Life lessons Windham taught me

Published 11:47pm Saturday, June 25, 2011

I read a lot of books as a youngster growing up in Tuscaloosa. One of my favorite parts of the school day was a trip to the library at Skyland Elementary, where the Encyclopedia Brown series was a favorite. The element of mystery Encyclopedia dealt with as he gathered clues, formed conclusions and cracked cases still resonates today in my adult life. Lessons were learned.

Another of my favorite childhood books was Kathryn Tucker Windham’s “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey.” Many of my childhood memories have waned in adult life, but I still remember the day I pulled it off the shelf at the library. It was obviously a popular book, pages dog-eared and stained by tiny fingerprints with the little card in the back stamped a hundred times.

Flash forward a few decades. I now have the privilege to work at the newspaper at which Kathryn worked, in the same building where the film was developed showing the ghostly apparition I read about as a child in her book.

Upon settling in Selma, she was one of my first phone calls. As the new publisher of her former newspaper I wanted to introduce myself and meet her in person. I asked her to lunch, and she said, “Well, why don’t you just come by my house and have some soup?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I would love to.”

It was a cozy home on Royal Street in what some consider a “bad” part of town, but it was Kathryn’s home, and she loved it. She showed me around her home, the exact spot where Jeffrey made his appearance and the stack of Gee’s Bend quilts she owned. Kathryn loved Gee’s Bend, its people and their plight when nobody knew where Gee’s Bend was. Later, we ate vegetable soup and homemade cornbread sticks and talked about life in the newspaper business.

When I left she offered me a copy of her book “Odd-Egg Editor,” which I gratefully accepted. Her inscription in the book reads “For Dennis, so you will know a bit about what it was like to be a ‘girl reporter’ over half a century ago.”

Kathryn sent me several letters since that meeting; all hand written on her customized Jeffrey stationary, with “Personal” written on the front of each envelope. Her letters were generally complimentary in nature. One letter thanked me for a column I had written about how bad litter was in our city; another requested more coverage of her favorite professional baseball team, the Atlanta Braves.

My last visit with Kathryn was at Cedar Hill, an “assisted living” home in Selma. I had called and asked her to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of her former publisher at the Times-Journal, Roswell Falkenberry, who I have nominated to be inducted into the Alabama Press Association Hall of Honor.

Kathryn had been ill but she agreed to write “about my friend Roswell” and called me several days later saying she’d finished the letter. My daughter Maggie, who is 10, had wanted to meet Kathryn for some time, so I stopped to pick her up on the way. Maggie clutched the copy of Kathryn’s “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey” she received last Christmas as we both walked into Cedar Hill.

Kathryn was waiting on us and invited us to her room, where a small paper “Jeffrey” was taped to her door. I said, “I bet Jeffrey misses having you home,” to which she replied “I think he came with me.” Maggie’s eyes got full, wondering if Jeffrey would show himself.

We sat with Kathryn for a while, listening to stories of her youth in Thomasville and of a particular boy she grew up with who always seemed to get into trouble. Before leaving she autographed Maggie’s book — “For Maggie, who likes to read! Hauntingly yours, Kathryn T. Windham and Jeffrey. May 26, 2011.” She then gave Maggie the pen she signed the book with.

My last image of Kathryn is of her sitting in a chair in her room at Cedar Hill. As I walked out the door she looked over her shoulder and said, “Shut the door, please.”

Kathryn died quietly in her home June 12, 2011 surrounded by family and friends. Her burial, in a custom made “pine box,” as she called it, followed the next day in New Live Oak Cemetery.

It was a simple service by today’s standards, but if there’s one lesson Kathryn taught me it’s the simplest things in life that are sometimes the hardest to understand.

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