Willie and Shirley Ramsey started talking to me about writing a weekly article for The Star in 1983.
I laughed at them.
Until I realized they were serious. Willie, in his laid-back, off-handed way said something to the effect of, “It doesn’t have to be good, just something to fill a little space.”
Shirley won me over. “You are always telling some story about growing up back in West Tennessee. And they are all good. Write a few down. You never know where it might take you. At least, give it a try.”
Bless Shirley’s beautiful heart, I have been “giving it a try” every week for the past 37 and a half years.
You can’t imagine how hard it was at first. The weekly deadline was Tuesday at noon. This was way before computers and I couldn’t type a lick anyway. I would sit down early on Wednesday morning and scribble out something on a legal pad and rush down to The Star and hand it in right before they were “fixing” to go to press.
I couldn’t rearrange a paragraph. Or edit it properly. I might scratch out a sentence and add a different word here and there. But I couldn’t change much. And I didn’t have time to rewrite anything.
Shirley never blinked when I handed in two pages, sometime three, of something that looked very much akin to Chinese Hieroglyphics. Here’s what she would do. She’d sit down at that desk and put it in a printable, readable form that made me look a whole lot better than I actually was.
I will be forever grateful for Shirley Ramsey’s touch on my writing career.
And that’s not the half of it. She realized with the first story that I didn’t give a flying hoot about syntax, sentence structure, dangling participles or the way they did it in the Atlanta Constitution or the Washington Post.
She was the first to understand I wasn’t “writing” a story, I was “telling” it. And she understood immediately the world of difference between the two.
I always thought she was a lot smarter than Willie.
She left the “ain’ts” and the “shants” and the “gollybills” in, but if I had strayed across the journalistic line, she would call and say, gently and lovingly, “H, let’s look at the third paragraph… ”
She was brilliant. She somehow knew what I was saying and how I was trying to say it… when I didn’t hardly know myself!
I wouldn’t have “Hunkered Down” over a week or two if Shirley hadn’t a’been there. I often thought her name should have been added to the column.
She got to know the town and the people I wrote about. She’d ask about my brother Leon and Buddy Wiggleton. She wanted to know why I called Bobby Brewer, Yogi. She kidded me about dating Cynthia Wheat or LaRenda Bradfield. She had me describe the Park Theatre in great detail.
When Leon came down to see the boys play football Shirley met him on the field after the game. She asked him if all my “tall tales” about home were true. Leon immediately went to confirming them… and upstaging me by adding some much better ones of his own.
My mind still holds that picture of them plain as day this morning, laughing and carrying on – enjoying each other – in the middle of the football field. I was just hoping Leon wasn’t telling her EVERYTHING he knew about me!
Bill, Josh, Eric and Jess played baseball together. I couldn’t recount the hours the Ramseys and the Colberts spent together cheering them on. We sweated over each pitch, each play, an umpire’s call, the day’s final score… you talk about shining times!
I understood, but hated, when Willie and the family sold The Star. It was the end of an era. And I thought the end of my writing gig. I wasn’t sure anyone else could put up with my off-the-chart style. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue…
Plus, I didn’t see as much of Willie and Shirley as I once did.
That was my loss.
And I’m not sure I ever thanked Shirley for all the help in the early days. That is an oversight that I now cannot correct. I can only pray she understood the depth of my gratitude. She sent me on a journalist trip that reconnected me to so many places and so many friends… it has allowed me to relive my past in a vivid and almost touchable way.
She will be missed by our whole community. All of our collective thoughts and prayers go out to the family.
I don’t know exactly how Heaven works but I’m hoping Leon was there to greet her… with a good West Tennessee story…