6 dead in one day: How a Knoxville headstone spurred a quest for answers

A grave marker for nearly an entire family caught an Anderson County woman's attention, and lead her to search for the story behind the headstone.

A curious schoolteacher discovered a grave at the Knoxville National Cemetery this past Memorial Day that held six family members -- all killed on the same day decades ago.

She and her husband, both retired veterans, honor the fallen by visiting their graves on the holiday created to remember them.

"As we walked, I spotted this marker. It caught my attention because there were so many names on the back of it. I came in for a closer look," Denise Bulechek recalled.

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One side had three young boys' names etched in the stone. It read, "sons of Theotis Dodson." The other side had the names of Dodson's wife and two little girls.

They all died on Feb. 16, 1964.

"Basically it was his entire family. They all had the same date that they died," Bulechek said.

She noticed that Theotis Dodson died nearly 20 years after his wife and five children.

"It touched my heart as a veteran and it piqued my curiosity as a schoolteacher to know what happened to them," she said.

The names on the stone stayed with Bulechek, and she decided to search online to see what happened.

But she and a friend could only find one short article. It said the family died in a house fire in Cleveland, Ohio, and little else.

"Then, that made us even more curious because we couldn't figure out how they came to be here at Knoxville National Cemetery," Bulechek said.

Denise asked WBIR to see if we could find more.

10News used a public library database to find a Cleveland Plain Dealer article.

It relays painful details about the Dodson family's story. The headline reads "Remorseful Father Remembers Cries: Daddy, Daddy Please Help."

The newspaper says the fire started at 12:40 a.m., and by the time firefighters arrived the flames were shooting 20 feet above the house that had multiple apartments. Dodson injured himself trying to rescue his family trapped by fire.

Dodson told the newspaper his wife woke up screaming that the house was on fire. He told her to get the kids out and he ran downstairs to see where the smoke was coming from. But by the time he returned, the flames had trapped his wife and five children.

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Dodson injured himself trying to get back up to them. Dodson told the newspaper his wife was eight months pregnant.

"All I can remember is the smoke, the fire and the kids yelling, 'Daddy, Daddy help us,'" Dodson told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The children ranged in age from 3 years old to 13.

A 1981 obituary showed Theotis Dodson had decided to bury his family in Knoxville because he was born and raised here. He moved back to East Tennessee after the tragedy and met his future wife Vera. The two eventually married and had two children. He took in her two children from a previous marriage as his own.

“I thought we all had the same dad because he never treated us any different,” said Theotis’ daughter, Barbara Dodson.

His family says he spent the rest of his life trying to cope with the loss of his family. He often suffered from nightmares.

“He relived this [the fire] a lot of time. And I felt sorry for him, but there was nothing I could do but pray and keep going,” said Vera.

He suffered a fatal heart attack at age 53 when his daughter Barbara was 9. She only remembers him as a loving and supportive father. Dodson served as a supply clerk during World War II and worked in a state mental health hospital in Clevleland.

“He was really sweet, and I'm not just saying that because he's my dad. Just about anyone that knew him knew he was a sweet person,” said Barbara.

WBIR arranged for the Dodson family to meet Denise, who cared enough to learn more about what happened to their loved one.

“We feel good, too, knowing we’re not the only ones remembering him. Thank you for that,” Dodson’s wife, Vera, told Denise.

“It brings back memories. Trying not to tear up,” Barbara said. “Brings back memories that you push back because it hurts.”

These families who never met before are now connected through friendship and mutual respect for honoring our nation's military.

“It's still very sad what happened to his entire family in one day. But I'm excited and happy to know he went on to have a wonderful life with a wonderful wife and kids,” Denise said.

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