“Alabama, they say, is like one big front porch where people gather on summer nights to tell tales and to talk family. Everybody, they say, is kin to everybody else – or knows someone who is. It’s a sprawling porch, stretching all the way from the Tennessee River valley to the sandy Gulf beaches, with its sides slipping over into Mississippi and Georgia. Folks there are close kin, too. The tale-tellers don’t all look alike and they don’t talk alike, but the stories they tell are all alike in their unmistakable Southern blend of exaggeration, pathos, folklore, and romanticism. Family history is woven into these stories. And pride. And humor. Always humor.” — Kathryn Tucker Windham, Alabama, One Big Front Porch. In my college days at Huntingdon College, the library was my sanctuary. I tended to linger in the stacks on the third floor, back near the antiquated philosophy books that probably haven’t been checked out in over a decade. My sophomore year, tired of sitting on the cold floor, I wedged a small desk back between the shelf and the wall – it remained there, undisturbed, for the remainder of my academic career. I’m willing to bet it’s still there. (Things don’t change much at Houghton Memorial Library.) But when things did change I took notice – this brings me to the point you’ve probably been waiting for me to make: in 2008 the college remodeled one of the study rooms on the second floor and placed a simple plaque on the door that read, ‘Kathryn’s Study.’ Curious, I asked one of the librarians who Kathryn was. She led me to a shelf that was lined with numerous titles by the same author, Kathryn Tucker Windham.
Kathryn, I discovered, was a Huntingdon alumna known for many accomplishments; she was a newspaper reporter, talented photographer, Emmy-nominated actress, NPR commentator, prolific author, and storyteller – a great storyteller. She is often regarded as one of the last great, old-fashioned storytellers, one that could even capture the rapt attention of a generation obsessed with smartphones. Kathryn devoted her entire life to writing and rhetoric. Born in Selma in 1918, by the age of 12 she had already made a name for herself as a movie reviewer for The Thomasville Times; she was paid for her efforts in movie tickets. In college, she majored in English and minored in history, and was editor for The Gargoyle, Huntingdon’s newspaper. When she graduated in 1939 she began looking for a career in serious journalism. With the men enlisting and shipping for service during World War II, many roles previously unobtainable to women were now available. Kathryn landed her first job as a reporter for Montgomery’s Alabama Journal, and became the first woman to cover the police beat. Her position at the magazine proved that women could handle the tough stories and report them truthfully, fairly and without ever yielding. As the war escalated, Kathryn moved to Birmingham and became the publicity director for the Alabama War Bond Committee from 1942 to 1944. She devoted the following two years to writing for The Birmingham News as state editor, aviation editor and courthouse reporter. From Birmingham she returned to Selma, and from 1959 until 1973, Kathryn served as a reporter for the Selma Times-Journal, where she won many Associated Press awards for reporting and photography. She witnessed violence and injustice during the Civil Rights Movement and her bold, relentless coverage of the heartbreaking stories of her state would play a vital role in race relations in America. Kathryn’s gift of storytelling was not limited to the written page. Though she would author 29 books in her lifetime that would win her fame, in the early 1970s she revealed a talent that would set her apart from all others. She took the stage in 1973 at the second-annual National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee and won the audience’s adoration. “She connected with an audience whether there were 20 people in the room or 200. She was always generous with her time and talent,” remarks actress, friend, and fellow storyteller Dolores Hydock. “My storytelling style is very different from hers, because I didn’t grow up in same environment or in the South. There’s a sittin’ on the porch, rockin’ and talkin’ style of storytelling. That was Kathryn’s. She loved to engage people with the events of the day.” Kathryn made nearly two dozen appearances at that festival that year, and over the course of her lifetime she would recount beautiful, moving, personal tales to audiences in 28 states as well as overseas. Her most famous stories, ultimately penned into books, focused on Southern ghosts; she wrote several titles concerning a spirit that lived in her Selma home, a spectre that went by the name Jeffrey. These ghost stories became beloved classics for Alabama natives – for children as well as adults. In June 2011, shortly after her 93rd birthday, Kathryn Tucker Windham’s long and remarkably creative life came to an end. Before passing, she was inducted into the Academy of Honor in Montgomery, nominated by Harper Lee, a fellow Huntingdon student, and renowned Alabama author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout her long career as one of the nation’s best and most captivating storytellers, she always insisted on the humble introduction wherever she was speaking: “Please welcome Kathryn Tucker Windham. She’s from Selma, Alabama, and she tells stories.” Even when her audiences climbed to 1,000 listeners, that line remained. Kathryn’s stories were mesmerizing – she had a knack for pulling people into her world and her home, and had a way for making her small, unassuming part of Alabama a place where her listeners felt they belonged. Whether she spoke for a few minutes or even a few hours, she did so confidently and without ever relying on a note card. “Everybody here has stories to tell … to tell to someone you love,” she said at her final performance at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee. “And now is the time to tell them.” (If you’re interested in purchasing Kathryn Tucker Windham’s books, they are available here.)