Category Archives: Obituaries

The South Mourns 20th Century Icon

OLNEY, Md. – The South — and the world — mourns today following news of Andy Griffith’s demise.

The 86-year-old came into our homes more than half a century on this newfangled contraption called TV. He made us laugh, a LOT, and brought the down-home goodness of Mayberry into the American conscious.

Sure, Andy Griffith played roles other than Andy Taylor, but no other role suited him so.

***

I started watching “The Andy Griffith Show” when my mom married my dad, Leroy Sitton, in 1977. Dad worked for the Arkansas State Police. I’m – still – a redhead. And Ronny Howard actually knew to spell his name with a “y.” It all rolled from there. In hindsight, I’m only surprised that it took until the 8th grade for Patrick Grogan to nickname me “Opie.”

Although I didn’t live in Mayberry, I learned a lot from watching Sheriff Taylor and the gang.

Watching Aunt Bee arrive to help with Opie in “The New Housekeeper” showed me acceptance may be hard, but love can overcome anything.

Watching the citizens of Mayberry’s hostility to a fella who knew everything about them in “Stranger in Town” showed me folks have NO IDEA about the long reach of media, which is particularly relevant in these days of facebook and twitter.

Watching Barney Fife take over as sheriff in “Andy Saves Barney’s Morale” showed me absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

I could go on, but I’m sure you have your favorite episodes.

Surprisingly, television allowed Griffith to portray a single dad in an era where single parents were frowned upon. By the time I came around, single dad-hood wasn’t a big deal as we received daily doses of “Family Affair.”

***

Otis puts himself back into his kennel.

The show made such an impact on me, we named our dog Otis after Mayberry’s town drunk. At first glance, this might seem to be a slight. But what else could we name the dog after he continually put himself in his kennel whenever he messed up?

***

Sunday would have been dad’s 74th birthday. In a way, I find it fitting that Andy Griffith died the week that marks dad’s birthday, my folk’s anniversary and the nation’s Independence Day.

The only way it would be more fitting would have been for “Ang” to pass on July 4th. But then again, he never was one to hog the spotlight.

We’ll miss you, sir.

***

Editor’s Note: A previous version left out the word “on” when discussing the reader’s favorite episodes and also contained an AP style error. All apologies.

Arkansas Loses Trooper, Mason

Sr. Cpl. D. Leroy Sitton

Sr. Cpl. D. Leroy Sitton

David Leroy Sitton Sr., an honorable man who served his community nearly his entire life, died Dec. 31, 2010. This Christian man from North Little Rock lived 72 years.

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Summer Wanes, School Approaches

Around the South
by Ronald Sitton

As the academic calendar rolls, summer recedes. Now’s the time to say goodbye to your favorite beach and prepare for the fall onslaught.

Of course, that means back-to-school specials. For those planning to get a post-secondary education, the Princeton Review named 141 colleges and universities as “Best Southeastern Colleges” to help you (note: registration required to see the list); Forbes came out with its own list. Interestingly, Miss Gay Texas questions if SMU belongs on the Princeton Reviews’ homophobic schools list.

Education can only help the region: job losses have a distinctive Southern drawl, but home foreclosures seem to be stabilizing. Many Southern communities celebrated the 26th annual National Night Out, and a Tennessee celebration featured a 30-foot-long banana split. Now if we could just get people to donate as blood banks are running critically low in North Carolina and around the Southeast.

Of course if food is your thing, you need to know tomato sandwiches ain’t just a Southern thing … or so we’re told. Perhaps it’s just another indication that Southern food is spreading. That’s good news for Waffle House.

A continued economic downturn caused Time Inc. to shutter Southern Accents, a magazine dedicated to interior decorating. The economy also caused the Gulf Coast Black Mayors’ Conference to be postponed, but it isn’t holding up preparations for the 29th Annual Mule Day Southern Heritage festival in Georgia.

On a brighter note, Site Selection magazine recently featured Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and the Southeast in its July issue. That’s good news for business, as is a report that Louisiana’s transportation department wants to use “wasteful” federal spending to create a passenger railway from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

Politically speaking, Sarah Palin recently endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, perhaps in hopes of a 2012 ticket. Meanwhile, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) keeps speaking at southern GOP fund-raisers, including an upcoming one in Florida.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist may cancel another climate-change summit as he backs away from his cap-and-trade energy policy after fellow Republicans chided him. Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez (R) plans to resign when Crist finds his replacement; Crist had planned to run against Martinez, but vowed not to tap himself as Martinez’ replacement. Elsewhere, Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s son, Dr. Rand Paul (R), will seek the seat of outgoing Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning.

Some question if Southern politicians are what’s wrong with the GOP. Clashes of wills about health care-reform and Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination have rekindled talk of The Southern Strategy. It can’t help that Mississippi Republicans continue to call for a voter identification bill. Interestingly, despite being a big player in the Civil Rights movement, the Southern National Leadership Conference hasn’t been noticeable recently. (If you’re into prose, you’ll want to ruminate over the limits of Southern liberalism).

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue plans to play hardball in the three-state legal battle over federal water rights. (Wonder if there will be a similar battle over Southern Co.’s proposed nuclear plant?)

On a somber note, former Vanderbilt chancellor Alexander Heard died a few weeks back. He authored “A Two-Party South?

