As Kathryn Tucker Windham knew too well, the hardest part of a story is having to conclude it. Alabama’s doyenne of disquisition quietly wrapped up her saga at home Sunday, in her unpretentious digs on Royal Street in Selma. Her family planned a simple service to mark her passing, but it would be perfectly justified to have her cortege roll down the highways of this state,in the manner of Bear Bryant’s, so that ordinary folk could pay their respects from the overpasses as she went by. More justified, in fact: people took sides fer and agin Bear Bryant, but everyone was on Kathryn Windham’s side.
Of her many roles in life, Mrs. Windham was best renowned as a storyteller. That is not an inconsequential undertaking. Since the dawn of mankind, the repository of wisdom has been the storyteller, the one who puts accrued wisdom into a narrative and passes it on. Long before the Sumerians started getting cute with their cuneiform, an oral history tradition was underway in every civilized corner of the world. Many of the legends we know today were first uttered around campfires millennia ago. Kathryn Windham was just picking up where Homer left off. “All Southerners were born to tell stories,” she would say. “We need to tell stories.”
Mrs. Windham’s path to storytelling was circuitous, but as near as can be figured, it was her father, James Tucker, who introduced her to the singular joys of a well-told tale while she was growing up in Thomasville. She sometimes said that she put long pauses in her stories because that’s the way her father told them, only he was putting in pauses because he was relighting his pipe as he spun yarns.
The first way she wanted to tell stories was in newspapers. Her kinfolk owned the Thomasville Times, a weekly paper for which she started writing movie reviews while still a kid. Kathryn also developed an affinity for photography, sparked by a Kodak camera she won in a drugstore contest.
After she graduated from Huntingdon College, she signed on as a reporter with a big city paper, the Alabama Journal. Trouble was, in 1940, the only girl reporter on most newspaper staffs was Brenda Starr (a pop culture reference that only people of Mrs. Windham’s vintage may get). The young college grad had to struggle to gain respect from her male peers, and she did so by taking on the most difficult assignment on any paper at that time, the police beat. The Alabama Press Association confirms that Mrs. Windham was the first woman reporter to work the cops for a major paper in the state—Carol Robinson, you owe her one—and she parlayed that into a job at The Birmingham News around 1944.
Her big scoop in Birmingham was meeting and marrying Benjamin Windham in 1946. The happy couple and their three subsequent children relocated to Selma, where the missus went back to writing full-time after her husband’s death in 1956.
Mrs. Windham’s next step in storytelling was
becoming an author. She published a best-selling
recipe collection in 1964, but the book that sealed
her fame and earned her the adjective “beloved”
was a slender volume entitled 13 Alabama
Ghosts and Jeffrey. Co-written with Margaret
Figh in 1969, it told of supernatural presences in
small towns throughout the state, such as “The
Phantom Steamboat of the Tombigbee,” “The
Unquiet Ghost of Gaineswood”, and my favorite,“The Face In The Courthouse Window,” that of poor Henry Wells, lynched in 1878 by an angry mob—was anyone ever lynched by a mob that wasn’t?—and haunting his killers forevermore in a window at the Pickens County Courthouse.
Jeffrey was a ghost that haunted the Windham house, never seen by Kathryn but vouched for by daughter Dilcy and the house cat. A benign presence, he made a good foil for the storyteller, who included him in seven ghostly volumes. “Jeffrey is better known than I am,” she
told The News’s Jeremy Gray in 2005. “I can’t complain; he sent three kids to college.”
Once she became famous for telling tales in print, it wasn’t long before she started telling
them aloud. Mrs. Windham performed at her first National Storytelling Festival in 1974, winning crowds not only with her elegant delivery of folk tales, but with her sorghum-rich Black Belt dialect. In 1978, she transplanted that success into the Alabama Tale-Tellin’ Festival, held each year in Selma.
Her voice also traveled through the ether. In 1983, WUAL, the public radio station in Tuscaloosa, broadcast Mrs. Windham’s musings on rattlesnakes, and in short order she became
a weekly fixture on its morning news broadcast. When the station manager sent a tape to NPR, a
nationwide audience was introduced to the rose petal softness of Windham’s soliloquies, which
ran on “Morning Edition” from 1985 to 1987.
Debbie Elliott, writing on the NPR website, quoted the matriarch at her induction into the
Alabama Academy of Honor in 2004. “I look out at this group today,” she said. “God has blessed us so richly. And I’m ashamed that we have not used those blessings ... to do more to improve the lives of our fellow Alabama citizens.”
There was a thorn on that rose. People remember the innocuous bonhomie, but tend to
forget Kathryn Windham’s quiet advocacy of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. She rarely made overtly political statements, but it was no accident that, when she got around to writing a play, it was about Julia Tutwiler, the pioneering education and prison reformer. “I think she had the first integrated campus in Alabama, but I don’t know how you would ever prove it,” she said in 1998. “In my mind I know she did.”
That mind was a fascinating place to visit. We are privileged to have had the invitation
extended to us for so many years.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.