Thomas Partlow: A man of many faces who only lived on two streets his whole life

Bonnie Bucy • Jul 5, 2014 at 7:00 PM

Thomas Partlow, the man who still keeps the Wilson County Archives alive and well in conjunction with Linda Grandstaff, was born on South Maple Street and moved one time to West Spring Street, where he still resides.

In the meantime, he has authored a minimum of 150 books on citizens of Wilson County, DeKalb and Cannon Counties and his own family that encompasses thousands of names and information. Those books occupy many shelves in the Wilson County Archives Building.

Partlow attended Highland Heights Elementary School grades 1 – 5; McClain for grades 6 – 8 and graduated from Lebanon High School in 1956.

“Cumberland College had closed for a few years getting ready to open as a two-year college,” he explained. “I was in the first class to attend when they opened and in the first class to graduate when they reached that point. Following that, I went to Mid Tennessee College and got a quarter ahead. Cumberland was $150 a quarter and Mid Tenn. was $42 (a big difference between then and now.) I graduated Cumberland’s two-year school in 1958 and then went to MTSC (Middle Tennessee State College) and got my Social Science degree in 1959.”

Partlow was hired in Metro Nashville to teach at Glencliff High School.

“I was in the same room and same grade for 32 years,” Partlow said. “My major was any of the social sciences. The coaches could only teach history, so they taught history and I didn’t get to; although I loved history and genealogy, I wasn’t allowed to teach it there. I went to Peabody and got my master’s in history in ‘62 or ‘63.”

Partlow then quipped, “I did go to law school for about three weeks. Stratton Bone and I went all the way from McClain School together and we went to law school and quit there about a week apart, so we had gone all the way from McClain to our parting of the ways in law school.”

Partlow said he retired from Metro in 1995 because he had 32 years in at that time.

He said he started his book compiling in about 1960, abstracting wills, deeds, chancery court, circuit court, marriages and all the census records through 1940.

“Linda Grandstaff helped me with the 1940 census. It took about a year to do that one,” he explained. “It was a special one, typing, indexing, all of it. I’ve done 1850 through 1940 now. People don’t realize the info from the census is only released every 10 years. The next census to be released is 1950, and that won’t be for another seven to eight years,” Partlow said.

He said that if someone wants to research their family, the census records are where to start. They can start with 1940 and go backwards from 1930. There are few records on African-Americans, though. 

“When I was teaching, I would see the name of some famous individual in the newspaper and I would write to them and ask if they would write a letter to my class as a means to taking their education to a higher or another level. Nine times out of 10, they would oblige. As a result, I have collected these over the years,” he said as he produced a large book of plastic covered letters, all of them in perfect condition and from people a collector of letters would give their eyeteeth or plenty of money for.

“I never part with anything,” Partlow responded. “My house is a virtual collection of things, mostly things that are only special to me.”

Partlow’s book of letters includes the following:

Winston Churchill’s wife Celmentine corresponded back to Partlow on behalf of her husband who had passed away by then.

Joseph Stalin’s daughter Sbetlana wrote to him. (She died a little over a year ago, Partlow reported, and was living in Wisconsin at the time.)

Rachaele Mussolini, widow of Mussolini, corresponded several years with Partlow.

Dino Grande was the second-in-command to Mussolini. He made a motion to the Grande Counsel that Mussolini be dismissed, which he was. Dino Grande wrote directly to Partlow.

Albert Speer was Germany’s Minister of War in WWII. He responded directly to Partlow.

Madam Charles DeGaulle corresponded on behalf of her late husband, Charles DeGaulle.

Sir Anthony Eden was Prime Minister of England after Churchill. His wife was a niece to Churchill and she responded on behalf of her husband to Partlow’s request. 

King Hussein, the king of Jordan, had his secretary respond.

