A fan of Miss Kathryn’s homemade vegetable soup served with cornbread and buttermilk in her Royal Street kitchen in Selma, longtime friend and adventure companion Wayne Flynt called her an “absolute legend,” “one of the great spirits of Alabama.” An accomplished, award-winning Alabama historian, Flynt’s portrait of words includes his homage to Miss Kathryn on her 90th birthday. “Some people are important to intellectuals, journalists, or politicians, but Kathryn Tucker Windham is probably the only person I know in Alabama who is important to everybody.”
Born in 1918, the youngest of seven children, Miss Kathryn grew up in Thomasville surrounded by an even larger extended family. Her family life was a rich source for stories as her mother, a former teacher, relished passing along family history. James Wilson Tucker, her father, was a highly regarded banker, chairman of the school board, and a talented storyteller. Miss Kathryn remembered, “My father liked to laugh. He told stories to make people laugh.”
By age 12, two of Miss Kathryn’s careers were launched. She began writing movie reviews for her cousin’s newspaper, The Thomasville Times. After receiving a free Brownie Kodak Camera from the local drugstore, she began taking photographs. Two of these early photographs have been exhibited in art museums. She considered one of them, Woman with Spinning Wheel, “the best picture I’ve ever taken.”
Fearless journalist, devoted wife and mother, community activist
Miss Kathryn graduated from Huntington College in 1939 determined to pursue a career as a journalist. After being rejected by the Montgomery Advertiser simply because she was female, she was hired by The Alabama Journal in 1941 for $15 weekly. As one of the earliest women police reporters in the South, Miss Kathryn weathered the ridicule, mistrust, and practical jokes of the police officials she worked with, ultimately earning their respect by fearlessly and thoroughly covering murders, drownings, and stories from Kilby Prison and Tutwiler Prison.
In 1944 Miss Kathryn went to work for The Birmingham News, traveling the state and writing feature stories. One of her favorite assignments was Gov. Chauncey Sparks’ trip to the Bullpen Hunting Club in the remotest depths of Washington County. Despite car-claiming mud and a treacherous three-mile hike, she managed to make it to the lodge, the first woman to be a guest there. Fifty-six years later, Miss Kathryn was invited back to the club to recount her harrowing journey to the original members, as well as their sons and grandsons.
During her Birmingham News years, Miss Kathryn also covered the peanut harvest in the Wiregrass. With the war raging, manpower was limited, so the War Department sent 3,000 German prisoners of war to harvest peanuts, an essential war commodity. After a close call with a pitch fork-bearing German, and a test of her sprinting ability, Miss Kathryn was able to get her story and photographs from a more cooperative group of prisoners.
In 1946, Miss Kathryn married fellow journalist Amasa Windham. They made their home in Selma and had three children. She taught Sunday school, served as the first PTA president at Edgewood Elementary, and began her active, lifetime role in the community. Not giving up her writing, Miss Kathryn wrote articles for several magazines and a statewide weekly column called “Around Our House.”
Several years after Amasa’s death in 1956, Miss Kathryn started her 14-year career writing for the Selma Times-Journal. She wore many hats and essentially wrote for all parts of the newspaper, with the most vivid memories branching from Selma’s floods and the Civil Rights Movement.
Miss Kathryn also served on the Selma City School Board during those dangerously turbulent times. Friends admired her ability to evaluate both sides of a difficult issue and bring those around her to the right decision without anger as well as her role as a “thread that connected the black and white communities.”
storytelling takes off
With chilling, erratic stomping and slamming doors, a ghost she named Jeffrey emerged in Miss Kathryn’s Selma home in 1966. Her career as a collector and teller of ghost tales began with the book, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. Although she actually never saw Jeffrey or any other ghosts, Miss Kathryn never gave up on her belief in their existence.
In 1974 when Miss Kathryn was asked to participate in the Second Annual National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., she thought the request was a joke since she did not consider herself a storyteller. However, when the airline tickets provided by the festival arrived in the mail, she knew there was no joke.
So Miss Kathryn traveled to Tennessee, quickly became the matriarch of the National Storytelling Festival, and then founded her own in 1978, the Alabama Tale-Tellin’ Festival. During all her story telling ventures, audiences sat mesmerized, lulled by the sound of her molasses-slow, gentle voice, as she told simple tales of a child’s attempts to attain perfect vision by spitting on a lightning bug in flight. She reminded even the oldest fan of the shocking feel of July-hot pavement on hardened summertime feet and always hit a grand slam with her stories.
