A few months ago, an old fellow cracked open the door to my office for a quick hello. It was George Smith. Of course it was George Smith. He did this all the time, unannounced and intrusive, but I didn’t really mind, even though George was bad for my productivity.
In he came. He stood in the doorway, his preference. We talked about nothing memorable. He asked how I was doing. We frowned over journalism’s troubles. He mentioned something about Ohatchee, his Ohatchee. We didn’t talk about sports, and we rarely did. By his attire, I couldn’t tell if he had just rolled out of bed or if he was headed to Panama City. Only George could pull that off. Truth be told, I was jealous.
When he turned to leave, he offered this.
“Tell your lovely bride I said hello.”
That’s how George always left my office. He’d gush about Laura and reminisce about her time at The Star. He always contended she was the finest writer in my family — I didn’t whine — and never missed an opportunity to reinforce that truth.
George was a writer. George knew good writing. How could I argue?
But what George really knew were good stories. He had an internal divining rod that unearthed stories from places most of us would never look. Not because we’re lazy, or uninterested, but because he was just better at it. He found stories in restaurant booths and senior centers and nursing homes and homeless shelters and middle schools and park benches and church pews. He saw stories where others saw boredom. He wrote about humanity more than politics, but I still bow to the brilliance of “Boy Mayor no laughing matter …”, a column George wrote in February 1996.
Anniston City Hall was teetering, as it often is today. He lived in Saks, but he loved Anniston, even its imperfections and peculiarities. He talked about Noble Street’s ancient heyday as if it were a street paved in gold. But George had had enough. After one particularly dysfunctional event that winter, George renamed Anniston’s mayor — David Dethrage became “Boy Mayor” — and laid waste to the political shenanigans. It was godly good.
“The latest episode,” George wrote, “came a week ago when Boy Mayor finally got his meeting with City School Superintendent Paul Goodwin and the Board of Education.
“Most wish he had not.
“Along the way, Boy Mayor took a fist to a table, questioned Goodwin’s ability to run the system, and followed that by saying, ‘Paul’s not the man to run this system.’
“Then Boy Mayor said something very telling:
“‘I just expect more from my school board and my superintendent.’
“The italics are mine, the arrogance is his.”
Never was George better than he was that day.
George got it. He knew what it meant to write a column in a community newspaper. He knew what it meant to write a column in a community newspaper in Anniston, Alabama. He wrote about what mattered, whether it was the mayor’s fist-banging or the guy selling peaches on a downtown corner. He wrote about teenagers’ academic successes and the terrible traffic on U.S. 431. He wrote about life, about us, about where we lived and the things that enrich our lives or make them poor. He didn’t name-drop — well, unless he was writing about Bear Bryant — or try to impress. He got it. He craved good stories. And he wrote them. Not for him, but for us.
He could be prickly, but so be it. I never brought up his love for country music because it would start an argument. (His favorite song was Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird,” or it was at one time.) I also never dared tell him I equated the excitement of NASCAR to watching metal rust, or that he probably wrote about those blasted peaches once too often. To each his own.
He could be splendid, too. In recent years, George would occasionally email me after reading something I’d written. He never condemned. They were emails of praise — undeserved, usually — that meant more than he ever knew. That’s the thing about writers, especially the good ones. They pass it along, from one to another.
When I heard Wednesday that George had died, I texted my wife with the sad news.
“We should have beans ’n greens for dinner,” she texted back.
And other things, too.