Grizzard remembered 20 years later

by W. Winston Skinner

Family, friends and fans of Lewis Grizzard gathered at his tombstone in Moreland on Thursday — remembering the writer and humorist on the 20th anniversary of his death.

Mary Ann Cauthen, his first cousin, recounted a visit with Grizzard near the end of his life. “Sometimes,” he told her, “I wish I was back in Moreland — living a normal life.” By that point, Grizzard was a best-selling author, a singer-songwriter and a standup-comic with acting credentials.

“I miss him,” said childhood friend Danny Thompson. “We all do.” “People are still looking for Lewis,” said Carol Chancey, who leads day-to-day activities for the Moreland Cultural Arts Alliance. “They stop at Nifty (Foods) and ask. They stop at the post office.”

“He thought a lot about Moreland. Most of his material came from right around here,” said Camilla Stevens, who became Grizzard’s friend when they were students at Newnan High School.

MCAA sponsored Thursday’s memorial service at Southview Cemetery. The afternoon event included bagpipe music by Michael Scott and presentation of a floral wreath by an honor guard — Brent Bohannon and Ethan Smith from Boy Scout Troop 48. Grizzard was a member of the same troop when he was growing up in Moreland.

The focal point of the gathering was the sharing of stories about Grizzard. Thompson said his aunt, Maxine Estes, described the group that included him and Grizzard as “the roughest crowd that ever came through Moreland.”

Their fun was never aimed at hurting anyone, though. “We were like most small-town kids,” Thompson said.

He recalled a time when he thought Grizzard was going to catch a baseball during a game and he got out of Grizzard’s way. The ball hit the ground.

Grizzard’s eyes flashed fire. “Lewis could get mad in a minute, but he couldn’t fight so he wasn’t going to hit anybody,” Thompson said.

Mary Ann Cauthen, Grizzard’s first cousin, remembered their grandmother, “Mama Willie” Word, wanted Cauthen, Grizzard and Cauthen’s sister to take a nap when they visited. “She told us if we didn’t take a nap, we’d get polio,” she said.

The three would try to nap. “We’d all get to giggling because we were supposed to be quiet.”

One afternoon Cauthen and Grizzard slipped out and almost stripped the plum bush, devouring the fruit. “Those were the plums Mama Willie was saving for jelly,” Cauthen recalled, and she and Grizzard went sent to select their own switches.

“He was such a sight — so bright,” mused Sara Jane Skinner, who taught Grizzard his first journalism class at Newnan High School.

She recalled him and his friends as “very creative and smart.” She worked with them on Tiger Tracks, the school newspaper, and Pen in Paw, the literary magazine.

“I learned many years later I had a number of names at that time I was teaching Lewis. One of them was ‘the gypsy lady,’” Mrs. Skinner said. “They were a wonderful group.”

Winston Skinner, a minister and Times-Herald staff member who is president of MCAA, led the service. He also remembered interviewing Grizzard. “I saw a different side of him. He was always prepared. He understood I needed to write this story and what I needed from him,” he said.

Cauthen remembered their aunt, Jessie Norman, told Grizzard that Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson was going to have him locked up for some of the things he wrote. In fact, Grizzard and Jackson “were very good friends,” she said.

At a family event when Grizzard was writing his column for the Atlanta paper, several people remembered bits and pieces of an event years before — pieces Grizzard crafted into a column a few days later. His writing gift, Cauthen reflected, was one “he got from both parents.”

Grizzard was in the hospital several times near the end of his life. After his final surgery, friends Camilla Stevens and Dudley Stamps visited. “Dudley and I were at Emory 20 years ago today when they turned off the machines,” Stevens said.

“He was gone,” Stevens said of Grizzard. “He was already gone … I will always remember all the good times.”

Bohannon and Smith carefully positioned the wreath with a card attached reading “In memory — Family, Friends and Fans Everywhere” — behind the tombstone which describes Grizzard as a “Great American.” Someone had already placed a couple of golf balls in front of the stone.

A litany from the United Methodist Book of Worship — Grizzard grew up attending Moreland Methodist — was a central point of the time of remembrance. After the ceremonies, MCAA held at reception in the fellowship hall at the church. As Chancey spoke, a train came through town — blowing its whistle and temporarily halting the proceedings. Winston Skinner joked that it is required for a train to come through town “whenever there is a public event in Moreland.” Chancey relayed greetings from Mayor Dick Ford, noting Ford has had a heart transplant and, therefore, “a lot of empathy with Lewis and what he went through.” Even before his parents divorced and his mother moved to Moreland, Grizzard often visited the south Coweta town to visit with his grandparents. Born in 1946 at Ft. Benning, Grizzard died on March 20, 1994, following surgery related to a congenital heart condition.

Some of the memories on Thursday were of Grizzard’s mother, Christine Atkinson, who taught in Moreland for years. “She was my first grade teacher,” Deborah Smith recalled.

Smith remembered arriving at school that first day and hearing wailing. A friend of Smith had arrived at school in tears, and Atkinson had locked the girl in the restroom telling her she would let her out when she quit crying.

“By golly, I went to my desk and sat down,” Smith remembered. “I didn’t dare make a peep.”

Chancey encouraged attendees “to come back to the future events during the year” remembering Grizzard. She also talked about the expanded exhibit on Grizzard slated for the Moreland Mill, which is undergoing restoration.

“There’s a lot more planned for the future,” she said.

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