When the news of Lewis Grizzard’s deteriorating condition first flashed through the Atlanta area in 1994, I, like so many of his fans, braced myself for what was to come. Nonetheless, I was not prepared for the profound sense of loss that followed the announcement of his death – I can still feel the sorrow.
I remember clearly the first column he wrote here after returning from a year living in Chicago. He wrote of his liberation from the bondage of Chicago winters and his return to the South. It rang true for me because it was 1977, and I too had been held hostage up north during one of the worst winters on record, and was homesick for Georgia.
Lewis was an irreplaceable element of life here. The son of a town that barely qualifies as a wide place in the road, Moreland, Georgia, he was equally at home in burgeoning Atlanta, as comfortable jabbing at politicians as at sports figures and local celebrities.
Incongruously, his voice was unique simply because it was not unique. It was the voice of the rural South caught between what the South used to be and what it is becoming.
Why shouldn’t a transplanted Pennsylvanian hear echoes of familiarity in the nostalgia of a Georgia good ol’ boy? Even Pennsylvanians remember country roads, church dinners-on-the-grounds, odd grammar-school classmates, beloved dogs.
The business of growing up, of making mistakes, of loving and losing is common to every one of us – Southern, Yankee, male, female – and we take comfort in being reminded that we are not alone on the journey. Even when the point of view is antithetical to our own, there is a chord of response, albeit dissonant.
The scope of Grizzard’s subjects was remarkable, if you think about it, especially for one of such humble origins. He reinforces my conviction that sometimes a spark of genius is fanned into full flame by circumstances, or in spite of them. In Lewis’ case, there is little doubt that his mama’s appreciation of language encouraged his genius.
But regardless of his subject, the hook that grabbed his readers, I believe, was that we could relate to his viewpoint, even if it was never ours.
We could imagine ourselves a Georgia country boy about to step out on Johnny Carson’s sound stage, or suffering sudden illness in Moscow, or facing down a personal devil like fear of flying.
With an efficiency honed by sports reporting, he struck in us an instant recognition of what it is we like about the Waffle House, and how lonely an empty house can feel.
We never actually met. He had his chance. On the occasion of the one opportunity that might have been, I became disgusted with what appeared to me to be a high-handed attitude toward his fans.
When I wrote “Fulfilling the Promise,” a book about the 17 counties between Atlanta and LaGrange, I wanted to include the region’s most famous humorist. I learned that he was going to be the commencement speaker at Newnan’s Heritage School, and I called Grizzard Enterprises. I told his agent (I presume) about the book, and asked if photographer Fred Zimmerman and I could meet with Grizzard for 10 minutes or so after the ceremony.
Not a chance, came the reply. However, if we wanted to stand in a certain hallway of the church at precisely such-and-such a time, we might be close enough to see him pass by.
He might as well have said, “to touch the hem of his garment.” Perhaps this was merely an overzealous employee insulating his boss. Or maybe Lewis wanted it that way.
In any case, we declined the honor, and took pictures from the back of the sanctuary. Lewis measures one-half inch high on page 82, with a quote from his speech in the cutline: “Don’t listen to anything I say here. You can’t use any of it anyhow – just like algebra.”
Guess I showed him.
In truth, Grizzard gave me courage to write in the first person singular. He proved how well the technique works.
Like him or not, we took from his style the sense that we shared a community, and that when Andy Young or Bobby Cox caught grief from Lewis, we were reading about it at the same time they were.
I think Grizzard’s most endearing characteristic was his passion for home and his ability to infuse us with it too. The South remains one of the few distinctive regions of this country; he personified it for natives and wannabes alike. No one else does that quite so well.
How sad that in a time that cries out for humor and the preservation of the best of regionalism, we should lose such a prolific source of both. On the day they commit him to the earth, I can think of no finer tribute to the man than a blank column down the left side of the Atlanta Constitution’s Local section.
Ironic that a faulty valve in his heart should leave an aching hole in ours at least as big as that.