Miss Kathryn’s phenomenal, multilayered career as a “teller” in written, photographic, and oral forms also included radio performances via Alabama and National Public Radio, writing and performing a one-woman play about Julia S. Tutwiler, the publication of about thirty books, and photograph exhibitions as near as Huntsville and as far away as Paris.
The Kathryn Tucker Windham Museum on the Thomasville Campus of Alabama Southern Community College boasts Charlie Lucas’ comical, bigger-than-life recycle sculpture of Miss Kathryn with her ever-present hat, multi-colored tennis shoes, and camera hanging around her neck. In 2004 Norton Dill and Anne Wheeler made a documentary movie about her, fittingly titled, Kathryn: The Story of a Teller.
Remembered by her
children — Dilcy and Ben
As a single parent and the sole breadwinner, Miss Kathryn proudly held her children as her first priority. Dilcy Windham Hilley and Ben Windham, her surviving children, recall stories of growing up with a funky, witty, loving mother, who took them on her writing assignments when she felt it would be beneficial and considered weekends the perfect time to hunt for arrowheads and shark’s teeth and take field trips to Civil War battlefields. Utilizing a freighter for transportation and friends’ homes in Italy and Turkey as travel bases, the four Windhams toured Europe in the summer of 1963.
After her mother’s death, Dilcy captured the essence of Miss Kathryn’s life stating, “She believed she was put on this Earth to bring joy to other people, and she did that in abundance.” Ben recalled the following story, a perfect example of her chosen purpose and the way of life she taught her children.
“One Christmas we got extra stockings. As always, we drove down later to my grandmother’s house in Thomasville. But Mother made an unexpected detour down a dirt road that she chose at random. We saw a black woman walking with two children. They were total strangers to us. Mother stopped the car and asked me to give the children our extra stockings which were filled with candy, toys and fruit. The mother’s eyes sparkled. ‘Santa Claus has come for you at the store and now he’s come here,’ she told the children. That was so like Mother…”
Miss Kathryn told Ben about visiting a poor family with her father when she was young. After the children all played in the dirt together, she and her father joined the family for a meager mid-day meal. “You’re not better than they are,” her father told her after they left. “You’ve just had better things.” Ben believes his mother lived that lesson all her life.
Miss Kathryn had a knack for bringing people together and creating easy camaraderie. For more than 30 years at her New Year’s Day Pea Eatin’ Party, she prepared pounds of black-eyed peas and mounds of cornbread muffins as she joyfully shared the day with her wonderful hodgepodge of friends. She had a special place in her heart for the people of Gee’s Bend whom she had interviewed and photographed over a span of 50 years and took great pleasure entertaining the now famous quilters with stories as they stitched and sang. Her Gee’s Bend peers, alike in age but opposite in life experiences, were illuminating illustrations of Miss Kathryn’s graceful ability to make friends everywhere she went. Dilcy commented, “That was her real gift — everybody just felt like she was their close friend.”
A deep and
life gracefully ends
Completely convinced that “to laugh together draws people together,” Miss Kathryn promoted comb playing. Community comb choruses were held on the lawn of the public library and colorful combs imprinted with “Making Music Together in Selma, Alabama,” were distributed. After a few seconds of instruction on the art of comb playing, tunes were played by young and old, black and white, amidst riotous laughter and genuine good will.
After 93 years of savoring her Southern roots and sharing her genuine love and unique understanding of the South and Southerners with people all over the world, Miss Kathryn died last June. Per her specific, long-planned instructions, she was placed in a six-sided, walnut-pegged, heart pine coffin custom made by her friend John Moss and carried to the cemetery in the back of Charlie Lucas’ pickup truck. For her final send-off, the choir at her memorial service played “I’ll Fly Away” on combs.
In her unwavering straightforward manner, Miss Kathryn made the directions for her headstone very clear in her 1996 book Twice Blessed.
“My grave marker won’t be one of those fancy examples of the stone mason’s art, nor will it have a flowery epitaph. I’d like to have some words from one of Jan Struther’s poems. ‘She was twice blessed: She was happy; She knew it.’” Ten words succinctly convey her lifetime attitude.
An exceptionally strong, lovely Southern woman, who unquestionably knew who she was, Kathryn Tucker Windham graciously lived an incredibly deep and luscious Southern life.
Her contributions to preserving memories of this life — verbal, written, and visual — are unsurpassed. With honesty, enthusiasm, sensitivity, and humor, Miss Kathryn enriched our lives with her enduring words and images, while quietly and gently teaching us how to know ourselves and be proud of who we are.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 205-387-2890.