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Kathryn Tucker Windham's Life Was Quite A Story

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Kathryn Tucker Windham's Life Was Quite A Story


Kathryn Tucker Windham's Life Was Quite A Story

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


If you are a very longtime listener to this program, you might remember this voice:

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. KATHRYN TUCKER WINDHAM (Storyteller and Author): There comes before the real dawn a false dawn, when it begins to get a little light.

SIEGEL: That's Kathryn Tucker Windham, a storyteller from Alabama. She died yesterday at her home in Selma. Back in the 1980s, Windham did commentaries on our air, like this one:

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. WINDHAM: The birds in the swamp wake up, and they began to sing. The red bird sings first, then all the birds sing, and the whole swamp is filled with music. And then it gets very dark again, and there's absolute silence there. And then the real dawn comes, and they sing again.

SIEGEL: Kathryn Tucker Windham lived to the age of 93. NPR's Debbie Elliott has a personal remembrance.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: There was nothing better than sitting on the porch or in the garden - or even in the cemetery - with Kathryn Tucker Windham.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. WINDHAM: I like cemeteries. I like to wander around in them and admire the craftsmanship of the stonemasons, and read the epitaphs and wonder about the people who are buried there.

ELLIOTT: I remember sitting beneath a sprawling oak tree at a cemetery in Selma, trying to tap just a little bit of the wisdom of Kathryn Tucker Windham. She started her trailblazing career as a police reporter for a Montgomery newspaper in 1940. Windham witnessed the worst in her state during the violent opposition to desegregation. She maintained relationships on all sides, never losing faith that a childlike sense of awe and adventure could bring people together.

She wrote a whole series of books about Jeffrey, the ghost who shared her house in Selma. Her stories were the stuff of Southern folklore - like this story she shared on NPR, of why she always waits around to see a buzzard flap his wings.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. WINDHAM: Because everybody knows that if you see one buzzard, it's real bad luck. Something awful is going to happen to you unless he flaps his wings.

ELLIOTT: We first met when I was still in college and working at the public radio station in Tuscaloosa, where she would come to record her national commentaries. I was always fascinated by her garden hats. When I saw her last spring, she once again impressed me with her hat. But this time, she was making one with twigs and a giant cowcumber magnolia leaf. She was on an outing in Alabama's red clay hills with famed Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. It was the first time they'd met.

Unidentified Man: This is Kathryn Tucker Windham.

Mr. E.O. WILSON (Biologist): I am awfully pleased to meet you.

Ms. WINDHAM: Oh, I'm pleased to meet you.

Mr. WILSON: Yeah.

Ms. WINDHAM: I even dreamed about ants last night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: Oh, I'm pleased to hear that. And...

ELLIOTT: Windham was dear friends with Nelle Harper Lee, the media-shy author of "To Kill a Mockingbird." And no matter how many times I asked her to help me get an interview, the answer was always no - loyal to her friend to the end.

I took my family to meet Ms. Windham at her home back in 2004. She taught my toddlers how to make a paper drinking straw wrapper come alive and slither like a snake, with drops of water. And we toured her garden where there, in the shed, she kept the custom-made pine coffin she will be buried in this week.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


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