There are those of y’all who will say that this should have been written a long ways back. I don’t disagree. But the courtly Terry Kay knew how fine a man he was and would have been embarrassed for me to proclaim it to a million people.
Several times it crossed my mind to write this story, especially when I browsed through a blue folder of notes and clippings from various publications. I tuck away ideas or stories I think will, sometime, make a column for y’all.
Terry, a best-selling author of Southern literary fiction, was a reader of this column in his hometown paper, the Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald. On occasion, I would run into him and he would mention something I had written that reminded him of his own hardscrabble youth.
He believed firmly that stories of the rural South and our Appalachian people should be told lest they be forgotten.
Literary lovers and history buffs should be grateful to Terry for writing his debut novel (before this, he was “one of us”, a newspaper writer who valued the medium’s platform), “The Year The Lights Came On.”
Terry, raised in Royston, Georgia, (hometown, too, of baseball’s Ty Cobb Museum), novelized his life on a rural farm before electricity reached them through an Electric Membership Cooperation (EMC). What I will always remember about that book is the description of his family sitting around the kitchen table, staring at the single bulb, waiting for it to light up.
Magically, it did.
Since I knew that Terry was a regular reader, I hesitated to write about a magazine article I had tucked into the folder. Each time I started to write it, I thought that I might embarrass him so I put it aside. I could imagine him scratching his neatly trimmed gray beard then pushing his glasses back on his nose and wondering why I even had to mention it.
Recently, Terry delivered a shattering blow to lovers of good writing when he departed this vale of tears and sorrows just a few months after being diagnosed with stage four liver cancer.
I will tell the story now because he can’t be embarrassed yet he can be remembered as a Southern gentleman of the courtliest kind.
It started this way a few years ago:
I was at the beauty shop, sitting under the dryer, reading a magazine that I had pulled from the back of the car where I always keep a stash of material. I was enjoying an oral history of the making of the movie, “Deliverance.” Of the many people interviewed, Pat Conroy, Southern blockbuster author and raconteur with few equals, provided many insights into the work and its author, James Dickey.
In one quote, Conroy, in his inimitable style and power of words, told an anecdote about his friend, Terry Kay, and his reaction to “Deliverance.” As you’ll recall, it doesn’t exactly paint us mountain folks in a favorable light.
It was an entertaining short tale but, in retrospect, didn’t sound like the courteous Terry I had always known. I shrugged it off. The next issue arrived and included a letter to the editor from Terry Kay. Terry, in the gentlest, sweetest way possible, explained how dear his friendship with Conroy was and extolled him before writing that he had misquoted him. “What I remember saying is…”
I tore the page from the magazine and put it into the folder. It was vintage Terry Kay. A gentleman always and a man to whom honor and his word stood strong.
He will be remembered for many books that sold millions including one that became one of the most beautiful Hallmark Hall of Fame movies ever – “To Dance With The White Dog”, starring husband and wife, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.
I loved his words. His stories. His discipline for writing. But what I admired most was the Southern gentleman he was.
[Ronda Rich is a best-selling Southern author. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]