For 12 years I was an itinerant newspaperman, traveling through four Southern towns before returning home to work for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. From Mississippi to North Carolina, almost everyone I would meet would have a story about Atlanta.
One of the more popular topics was people’s love and admiration for a syndicated columnist from the Constitution named Lewis Grizzard. People read his column in their local newspaper, listened to his tapes or bought his books, with titles such as “Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.” He was passionate about the South, Atlanta, his Georgia Bulldogs and a few other subjects that made him controversial. He created a group of somewhat fictional characters that entertained his fans for years. When Lewis died in 1994, he left behind a depth of loyalty few other newspaper writers have matched this century.
On more than one occasion, I was asked to join the host committee to welcome Lewis to town when he was booked to speak before a local civic or social group. Lewis, when surrounded by people he didn’t know, could be a man of few words. So people thought they should get a local newspaper guy with an Atlanta connection to come “talk with Lewis.”
In Augusta, I sat next to him at a Junior League barbecue. In Charlotte, the local symphony asked for my help to fill a 2,500-seat auditorium with tickets that sold for $25. I placed a couple of ads in our newspaper and the tickets sold instantly. A year later, we picked a larger venue and filled 4,500 seats at $15 a pop.
I spent the day with Lewis and Tony, his manager. My mission was to entertain them with one of Lewis’ favorite pasttimes: a game of golf. They drifted into my office with Tony fussing at Lewis because he hadn’t finished his daily column yet. Lewis begrudgingly sat down at my conference table and scratched out a column on some notebook paper. Like most polished columnists, it didn’t take him long. He called and dictated it to his assistant at the AJC and we were off to the course.
It was a cold, blustery February day and Tony was not thrilled about spending it on a golf course. But Lewis was not to be deterred. We played six or seven holes, talking about subjects we had in common: Newspapers, Atlanta, mutual acquaintances. Lewis told a few jokes. I had recently heard one from my boss and while we were putting out on one hole, I told it. Lewis chuckled slightly and looked at Tony for a second.
“Hey, that’s a pretty good joke,” Lewis said. “You mind if I use that one tonight?”
“No, go ahead. Be my guest,” I said, flattered at my supplier-to-the-stars status.
It started to sleet. Lewis and I wanted to keep playing, but Tony started to grumble. On the next green, Lewis tried to make a 20-footer, but the mounds of ice that were starting to collect knocked his ball away from the hole. Finally, he relented and we retired to the clubhouse to drink Irish coffees.
That night, before thousands of spellbound fans, Lewis kept the crowd giggling with his voice, his accent and the eventual punchline. Our stomachs were hurting from laughter.
Near the end, he worked in my joke. Only Lewis told it better and the audience laughed. Suddenly, I wondered whether I may have committed the cardinal sin of telling Lewis a joke that was his to begin with. I never did ask Lewis if I had stolen his joke or if I added just a little bit to his routine. And Lewis, a fine Southern gentleman, never let on.