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61 Things to Love About Alabama: Kathryn Tucker Windham — the grand dame of storytellers

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Ghosts, recipes, lagniappe, homilies, screenplays, features, journalism — there was no story Kathryn Tucker Windham couldn’t tell.

Her stories live on.

With her drawl as thick and dense as kudzu, the grand dame of southern folklorists was instantly recognizable no matter the story she told. And, if Kathryn Tucker Windham left any legacy, it is as a storyteller — be that as an author, a folklorist, a journalist, a photographer, even a stage actress — she had a lifelong need to tell tales, to document the world around her, to talk about the people she met, the places she saw, to tell the little stories that comprise the tangled skeins of our lives.

With a deliberate drawl, Ms. Windham offered reflections on Alabama Public Radio for more than two decades, starting in 1984. Between 1985 and 1987, her commentaries were also broadcast on “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio.

“Her pauses were almost as long as the content,” Art Silverman, a producer of “All Things Considered,” said. “She slowed us down to feel like we were in central Alabama.”

Among the titles of her commentaries: “Grits Is a Singular Delicacy,” “Honeysuckle Blossoms Smell Wonderful” and “The Tree-Sitting Record of Clark County, 1930s.”

Windham was born at the height of the Great War 1918, and by 1930 at age 12, she had begun her first journalistic project at the Thomasville Times. An insatiable learner and writer, she graduated from Huntingdon College in 1939 at a time when most could not afford to go to school, and even fewer women attended college. But, the same family that gave her financial freedom in the midst of the Great Depression also also gave her a love of storytelling, coupled with an ability to deliver...and no where was that more prominent than in the ghost story, a staple of our Southern Gothic.

Windham’s CV is straightforward: Kathryn worked for the Birmingham News from the end of WWII until 1956. That year, she would take a position at the Selma Times-Journal and stay for decades, winning several awards from the Associated Press. She authored 26 books, including several cookbooks and the series for which she is forever bound to and known by, the “13 Alabama Ghosts...” tales. You could hear Windham on NPR’s All Things Considered, and, until her death in 2011, on Alabama Public Radio, where she delivered regular commentaries, witticisms, and little slices of life in a sleepy south undergoing seismic changes.

She founded the Alabama Tale Tellin’ Festival and appeared at countless lectures and endowed speeches (including a keynote to the National Storytelling Festival). Her collected writings are a special collection at Auburn University, and she has her own museum at the Coastal Alabama Community College.

But, that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the thousands upon thousands of stories she told, and the millions of people that heard her voice; a voice now silenced by the inevitable passage of time into the Great Beyond.

Ms. Windham passed away in 2011, at the age of 93, leaving the cultural footprint of Alabama a little smaller, the storytelling of the South greatly diminished, and the world a little lonelier and meaner.

She is missed.

In tomorrow’s countdown we’ll talk about all those Alabama ghosts...and Jeffrey.

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