Zeke Hembree was born 13 years ago with a hole in his heart, literally. Doctors fixed the hole in his heart but complications from the surgery left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Make no mistake, however. This young man does not consider himself handicapped. On Tuesday he buzzed through the crowd at the Tellico Trout Hatchery like a whirling dervish. His excitement and enthusiasm was infectious.
Speaking to the crowd of onlookers, Ed Carter, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, looked at Zeke smiling and said, “I don’t how but you manage to show up at every one of these things. How are you getting out of school?”
“These things” is a dedication of another TWRA “Moment of Freedom” facility and this might be one of the crowning achievements so far. Initiated in 2013, the “Moment of Freedom” program is dedicated to providing special facilities and opportunities for wheelchair bound individuals to hunt and fish. On Tuesday they formally dedicated a special wheelchair-accessible fishing pier on the Tellico River.
The Tellico River is one of the most popular trout streams in the entire state of Tennessee. But with steep banks and huge boulders, it is virtually impossible for mobility-challenged anglers to enjoy. That has all changed now thanks to the Tellico “Moment of Freedom” fishing pier located immediately adjacent to TWRA’s Tellico Hatchery.
“This means a lot to me because of what it means to my family,” said Zeke. “My granddad would bring my dad here and fish when he was about my age. And now my Dad is bringing me down here to fish.”
Zeke is fortunate because he does have an “extreme” 4-wheel drive wheelchair that allows him to access some places on the Tellico. But he is still excited about the new pier.
“The pier means a lot to me,” he said. “Now, when I’m driving myself, I’ll be able to bring my manual chair here by myself without running the risk of turning my extreme chair over.”
The pier is dedicated in part to Chattanooga’s C. Austin Watson (1926-2005).
Watson was the father figure of the well-known Watson Family auto dealerships in Chattanooga. His son, David Watson, is a former Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commissioner. Watson raised the $75,000 to build the Tellico MOF pier.
“It all came from our family and friends of mine in Chattanooga,” said Watson, who has deep roots in the Tellico region. “My Dad started bringing us here when I was six or seven years old. We’d go camping, fishing and hunting. Opening day (for trout) then was always April 1. We’d get out of school to come up here the day before to camp and be ready to trout fish the next day,” said Watson. “My older brother and I, we’d roam this river in our little canvas tennis shoes and blue jeans. This was our playground. Tellico has always been a big part of our lives.”
He is slow to claim credit, but another former Tennessee Wildlife Commissioner, Harold Cannon, was one of the MOF program’s initial major cheerleaders.
“Of all the things I got to be involved in on the Commission, this was one of the absolute highlights,” said Cannon. “It has been fun to watch this program go forward. We started off with just a few portable blinds for deer hunting and now we’ve watched it grow to include permanent places like this. My hope is that we see something like this on the Clinch River or other rivers across the state.”
The pier is also dedicated to Shane Hall, a mobility-challenged National Wild Turkey Federation employee who was also a major player in spearheading TWRA’s MOF program. Hall, however, passed way in 2016.
Zeke was good friends with Hall.
“Shane meant a lot to me,” said Zeke. “We were very good friends. But when he passed away we know he’s in a better place and not suffering with cancer anymore.”
Cannon suspects Zeke will someday be there to fill Hall’s shoes.
“[Zeke] is unbelievable,” said Cannon. “I believe in a few years he is going to be the Shane Hall of this program and that he’s going to keep it continuing forward.