I realize this is an unusual topic for Labor Day weekend. It is what my kids would call "random," but as I walked down my long driveway with the morning newspapers last Thursday it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I really, really miss Celestine Sibley.
If you aren't from around here, or if you aren't as long in the tooth as I am, you might have no idea who Celestine Sibley was -- which is more than enough justification for my column. She deserves to be remembered. Her work deserves to be discovered by the next generation. Her writings can provide a pretty concise history of Georgia and the South. She recorded the events that were creating historic changes in this region through the stories of everyday people as seen through the eyes of everyday people, always in a gentle, conversational, and non-judgmental manner.
She was nothing like me, in other words.
Celestine Sibley was a Southern lady. She was also a newspaper woman, pure and simple. When she died, in 1999, she was one of the youngest 85-year-olds I have ever known.
Born in north Florida and raised near Mobile, she began her writing career, as so many of us have, by editing her high school newspaper. She had printers ink permanently injected into her veins while working as a cub reporter at the Mobile Press Register. Do newspapers even have cub reporters anymore? Jimmy Olsen of the Metropolis Dailey Planet is the only other one I even remember.
Ms. Sibley made her bones in the newspaper industry when she took a job as a reporter at the Atlanta Constitution in 1941. She wasn't sent to cover teas or sewing circles or charity auctions. Five months after she began her tenure at the Constitution, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Lots and lots of newspaper men went off to war, creating opportunities for women that had never been available to the fairer sex, especially in the news industry, which had always been a man's world.
She quickly became one of the first female editors in the South and worked under the legendary Ralph McGill. That's pretty good training for anyone. She eventually became an investigative journalist and covered some of the biggest events of her time, including the three-governor controversy and the John Wallace murder trial, which was eventually featured in a made-for-television movie starring Johnny Cash, as Sheriff Lamar Potts, and Andy Griffith, as middle Georgia political boss John Wallace.
None of those things are why I remember and miss Celestine Sibley so deeply. I miss her because in 1944 she began writing columns about everyday people and everyday events in the American South. As soon as I learned to read, at my daddy's knee at the age of 4, I read her columns. I came to love them and to look forward to them almost as much as those of the fabulous sports writers of my era. I have to admit that I enjoyed reading about the Atlanta Crackers and the Georgia Bulldogs a tad more than reading about the Magnolia Tearoom or the change of seasons at Sweet Apple, Ms. Sibley's log cabin in Roswell. But just barely.
Celestine Sibley wrote from the heart, often about things no one else would ever think worthy of putting in print. She wrote a whole book about a department store. It was entitled "Dear Store," and was a tribute to Atlanta's love affair with the old Rich's. She wrote a poignant book about her mother's dementia entitled "Turned Funny." It made me laugh and it made me cry, often at the same time.
She wrote 10,000 columns y'all. 10,000. That's a lot of words. Trust me.
I think I'm up to 2,400. If I live to be 111 I can catch her. That ain't likely.
I began a correspondence with Ms. Sibley in 1995. When my mama quit doing everything else she kept reading "Celestine's column" in the paper. She always felt like she knew her. I wrote Celestine a letter telling her how much my mother -- and I -- enjoyed her column. To my surprise and delight she wrote me back. I was just beginning to write for publication and she was very supportive. I eventually got to meet her in person and she was just as delightful and down to earth as she was in her columns.
When I published my first book I sent her a copy. On the day she died of cancer, in 1999, they ran a beautiful full colored picture of her sitting at her desk. "Need Two" was prominently displayed in the picture. I have seldom been as proud of anything.
Newspapers have changed and continue to change. Some say that the printed page will be obsolete someday soon. I hope I don't live to see that day because nothing will ever take the place of sitting at the table with that first cup of morning coffee, holding a fresh paper in one's hands and reading words strung together like only the great ones string them together.
Celestine Sibley was one of the great ones. I do miss her so.