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Tales of VUMC Past

The day Johnny Cash came to VUMC

by August 25, 2017

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, flanked by Norman Urmy, left, and Anderson Spickard Jr., M.D., at the ribbon cutting to open the Vanderbilt Institute for the Treatment of Alcoholism (VITA) on June 26, 1984 (file photo by Debbie Meredith).

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were the guests of honor at the ribbon cutting to open the Vanderbilt Institute for the Treatment of Alcoholism (VITA) on June 26, 1984. Among the others who participated in the ceremony that day were Norman Urmy, who was director of Vanderbilt University Hospital, and Anderson Spickard Jr., professor of Medicine and director of VITA.

According to an Associated Press story from that day, Cash, who was 52, had left the Betty Ford Center for Chemical Dependence in California only a few months before his appearance at the VUMC event.

Part of his speech that day: “I’ve learned a lot about chemical dependency, especially in the period of time I spent in the treatment center in California. There really is no such thing as recovering from chemical dependency. Chemical dependency–alcohol or drugs–is a terminal disease.”

It was a powerful message and well-received by the crowd there to hear him speak.

I jogged the half block or so to where the car pulled to the curb. I happened to puff to a stop just as Johnny Cash stepped out of the car. He shook my hand. “I’m Johnny Cash,” he said, unnecessarily, and added, equally unnecessarily, “This is my wife, June.”

The director of News and Public Affairs at that time was Jack Kennedy, who apparently began to have second thoughts about the driving and parking directions he had given to Cash’s representatives when he was arranging the event. Jack called me into his office that morning and gave me very specific instructions: I was to stand at the corner of 21st Avenue South and Garland (now Medical Center Drive) and watch for a big black Mercedes–somehow Jack knew that’s what Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash would be riding in–and I was do anything necessary to get the driver’s attention and direct a right turn onto Garland, where a small delegation of Vanderbilt officials were waiting to meet the honored guests.

So when the time came, I stood at the corner and fidgeted around, scanning the oncoming traffic for the Only Car That Mattered.

And then I saw it. It looked for a moment as though it would pass by, but as it drew closer, I could see Johnny Cash riding shotgun, directing the driver to make the right turn onto Garland. I jogged the half block or so to where the car pulled to the curb. I happened to puff to a stop just as Johnny Cash stepped out of the car. He shook my hand. “I’m Johnny Cash,” he said, unnecessarily, and added, equally unnecessarily, “This is my wife, June.”

At that point, a bunch of other people took over shepherding the couple to where they needed to go, but I had one more task. I climbed into the car, sitting in the seat Johnny Cash had just been sitting in, and directed the driver to the special parking place being held at the back of the building, poised by a door for a quick getaway.

So for a round-the-block drive, I sat in Johnny Cash’s Mercedes and was driven by Johnny Cash’s driver. It really was a nice, black, shiny Mercedes. It might be my imagination, but I think the seats were black leather.