Alabama storytelling legend Kathryn Tucker Windham dies at 93
The Birmingham News’ Alec Harvey honors the local author as the final chapter of her life closes.
Kathryn Tucker Windham, a journalist and historian whose later-in-life storytelling career turned her into an Alabama legend, died today. She was 93.
Mrs. Windham died in her Selma home surrounded by family and friends after a year of health problems, said her daughter, Dilcy Windham Hilley.
Mrs. Windham shared that home with a ghost named Jeffrey, she said, a spirit that in the late 1950s made his presence known and launched her on a storied path.
She and folklore teacher Margaret Gillis Figh published “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey” in 1969. It was the first of a number of books about Southern ghosts, and it led to an acclaimed career as a storyteller on stages around the country.
“She was an absolute legend,” Wayne Flynt, an Alabama historian and professor emeritus at Auburn University, said today. “She was certainly the premiere storyteller in Alabama, and maybe one of the premiere storytellers in the South … And, of course, she was a bang-up good journalist.”
[READ A STORY FROM ONE OF HER FINAL INTERVIEWS:
As a 12-year-old, Mrs. Windham wrote movie reviews for The Thomasville Times, and she worked as a writer and photographer for the Alabama Journal and The Birmingham News after graduating from Huntingdon College in 1939.
She met her husband-to-be, Amasa Benjamin Windham, while working for The News, and they had three children before he died in 1956 — Ben, retired editorial page editor of The Tuscaloosa News; Dilcy, vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau; and Kitti, who died in 2005.
Mrs. Windham was a single mother freelancing for the Selma Times Journal when Jeffrey came into her life. Thousands of Alabama schoolchildren grew up reading her books, bringing her fame and some degree of fortune. Her son once quipped that Jeffrey put him and his siblings through college.
The ghost stories were only the beginning. Eventually, Mrs. Windham became known for telling stories about the people and places of the Alabama she knew so well.
“My early stories were all ghost stories because I knew a lot of them and had collected a lot of them,” Mrs. Windham told The News in October. “But I began to realize that what we needed to be telling are stories about our own families, about people we know and love and care about. That’s how you keep the memories alive. You don’t forget the people you love when you tell stories about them and tell new generations these stories about them.”
Her storytelling career took her many times to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn. She was a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and she was the subject of Norton Dill’s 2004 documentary, “Kathryn: The Story of a Teller.”
Mrs. Windham’s many honors include the Alabama State Council on the Arts’ Alabama Living Legacy Award and induction into the Alabama Academy of Honor. Novelist Harper Lee, one of Mrs. Windham’s best friends, nominated her for the latter.
Mrs. Windham also became a civil rights figure in Selma, hosting “comb singings” that had people from all walks of life playing the comb as a kazoo-like instrument. It was her way of trying to fight against racism in Selma, she said.
“All the Lord asked of us is that we love God and love each other, and we’ve messed up those two simple commandments,” Mrs. Windham said last year. “One night in the middle of the night, I woke up and thought, ‘It’s music that brings people together.’ I thought about when I played the combs when I was a child. Everybody can play the combs.”
Mrs. Windham took folk artist Charlie Lucas under her wing and moved him into a home next door to her when he fell on hard times, Flynt said.
“In all the years I have studied Alabama, I have not heard one single solitary negative word about Kathryn Tucker Windham,” Flynt said. “People had nothing but love and admiration for her. She was absolutely one of the great spirits of this state.”
People would often visit Mrs. Windham in Selma, and she wouldn’t hesitate to show them the custom-made pine coffin she kept in her backyard shed.
“She would occasionally go out and lie down in it to make sure it was still a good fit,” Flynt said.
She’ll be buried in that coffin during a graveside service for family at Selma’s New Live Oak Cemetery, and a memorial service is being planned, Hilley said.
“She had 93 fabulous years,” she said of her mother. “She believed she was put on this Earth to bring joy to other people, and she did that in abundance.”