City Reporter 

City Reporter

Dangerous Crossing

Agencies study ways to make Mississippi River bridge safer.

By Mary Cashiola

It certainly wasn't designed as a death trap, but cost concerns -- then and now -- aren't helping matters much.

The Hernando DeSoto Bridge will be under construction for at least four more years because of a seismic retrofit, making the bridge -- which lacks an emergency lane -- even more hazardous to motorists.

"We're doing it a section at a time because the project is so costly," said Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) spokesperson Luanne Grandinetti. The project will make the 30-year-old bridge more resistant to earthquakes.

Last month, an accident on the bridge killed three people, including a young boy who was knocked over the railing. The family, thinking they had car trouble, had stopped their vehicle between the main traffic lanes and an exit ramp. They were standing outside their van when they were struck by a station wagon.

TDOT regional director Winston Gaffron is setting up a meeting with the Memphis Police Department and the Tennessee Highway Patrol to see what can be done to make the bridge safer. The Highway Safety office, attached to TDOT but federally funded, is also looking for federal money to do something about the situation.

But can a problem that seems to result from troubled vehicles be fixed? The bridge has no place for vehicles to stop should they stall or suffer a flat tire. The longest bridge in Tennessee (counting the 40 percent of the span that belongs to Arkansas), the Hernando DeSoto Bridge has seen seven deaths since the seismic retrofit began in the spring of 2000.

"The bridge opened in the early '70s with a 2.5-foot minimal shoulder," said Grandinetti. "Because of major cost concerns, the bridge designers thought it would be cost-prohibitive at the time to include a wider shoulder."

She added that because of the way the bridge was constructed, widening it at all, even to create an emergency lane, would be impossible.

"Our highway-safety help trucks patrol the area, as do police officers," said Grandinetti. "That is happening right now and will continue."


Hammer Down

Wounded accountant looks for retaliation in the ring.

By Janel Davis

Last month's attempt on the life of an area CPA in front of his Cordova home seemed like something out of a mobster movie, complete with a shootout and complex hitman-for-hire plot. The victim survived and is recovering from his wounds, but he is determined to use the murder-for-hire incident as publicity for his other interest: wrestling.

While Jeff Droke is well-known for his work as a financial officer for the Kick Ass Wrestling Federation and other wrestling organizations, for years he has also entered the ring.

Droke's latest action has been with the Real Wrestling Federation (RWF) as "The Hammer" for 18 months, according to federation producer Whit Pulliam. "Jeff's a pretty good wrestler, meaning he wins more than he loses," said Pulliam. "When [the shooting] occurred last month and everybody was referring to him as a CPA, it was ironic to me because I know him as the big wrestler. To me, his occupation as a CPA was his alter-ego."

While Droke wrestles alone as "The Hammer," during tag-team matches he joins forces with Cobra Ken (Giddens), a part-time wrestler and full-time fitness trainer, under the name Pride of the Brotherhood. "The Hammer and Cobra Ken are the bad guys, or, as they're called in the industry, 'heels,'" said Pulliam. "While we're fortunate that Jeff's going to recover, once he gets back in the ring, I'm sure the [murder attempt] will be developed into a storyline, maybe even pitting his wrestling partner as the person who ordered the hit."

"[Since the incident] Jeff's already been back to the gym, even though he can't get in the ring yet," said Giddens. "It's a miracle Jeff's alive. We're committed to health and fitness, and I think his training is part of what saved his life."

Pulliam's company, Affordable TV Productions, began producing the league's matches, which first aired on Fox but begin airing on PAX in March. Two shows are taped every second week at the DeSoto Civic Center. As opposed to the popular and sensationalized World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), RWF bills its league as "old-school wrestling with new rules." Its shows are introduced under the banner "This isn't your little sister's wrestling entertainment show."

The federation's next taping will be Saturday, February 8th, with a special tribute to Jeff "The Hammer" Droke, who plans to attend.

A Sheriff's Department spokesperson said there have been no new developments in the case. Two suspects have been charged with attempted first-degree murder.


