Monday, June 13, 2011

Kathryn Tucker Windham, reporting the joys of life

Alabama’s storyteller and one of my writing and reporting heroes died Sunday, June 12, surrounded by friends and family. But, then, Miss Kathryn was almost always surrounded by friends. I think that’s because she made us her friend, accepted us – even this then-cub reporter who idolized her.

People who met Kathryn Windham -- or just those who read her Jeffrey ghost books or those celebrating folklore or front porches or listened to her on National Public Radio – became her friends because she brought us into her circle of care and laughter. She was 93 when she died Sunday, which is a good, long life for a journalist, storyteller, photographer, friend and mother of three who left a mark on everyone who knew her.

Through her writing, her care for others and her love for Selma, folklore and all things superstitious, Kathryn Tucker Windham’s fame had spread far beyond the Alabama Black Belt. Born in Thomasville, she lived most of her adult life in Selma, where she was a treasured hometown icon and where I was privileged to know her.

As a reporter for the Selma Times-Journal from 1979 to 1986 (and another stint as Lifestyle editor in the late 80s, early 90s), I was one of many young reporters who idolized this woman who used to work at the STJ and was the first female police reporter at the Alabama Journal in Montgomery. She told us stories about covering the police beat in the state capitol back during World War II, when most of the guys were gone, so they had to let a woman cover the police beat. Mrs. Windham, speaking to a group of journalists back in the day at a Selma meeting, provided my favorite line about being a reporter. “You get to ask people you don’t know things that are none of your business.”

Perfect. And that’s how her writing was, and her care for others.

I wrote a feature story about Mrs. Windham back in the 1980s, I think it was (I looked this morning in my yellowing clipping collection from the STJ and couldn’t find it). My Selma Times-Journal editor, Nikki Davis Maute, and one of Miss Kathryn’s many BFFs whose picture with Jeffrey helped start it all, assigned the feature to me. See, we had a list of prominent Selma folks and were doing profile stories on them, first to tell their stories, and also to have a file (these were paper files then) on our best and brightest, whenever that information was needed. “I know y’all are doing this to get ready for our obituaries,” Mrs. Windham, ever the newswoman, told me, laughing, during the interview which was more like a friendly visit.

Mrs. Windham’s house was always open to friends, especially on New Year’s Day, when she served up pots of black-eyed peas and corn bread. It was from Mrs. Windham that I learned that only Yankee cornbread has that teaspoon of sugar it in. She befriended the leagues of young reporters who came through Selma and the Selma Times-Journal, during my time being the three J’s: Jackie, Jeanette Berryman and Janet Gresham. Janet still lives and writes in Selma, using her substantial writing and photography talents to continue to tell Selma’s story, through your blogs and through freelance work publicizing Selma’s annual events, like the Selma Pilgrimage.

I’ll always think of Mrs. Windham as a reporter, a journalist, first. Because she was so good as a reporter, she was so good at telling stories of all kinds. Her writing voice was like she was talking to you, telling you a great story, but with carefully chosen, spot-on word choices and sentences that captured the recognizable truth inside her stories, even those ghost and folklore ones.

I last saw Mrs. Windham at Auburn two years ago when she was honored as a distinguished Alabama writer by the Auburn University school of journalism, my alma mater. Two of my heroes were honored that day, her and Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Mrs. Windham and I talked a little bit before the luncheon; I told her I was writing a book, set in the Black Belt, a story that is wrapped around newspaper reports, superstitions and some magic and things we don’t know are possible or not. I said I’d already used one of her books, Count the Buzzards! Stamp Those Grey Mules! as a resource for rural, southern superstitions. “Good for you,” she smiled at me, and added, “Just write it.”

Just write it. That’s what Mrs. Windham did, as an ambassador for Alabama, Selma and the Blackbelt. She wrote and spoke the stories of our lives and past lives and what’s so special about living here and loving family and friends, and, best of all, just the joy of living. What a testament and lesson to us all.

Mrs. Windham in picture from Monday,
with a cutline that quotes Rick Bragg, 
"She's speaking of life and life lived, not life invented. That's a big difference."

I had to include this scanned version of the picture from 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey that started it all,
my former editor Nikki Maute, caught with Jeffrey the ghost.