Lyndon B. Johnson had his private secretary respond. (We went to the Nashville Airport at a time when Johnson was passing out United States Senate Chamber passes. We didn’t get a chance to see the Chamber, but what we noticed was they either didn’t have Special Forces back then or Johnson was only a V.P. then and didn’t qualify for protection.)

Bess Truman, Harry Truman’s widow, had her private secretary respond on her behalf.

Charles B. Taft, son of President William Howard Taft, responded on behalf of his father.

John Coolidge, son of Calvin Coolidge, responded on behalf of his father and also sent an order blank to buy cheese from him.

Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice Longworth responded on behalf of her late father.

“I received an invitation to a reception for Mrs. Douglas McArthur and I went. When I stepped through the reception line, I was face-to-face with Strom Thurman. When I said I was from Lebanon, Tenn., Mrs. McArthur piped in and said, ‘I’m from Murfreesboro.’ She was surprised I already knew that, but she didn’t know what I did for a living and a hobby.

“Back in the early ‘50s when McArthur was returned from Japan, he made a visit to Murfreesboro,” Partlow went on, “I and some of my family members went to Murfreesboro and sat on the side of the road. McArthur, his wife and son were in an open touring car and stopped right in front of us. We were thrilled that we got to say hello directly to them.”

He opened the letter book to pages that bore an artist’s rendering of Miss Lillian Carter and President Jimmy Carter. 

“On Oct. 22, 1976, we drove to Plains, Ga. and went by Carter’s house there and got some Hickory Nuts, which I still have, and then went by the train station where Miss Lillian was campaigning. I got the autographed/signed rendering directly from Miss Lillian’s hand.”

After all this collecting and compiling of information on other people for his many books and collections of letters, Partlow got into his own family heritage, so things finally took on a personal note.

“My grandmother was a Ligon and I found out about a Ligon connection to Diana, Princess of Wales. I couldn’t let this one go by and not check it out. My 14th great-grandparents are Princess Diana’s 14th cousins twice removed, and William and Harry are my cousins three times removed.”

Partlow has all this documented back 14 generations.

“The first Ligon to have it documented was William D. Ligon in 1947 in New York. It cost him $25,000 to have it documented. The second was done in 1957. The third edition was done in 1973 and I did the 4th Edition in 2009.

“Madresfield Court goes back 1,000 years, and the Royal Family (King George, etc) would go to it for a place of refuge in case the German’s invaded London. It went from there to being the family’s home and Rosalind Morrison was the head of the Ligon family. 

“There is a family reunion held every two years somewhere, but every 10 years, it is held at the 1,000-year-old Madresfield Court,” Partlow said. “I get invited to that one and was there four to six years ago. I hope to go to the next one, but at my age (76) you never know or plan that far ahead. I like attending the reunions, but wouldn’t want to live there. It’s way too cold.

“Lady Rosalind and Sir John attend each year it’s there, and she keeps coming up with information on her family. Lady Rosalind’s aunt, Lady Dorothy Heber was a spy during World War II. They didn’t even know it until she died and they were going though some of her papers and other stuff,” he added.

The comment was made that he never knows what he might turn up, and his reply was, “I’ve about turned up all that’s available to turn up.”

He’s been doing the Archives in Lebanon since 1960, and all the 32 years he taught school in Nashville, he lived in Lebanon and commuted. He’s been back at the Archives since he retired.

He attended First Baptist Church here, maintaining perfect attendance for his first 25 years there.

When asked what he does for vacations, he points to the books lining his shelves.

“That’s pretty much my life. I go to a family reunion every couple of years. My sister, Dorothy Chambers, her son and some of her grandchildren go with me. The last family one was in Chattanooga and the one before that was in Charleston, S.C. That was a really nice one.

“Every two years is a different place and the next one will probably be in St. Louis or Barbados. Either of them will be great. 

“My life has been very fulfilled with my family, my family’s findings and all the other thousands of families lives I’ve managed to fill in the spots that were empty before,” he added. 

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