Remembering Dennis

U of M honors Flyer's former editor.

The University of Memphis has named its locker room at The Pyramid in memory of Dennis Freeland, editor of The Memphis Flyer from 1994 to 2000 and longtime sports columnist for this paper.

In a center-court presentation before the Tigers' February 1st basketball game with the University of Southern Mississippi, members of Freeland's family were presented a plaque that commemorated the occasion. The inscription notes that Freeland, "as a member of the Memphis media, covered basketball for The Memphis Flyer for over 10 years, and who, as a Tiger basketball fan, demonstrated his love for this team from his days as a University of Memphis student."

Freeland, 45, died from the effects of a brain tumor on January 6, 2002.

"I think that he would have been very, very proud," said Perveen Rustomfram, Freeland's widow, who attended the celebration with several other family members. "I think it is an affirmation of all of his efforts that he put into reporting and working at the Flyer. He was in his element with a press pass around his neck."

Tigers coach John Calipari gave the Freeland family a tour of the revamped facility before the game. "We're just happy we could honor Dennis," he said. "This was a great moment to be able to honor a graduate and a great person at the same time."


Communication Breakdown

School board expresses frustration with its new president.

By Mary Cashiola

After a six-hour-plus meeting on January 28th that literally lasted until the next morning, the Memphis City School board is making harsh demands of its president.

"I'm not threatening you," Commissioner Hubon Sandridge told newly elected board president Carl Johnson at a February 4th meeting on board operations. "Either you work with us or we'll have to replace you. ... If you cannot work with us, I can assure you we know what to do."

Last week's board meeting was a legislative disaster. At 9 p.m., a good three hours into the meeting, the board had still not discussed any of its actual business. Voting was confusing, as Johnson called for votes on motions, amendments, and original motions one after another. At one point, the first charter school in Tennessee seemed to be approved, but Johnson called for another vote. Everyone looked confused, and Commissioner Sara Lewis piped up to say, "Wait. What did I just vote on?"

Earlier that evening, county mayor A C Wharton had been addressing the board when commissioners began to ask questions. In an attempt to regain control of the meeting, Johnson told the board they were out of order. It was unclear exactly who was out of order, but Wharton, looking frustrated, sat down and waited for the board to figure out what it was doing.

At this week's operations meeting, Lewis said she had been traumatized by the earlier meeting. Other commissioners said they were confused about what they were doing at the meeting.

"This is going to be one of the toughest years we have," said Commissioner Michael Hooks Jr. "We're going to have to communicate with other government leaders. If you can't even communicate with your colleagues, we're going to have problems."

Johnson said he had hoped to use the operations meeting to discuss "policy, practices, and procedures that are used by the board to ensure equity in our deliberations." Apparently, he intended to go through all the board policies one by one when Commissioner Lora Jobe suggested they only look at the ones he felt the board was violating. In the end, however, no specific policies were discussed, and Johnson asked that they read them individually for the next meeting.

At the end of the meeting, Johnson reviewed what had occurred and said, "We've all agreed that we're frustrated with each other, and we're especially frustrated with [me]."


Downtown Landmark Closes

Cook & Love ends 78 years on Main Street.

By Bianca Phillips

Cook & Love Shoes' downtown location has endured the Great Depression, World War II, and two fires, but on March 15th, the doors will close for good.

The locally based shoe store has given into the demands of the Center City Commission's Main Street revitalization plan. The store is currently slated to be demolished to make room for a parking garage that will eventually be part of a larger development, possibly a hotel.

"Since we're located in the developmental block, we had a choice of fixing up the building and staying or closing the store and selling. We didn't want to stand in the way of progress," said William B. Smith, president of Cook & Love. "We have a large store in the Perkins area, so what we'll probably do is try and merge our business here with that store."

Cook & Love opened downtown in 1925, one of 14 shoe stores on Main Street. The store has branches in Nashville, Little Rock, New Orleans, and Jackson, Mississippi. Footwear News recently listed it as one of the 10 longest-operating independent shoe stores in the U.S.

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