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Friends, colleagues remember Kathryn Tucker Windham

Colleagues of Kathryn Tucker Windham, who died this past weekend at the age of 93, remember her as a writer, storyteller, and mentor.

Windham’s hometown paper, The Selma Times-Journal, interviewed NewSouth editor Randall Williams, who’s edited Windham’s writing for almost twenty years. Williams told the Times Journal, “She was a pioneer in a lot of ways as a journalist and storyteller — helping to popularize the genre of storytelling and remaining one of the most popular on the national circuit. She wrote nearly 30 books, including cookbooks and ghost stories, and she ranks as our best seller as an Alabama author.”

Williams also spoke with the WBHM radio station in Birmingham, one of many stations that aired Windham’s storytelling segments on National Public Radio. Reporter Bradley George soke with Williams about editing Windham’s books. “[Williams] says she’d come to him with fully formed manuscripts that didn’t need much editing … Windham was a clear communicator and that’s why her work resonated with so many readers.”

Williams told Bradley, “[Windham] could say it better than you could, but for people who had grown up in Alabama, especially people of a certain age, she understood how to capture those experiences that were common experiences to people in the South and to the culture.”

On NPR’s All Things Considered program, reporter Debbie Elliott recalled meeting Windham while in college, and many years later how Elliott brought her children to Windham’s home and attended Windham’s induction into the Alabama Academy of Honor. Windham had contributed to NPR for over thirty years.

Ted Parkhurst, chairman of the National Storytelling Network, noted that Windham has “one of the most-invited performers in a community of professionals.” In remembrance, he wrote:

Not quite five feet tall, stooped but raising her head to look the audience in the eye, she admonished introducers and audiences alike. Emcees citing anything more than her name, hometown, and occupation — “storyteller” — received curt reprimands. Audiences expecting “sugar and spice” were often shocked by her earthiness. One day in private conversation, I made the mistake of including her among “sweet little old ladies” of my acquaintance. She arched a wicked eyebrow and shot back, “Don’t you call me ‘sweet!’” Her thin voice and halting delivery could not hide a ton of heart, and that’s why audiences coast-to-coast filled her venues beyond capacity and sent her off-stage with standing ovations.

Finally, Auburn University journalism professor Ed Williams shared a special web page commemorating his Newswriting Class’s trip to visit Windham in November 2009. Windham spoke with the class about her career as a newspaper reporter, and also led the students in a rousing rendition of the Auburn University fight song, played in inimitable Kathryn Tucker Windham style on a comb. You can visit the page for photographs and video from the visit.

Kathryn Tucker Windham’s latest book was her memoir, Spit, Scarey Ann, and Sweat Bees. Information about a memorial will be forthcoming. We invite anyone with a story to share about Mrs. Windham to leave a comment below or on the NewSouth Books Facebook page, and help us remember our friend and author.