Much has been written about Lewis Grizzard by those who knew him better in his productive years. This is about Lewis when the world was young and some thoughts about the last mile. I first met him in 1964 when we were both wannabe writers, the sons of highly decorated World War II veterans who grew up in towns just 30 miles apart. We were politically incorrect before the term was invented, wool-dyed Cracker fans almost in the league with Chuck Dowdle, and unapologetically Southern. He was a fine athlete then, and at UGA he lit up the boards in crumbling Woodruff Hall more than once with his excellent jump shot. He shaved clean then and wore his hair combed over and tight, and he was physically bigger and more muscular than in later years. He showed us early the quick smile and legendary wit that would win him legions of loyal fans the world over.
He worked in Athens, and when he hired on as a wordsmith at the sports desk in Atlanta it was a natural. Anyone who could wax poetic about the sainted champion Crackers as they battled the dastardly Birmingham Barons or rode behind enemy lines to engage the ever dangerous Memphis Chicks deserved to be a sports reporter. He talked of the daring do of Bob Montag and of the clout by Captain Eddy that struck the tree in old Ponce. When his column took off after his hiatus in the wilderness of Chicago, Lewis hit his stride. He wrote well, and he allowed all of us to share not only his humor and Southerness but more importantly his humanity and his incredible zest for life. Any time I picked up the paper and read his column it was like having a short conversation with him sharing his humor and unwavering values. He put himself on paper, and what you read was what he was. He forged himself in words, and that was his genius. Through his words the world both knew and embraced this remarkable human being. To those who say they never knew him, if you read him you did.
Lewis often talked of serious partying, and some of that was truth and other may not be. But there was one at Georgia that was legendary, and it is that party that I think of when I think of Lewis Grizzard. The Sigma Chi’s lassoed the house band from Panama City’s old Hickory Club for an outdoor bash and invited about 5,000 of their closest friends. They hauled a flat bed tractor trailer into the back parking lot at the base of Baxter Hill, pushed The Swinging Medallions up on top of it, and then told them to crank up the music. We partied in our sock-less saddle oxfords, glen plaids and jams. We danced to the tunes of the guys who gave us “Double Shot.” With the obligatory Varsity cups in hand we rocked to the thundering bass of Jabo Perkins and the keyboard-driven melodies of the boys from Greenwood. It was a Lewis Grizzard kind of party, and to say a good time was had by all is a gross under-statement. It was the last great one before the end of our age of innocence.
I felt great sadness upon learning that Lewis was not to survive his last operation at the place of wonder called Emory. The consummate skills of her doctors had once saved my life as well as his, and like our beloved Braves in the World Series, with countless others I prayed for one more miracle. It was not to be. Before I loaded into my truck on that Tuesday morning and prepared to push toward the Methodist church in Moreland, I reached back for something that another fine Southern writer Paul Hemphill had said a long time ago. He said the problem with Yankees is that they don’t know what to do after dinner. They don’t know how to sit a spell and tell stories. With that thought I took some small comfort from the tragedy of Lewis’s passing. In this age of questioned values it is a certainty that The Man Upstairs has a new guest for dinner and, when the dishes are cleared, the conversation is ever the more spirited and lively.
Those both famous and from afar mingled easily with the sturdy folk that had been the friends of Lewis’s beloved Moreland sharing the almost over-whelming grief and loss. His boyhood minister, the Reverend Gilbert Steadham, the incarnate visage of a rock of faith Methodist preacher, told of his reading the 23rd Psalm to Lewis in his final hours. Gridiron warrior Ray Goff told of his long and steadfast friendship with Lewis and of the writer’s love of Georgia. It was uplifting to see what a fine man Ray Goff had become and how deeply he cared for both Lewis and the men he coached. Jim Minter touched us all when he spoke of Lewis Grizzard the newspaper man which is what at Lewis’s heart he really was. You could see Lewis in a snap brim with a press card stuck in the hat band and Mr. Minter with green eye shade and ink stained fingers pouring over some big story with a deadline hurtling toward them like a runaway freight, each of them wanting to do just one more thing to get the story right before the paper went to bed. There were other tributes and other words that are best left to his gathered friends and his loving family.
When pressed once about what he wanted played at his funeral, Lewis once cracked “volleyball.” They didn’t. They played “Amazing Grace” and many a strong man and salt of the earth woman fought back the tears on that beautiful Tuesday afternoon. We found strength in the third stanza of John Newton’s immortal hymn the words that captured how blessed we were in the all too short time that Lewis Grizzard had walked among us. “Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far, and Tis grace will lead me home.” After the beautiful service I nosed the truck into Martin Mill’s Road and waved a reply to one of the fine state troopers in whose good company I have spent the last 23 years. I had told them at work that if I were late they would just have to start without me. Like so many others I was compelled to be at the Moreland Methodist Church to say Deo Vindici, Godspeed and farewell to my good friend.
This article was originally printed in the First Quarter, 1995 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.
Epic tribute to Lewis Grizzard, about whom I wrote two books. One correction – Lewis was a Sigma Pi, not a Sigma Chi. Why sweat two letters in the Greek alphabet all these years later?
Rick, I would love to communicate with you via email or phone.
PS – Thank you for your service with any State Patrol in any capacity.