If Lewis Grizzard had lived, he would be 70. But he didn’t. He died from complications after his fourth heart surgery at Emory Hospital in Atlanta on March 20, 1994. The next day newspapers kept printing, but I don’t know that they have ever been quite the same.
It was said that he had wanted somebody – “preferably Willie Nelson” – to sing “Precious Memories” at his funeral. His ashes are buried by his mother’s grave in Moreland, Georgia where he grew up. The Washington Post wrote, “He compared every woman to his mother, who spoiled him rotten.” He wrote about her with reverence, but also wrote with moving adoration about his father, a highly decorated veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He was open about his dad’s struggles with alcohol after returning from service, and also about his own fear of never measuring up to him, no matter what he ever achieved in his own right.
He had early success in the newspaper business. During his first year at his beloved University of Georgia, he was a feature writer for the Newnan Times-Herald. By 1975 he had become an assistant city editor at The Atlanta Journal. It was a position he would quickly leave, and was then named executive sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. But he loathed Chicago. Being homesick for the south, he returned in 1977, taking a job as a sports columnist with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In early 1978, his thrice-weekly column was moved to the news section.
By the time of his early death at 47, he was planning his 21st book. He also gained fame through his stand-up speaking engagements, but most people knew him through his column that ran in over 450 papers. He became a voice of the South, writing about what he knew and loved – Southern ways, Southern women, Georgia football, barbecue, home-grown tomatoes, and the kind of corned beef that comes in a can. He would often lend his platform to victims of crimes or causes he supported. His work was frequently laced with warm humor and nostalgia for a way and time we drift back to in our minds, but a place to which few would return.
He would take aim at Yankees, politicians, his three ex-wives, television evangelists, and Georgia Tech, but seldom was he mean-spirited. Supporters felt some of his more controversial topics – such as homophobia and feminism – were his way of starting conversations most conservative-minded people weren’t comfortable with having yet. He served as a divide between the old south and the new, seldom responding to even the harshest of his critics, including the late, great Southern author, Pat Conroy, who once said, “Grizzard represented mostly what was wrong with the South.” It was an opinion not shared by many.
Today marks 23 years since he left. A few months back all of the little writers in the state, along with all the big ones, and famous ones, with their editors, publishers, competitors, and colleagues gathered at the Bryant Conference Center in Tuscaloosa for the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame gala. As everyone took their seats prior to the ceremony starting, the conversation at our table turned to how much everyone still misses Lewis Grizzard. So much so, that for a moment we fell silent. Having been such a UGA fan, he would have probably gotten a kick out of being a topic of conversation at The University of Alabama that particular night. Then again, he was a man of the South. He knew how we like to keep our best here with us and never let them go.
Amanda Walker is a columnist with The West Alabama Watchman, Al.com, The Thomasville Times, and The Wilcox Progressive Era. For more information, visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AmandaWalker.Columnist.