Alabama’s Storyteller

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 25, 2003

They’re calling next week’s big to-do down in Thomasville the &uot;Alabama Celebrates Kathryn Tucker Windham&uot; weekend.

The title is a tad unwieldy and, quite frankly, more than a little embarrassing to the guest of honor.

Even more embarrassing, they plan to dedicate something they’re calling the Kathryn Tucker Windham Museum &045;&045; which, she hastens to point out, is really just a modest-sized room in the library of the Thomasville branch of Alabama Southern Community College.

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Nevertheless, she is far too much the genteel Southern lady to make an unseemly fuss about the whole thing. &uot;I just love that little town,&uot; she relents. &uot;It pleases me if they love me back.&uot;

There is only one title &045;&045; one honor &045;&045; that Kathryn Tucker Windham has ever really coveted. Anyone who has heard her enthrall audiences literally from coast to coast over the last 30 years or listened to her numerous broadcasts on Alabama Public Radio would readily grant that she has more than earned that title.

Far too many people, Windham contends, still think of storytelling as something only for little children. Not so, she insists. Storytelling is one of the oldest, most enduring of all the arts.

Done right, it is also one of the most compelling. &uot;We’ve only begun to discover how powerful storytelling can be,&uot; she says.

Windham broke onto the storytelling scene in a big way. She had never told a story before an audience in her life when she received an invitation from the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tenn. &045;&045; the &uot;Mount Olympus&uot; of the modern-day storytelling phenomenon.

Today, the festival attracts upwards of 20,000 people. But in those early days it was a much more homey affair, attracting only a relative handful of followers.

Recalls Windham, &uot;We sat on front porches, we sat under the trees and we just told stories about people. It was wonderful.&uot;

There are many elements that go into the making of a good storyteller but perhaps none more important than credibility.

That, she adds, is why she never tells stories about fairies or make-believe or creatures from outer space. &uot;I just tell stories about people &045;&045; not always normal, but people.&uot;

In searching for story material, Windham insists she need look no further than her own upbringing in Thomasville.

She learned the craft of storytelling from accompanying her father on trips to small country stores and &045;&045; comfortably ensconced on the front porch, Nehi cola in hand &045;&045; listening intently to the tales of the men who gathered to pass the time.

That ability served her well when, at the tender age of 12, she convinced her cousin Earl, who published the hometown newspaper, to let her be the paper’s movie review editor.

Windham lived to see her dream of becoming a reporter come true, including lengthy stints at The Montgomery Advertiser and The Selma Times-Journal.

Unlike many reporters today Windham abhorred tape recorders and notebooks, relying instead on her near photographic memory. She began by training herself to memorize Sunday sermons verbatim. Later she would employ that same ability in writing newspaper stories.

More than one elected public official found himself unnerved by the petite young reporter who never took notes but who never got it wrong.

Her love of a good story and of writing meshed when, in October 1966, she joined with folklorist Margaret Gillis Figh to compile the book &uot;13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey,&uot; a collection of ghost stories.

Jeffrey was the name Windham’s children gave to the source of the unexplained noises and heavy pieces of furniture that mysteriously shifted from time to time in the family home.

It is not necessary to actually believe in ghosts to enjoy a good ghost story, Windham points out. But a really good ghost story should leave the listener with the feeling that it could have happened.

And few things better convey a sense a wonder, insists Windham, than a good story well told.

Storytelling, she adds, is also the most fragile of the arts. &uot;Once a story is told it can never be told exactly the same way again. The listeners change, the teller changes and so does the story. I never tell a story exactly the same way twice. You go back and look at a picture, it’s always the same.&uot;

Although she still tells the occasional ghost story (&uot;I never decide which story I’m going to tell ahead of time. I try to tailor the story to the audience.&uot;), Windham today finds herself increasingly returning to her own small-town roots for material.

Hailing from the South, as she does, it is perhaps inevitable that Windham has come to be viewed as something of an ambassador for the region to the rest of the country. &uot;There are so many stereotypes about the South,&uot; she sighs. &uot;I hope I present a more balanced picture in my stories.&uot;

It is a role she fulfills eloquently, if somewhat reluctantly. Storytelling, she argues, is really about transcending such superficial differences as color or place of birth. Good storytelling seeks commonalties.

As she grows older Windham, 84, finds she has less and less desire to accumulate material things.

Outside of the rustic homemade casket that sits waiting in her garage, a Louisville Slugger baseball glove she keeps on hand for the grandkids and a few pieces of original folk art that adorn the walls of the home she still shares with Jeffrey, Windham has begun a deliberate effort to pare her life down to its essentials.

And while she’s humbled by all the attention that goes with being honored by one’s friends and having a museum named after one’s self, she insists there is only one legacy she truly desires.