I don’t know when you are reading this, but I am writing it on Wednesday - which is March 20. That is important, as you will soon see, if you continue to read. And why wouldn’t you?
The date is important because on this day in history, a quarter-century ago, Lewis McDonald Grizzard of Moreland, Ga., passed away at the far-too-young age of 47, robbing the American South of one of her most poignant voices, and initiating the death knell of the Southern soul.
It was on a Sunday and I remember that weekend like it was yesterday. Grizzard underwent heart surgery on Friday afternoon at Emory Hospital, just two days after making his girlfriend, Dedra, the fourth—and as it would turn out, final—Mrs. Lewis Grizzard.
The surgery was the fourth major surgery Grizzard had undergone in twelve years. If memory serves me correctly, they were trying to replace a faulty porcine valve that had been inserted during his third operation.
Porcine is pork, and when they put a pig valve in Lewis, he quipped, “I feel great, but now I get a little misty-eyed whenever I pass a barbecue joint.”
My lovely wife Lisa and I were at Southlake Mall, which was our usual Friday night custom in 1994. Conyers people actually ventured over to Southlake Mall in 1994. Now, not so much. I was walking past a bank of televisions in one of the department stores and noticed a large crowd of people gathering to watch a news bulletin. I joined them and learned that Lewis had failed to awaken from surgery and that he was in grave danger of losing his life.
The prayer vigil began, but the answer to the prayers wasn’t the one Lewis’s fans were hoping for. He didn’t make it and there were genuine tears of grief across the South and beyond for days and weeks to come. Lewis Grizzard had legions of loyal fans. Wherever folks put peanuts in their co-colas and had the good sense to eat buttered grits for breakfast and drink sweet iced tea at supper time, they loved Lewis Grizzard. He always said what so many of us were thinking and would have said if we had thought of it.
I went to Lewis’ visitation down in Newnan. They had laid him out in a red suede sports coat that he had promised to leave to his long time sidekick, Gary Hill, whom Lewis always referred to in print as Dorsey, Gary’s given first name. It’s a long (and funny) story about why Lewis wore it to his grave instead of leaving it behind, but it’s one you’ll have to hear from somebody else.
Grizzard did mention Hill in his will, however. In fact, he said this: “I promised to mention Gary Hill in my will. Hi Gary.” It was classic Grizzard.
The New York Times called Lewis at the time of his death “the writer and columnist who recalled the mythic South with folksy humor and nostalgia.” The piece in the Times went on to say “He became something of an icon among his most dedicated fans, a humorist who made a career out of parading his Southern roots and good ol’ boy style in his writing.”
They felt compelled to add: “But Mr. Grizzard had his critics, who found his views on feminists and homosexuals, for example, a throwback to the conventions of the old South.”
I didn’t like the tone of that article they wrote about Grizzard, who once said “When I am feeling depressed I often buy a copy of the New York Times and read the obituaries.”
I spoke with Gary Hill on Wednesday and we reminisced about his friend. “You know, I was best man in three of Lewis’ four weddings—all but the one on his death bed.” (Cars in Atlanta used to sport bumper stickers—“Honk if you’ve been married to Lewis Grizzard.”)
Gary went on to say, “He lived a troubled life, especially toward the end, but I wish you (and the world, for that matter) could have known how truly astute, funny and intelligent he really was.”
I wish so, too, but I know this. The man had his finger firmly on the pulse of Southerners who thought like I did about most things—and he was pure T funny. His words of wisdom will be with us for a long long time.
“Dang, brother! I don’t believe I’d told that!”
“That dog will bite YOU!”
“Life is like a bobsled team. If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”
You were the lead dog for a heck of a lot of us, Lewis. You’ll be the lead dog for a long, long time.
25 years. It’s hard to believe. You rest in peace brother. We are carrying on down here.
Darrell Huckaby is an author in Rockdale County. Email him at email@example.com.