during the Civil War.
Of all the areas of Memphis, downtown is Ogle’s favorite. "Downtown is the real identity
of any city," he says. "It’s usually the oldest part, it’s usually on a river. There
are plazas, waterfront views, historical street markers, tall buildings."
He said the city has done a good job resurrecting its downtown since the late 1970s,
including the revitalization of The Orpheum and The Peabody Hotel. "In 1979 there
were more people living in jail than residentially downtown," he says.
Interest in Ogle’s downtown walking tours and lectures spiked during last year’s Mississippi
River flood. He took it upon himself to refute what he calls the national media’s
exaggeration of the flood’s impact. "For five nights I stood on Riverside Drive between
Beale and Union and barked like a street preacher," he recalls. "I talked about the
flags, settlers, bridges, river traffic, industry, the flood, high and low water marks.
In truth, only 500 people were affected. Diane Sawyer was standing on Beale Street
in water up to her ankles."
Ogle’s professional background has provided him with plenty of opportunities to absorb
Memphis history. He started as a recreational specialist at the Memphis Park Commission
and ended his tenure there as deputy director, overseeing such city-owned facilities
as the Memphis Zoo, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis Pink Palace Museum and
Memphis Botanic Garden. Ogle spent eight years as general manager of Mud Island then
held the same position for the Memphis Queen Line. He also served as director of operations
for the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, where he created the first Gibson Guitar Factory
"Jimmy has woven himself into the fabric of Memphis, first as a life-long student
of its history and now as a keeper and teller of that history," says Benny Lendermon,
president of the Riverfront Development Corp (RDC). "The good news is that tomorrow’s
history is being created today and Jimmy loves being in the middle of all this activity.
What Jimmy brings to the RDC is his unique ability to tell the story of the development
of the Memphis riverfront from a historical perspective with all the enthusiasm of
an eyewitness. He genuinely connects with a wide variety of people and loves sharing
his knowledge about Memphis with them."
The 59-year-old’s energy is boundless. Last year Ogle, who is chair of the Shelby
County Historical Commission, gave 280 talks and tours. One day might have him giving
a presentation to 35 senior citizens at a retirement community or to the Sons of Confederate
Veterans; the next day he might be talking to a room full of elementary school students.
Once Ogle was expecting to speak to a third-grade class, but instead came face-to-face
with a group of 3-year-olds. "You go slowly," he says of the experience. "I talked
about bridges, the river, pyramids and how you can spell Mississippi with four letters."
Luckily, Ogle has a remarkable talent for accurately recalling names, dates, faces
and places. That ability serves him well in another of his roles — portraying a "resident"
of Elmwood Cemetery during its Costume Twilight Tour held each October. Performers
must memorize a seven-minute script and repeat it 25 to 30 times a night. Ogle’s characters
have included Avery Warner, engineer of the Cannonball Express (the
train that took Casey Jones to his death), and Lloyd Binford, head of the infamous
Memphis Censor Board. "Ilike the discipline of memorizing a script," Ogle says.
Ogle also is passionate about preserving the history that so fascinates him. As a
member of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, he was a key force in the fight to save
127 acres of old-growth forest in the park from future intrusive development. In fact,
he made a presentation to a mayor’s study committee in which he portrayed the park.
"Overton Park’s pedigree is Central Park in New York," he points out. "The golf course
is the second oldest municipal course in the country."
Ogle may be one of the few residents of Memphis who actually likes the railroad, which
many find a nuisance for causing traffic delays. "In 1857 the Memphis and Charleston
Railroad was the first to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Mississippi River, 784
miles away," he points out. "We’re in its way, not the other way around."
Memphis is not an all-American city, Ogle claims. "But we are the American story.
If you slice us open, you find explorers, the Civil War, civil rights, music, medicine,
agriculture, and entrepreneurs for the first self-service grocery store, franchise
roadside lodging, package delivery by air and miracles like St. Jude Children's Research
It’s a city founded on the river, built on cotton, and who better to spin its stories
than this urban adventurer? "I’m like Forrest Gump," says Ogle. "Good things happen
to me. People give me things about history. My eyes are wide open."