I got a late start one recent Saturday morning and was quietly enjoying my second cup of coffee. It was 10:15 when I turned to the obituary page. There it was: a news announcing the death two days earlier of Betty Carter.
I drew a deep breath and read the familiar recounting of her years of fighting Huey Long in Louisiana and then moving with her more famous husband, Hodding Carter, to Greenville, Miss., to start a newspaper and battle, among others, the Ku Klux Klan.
Suddenly, I was transported back 22 years to the time I first walked into the newsroom of this famous little newspaper, Delta Democrat-Times of which she was then publisher. It was there this queen of a woman of such elegance and old New Orleans charm had edited or co-wrote her husband’s editorials on racial tolerance, for which they won a Pulitzer. It was under her tutelage that I hammered out my first editorial.
I remembered how she and her husband came to Greenville at the invitation of poet and planter William Alexander Percy, around whom an unusual renaissance of writers gathered in an isolated river town of 50,000. It was William’s nephew, novelist Walker Percy, whom I met standing in line at the Atlanta funeral of the woman through whom we were slightly related. I thought about how I had been back to visit all my other stops on my Southern tour of newspapers, but had never been “back to Greenville,” a phrase recently hammered into my psyche by a Lucinda Williams CD that played in my car for weeks.
I went online and tried to find the funeral arrangements, but had no luck. I called the newsroom at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and reached a woman in circulation, no doubt mired in a Mardi Gras glaze, whom I begged to read me yesterday’s paper. “The funeral,” she read, “will be Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Greenville, Mississippi.”
I called Delta Air Lines: a flight was leaving in 50 minutes. I made it, sweating, five minutes before departure. I rented a car in Memphis and raced down Highway 61, arriving at the church with 10 minutes to spare. I took a breath, looked around and recognized faces I had not seen in 21 years: the features editor, a photographer, a fellow reporter, several Percy “cousins,” Betty’s sons, Hodding Jr. and Philip. At the cemetery, I had a few minutes to chat with a few. Others got away before I could reminisce.
I drove around the courthouse and police station and jail, where all the characters had once seemed larger than life because it was after all, Mississippi, and it was my first job. I visited the newspaper, which hadn’t changed. Sallie, the managing editor, was there and still on the news desk.
I drove past the old carriage house where I first lived as a single man right out of college. A little more than a year later, I drove out in a U-Haul truck with a dog, a cat and a wife. The carriage house was still shadowed by the same bamboo, oak and magnolia trees that had cooled the hot summer days of our first few weeks of marriage in 1979. As I again drove out east on Highway 82, I was struck by how I now live single again in Atlanta, where everything is about hectic change and rapid growth. I felt comforted to go back to Greenville, where hardly anything or anyone had changed and yet these erudite gentle folks who once were so much a part of my life still move through life at their own rhythm at a pace we in Atlanta can only remember.
Photo of Chris Schroder, staking out Greenville, Mississippi, police station.