And on the sports scene, the USA Today Coaches Preseason Poll predicts Florida will defend its national championship. Officials slashed ticket prices for next year’s Southern 500 at South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway. Tallahassee’s 13 and under All-Stars won the Southeast Regional championship for the right to compete Aug. 22 in the Babe Ruth World Series in Utah. And never fear, Dr. Lou will NOT run for Congress!

As we close, you should know you can still get your tickets for the 15th annual Southern Brewers Festival. I want to go, but don’t see it happening. BTW, I didn’t receive any money for this promo, but maybe they’ll send samples of the best of show?

Troubled Actor Brad Renfro Dies at 25

We do not cover a lot of celebrity, tabloid-style news on this Web Press, but it’s different if we know someone who pops up in the news, especially when that someone dies tragically and unexpectedly.

Brad Renfro, the young actor from Knoxville, Tennessee who broke into the movies from a DARE theater program for troubled kids in the 1990s with a major role in “The Client,” based on John Grisham’s novel, was found dead Tuesday morning in Los Angeles. He was 25.

The cause of death was not immediately determined, according to sources, but an autopsy was planned. Renfro had reportedly been partying with friends the night before, which is not surprising, since that’s how he spent a lot of his time based on my experience knowing him in Knoxville from 1996-2000.

He was a nice, soft spoken and even shy young man. As well as showing some talent as an actor, he was a decent guitar player who showed up for the Wednesday night weekly blues jam at Sassy Ann’s on a regular basis. I played the drums several times in the same ad hoc combination, and partied with him a number of times, but never really got close to him. He came from a relatively poor and troubled home and could be quite distant when asked questions about himself and his family.

I tried several times to do a formal interview with him but he always declined.

Renfro’s lawyer, Richard Kaplan, told the Associated Press he was on the road to recovery from addiction.

“He was working hard on his sobriety,” Kaplan said. “He was doing well. He was a nice person.”

Renfro recently completed a role in “The Informers,” a film adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel that stars Winona Ryder, Brandon Routh and Billy Bob Thornton, according to the AP.

“Brad was an exceptionally talented young actor and our time spent with him was thoroughly enjoyable,” Marco Weber, president of the film’s production house, Senator Entertainment, said in a statement.

Renfro had his share of run-ins with the law over the years. He served 10 days in jail in May 2006 after pleading no contest to driving while intoxicated and guilty to attempted possession of heroin after being arrested on Skid Row while attempting to buy heroin from an undercover agent in 2005. He was placed on probation in January 2001 and ordered to pay $4,000 for repairs to a 45-foot yacht he and a friend tried to steal in Florida in August 2000, the month I left Knoxville for New Orleans.

I was told a wave of crack addictions hit Knoxville about that time and destroyed the lives of a number of talented musicians from East Tennessee.

He was arrested again in May 2001 and charged with underage drinking, violating the terms of his probation, and was ordered into alcohol rehabilitation the following March.

In 1998, Renfro was charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana. He avoided jail time in that case due to a plea deal, aided in part by his sponsors in the DARE program and in Hollywood.

His other movie credits included “Sleepers” and “Deuces Wild,” as well as “Apt Pupil” and “The Jacket.”

AP: Troubled Actor Brad Renfro Dies at 25

Norman Mailer Dies at 84

Norman_Mailer.jpg
AP
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer shown at a lecture entitled ‘The 20th Century on Trial’ at the New York Public Library on June 27, 2007.

by Glynn Wilson

It is hard to believe Norman Mailer is dead.

I just met him in September on a subway ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and I had planned on writing him a long letter after studying the Harper’s magazine article that became the Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night.

The article, The Steps of the Pentagon, and the book, deals with a protest march on the Pentagon in Washington Mailer was sent to cover as a journalist for Harper’s, edited at that time by Willie Morris of Mississippi, the youngest editor in the storied magazine’s history.

While other practitioners of “New Journalism” such as George Plimpton, Truman Capote (an Alabama native), Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese (who attended the University of Alabama) were pioneering the non-fiction novel, also referred to as “creative non-fiction” or “literary journalism,” Mailer uses the occasion of the protest march and his arrest and night spent in jail to do his own version of self-portrait, taking off on the Vietnam War. But since Morris had his doubts about the use of first person in the magazine, Mailer wrote the piece in the third person, referring to himself as the protagonist.

Now anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper or a magazine knows that there are few editors who will allow a writer to use first person to place himself in the story, since that flies in the face of the economic definition of objectivity used by American news organizations. But using the third person is even more rare, although Mailer, being the combative, controversial and outspoken character that he was, not only got away with it. He won a Pulitzer Prize as a result and has been praised for it by the likes of the New York Times, which says in the lead to his feature obituary today that Mailer “loomed over American letters longer and larger than any writer of his generation.”

NYT: Norman Mailer, Outspoken Novelist, Dies at 84

The Associated Press is also leading it’s AP A wire this morning with Mailer’s obit.

AP: Norman Mailer Dead at Age 84

And you can learn more from this free online encyclopedia entry on Mailer.

Wikipedia: Norman Mailer

Here’s my story on meeting him, which I never ran before now because I was not positively sure it was him. Now that I see the AP photo of him from earlier this year, however, there’s no doubt it was him.

On A Personal Encounter With Norman Mailer

After following Jill Simpson to Washington, D.C. to be there for her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in the political prosecution of Don Siegelman, I decided to make the four hour trek to New York and spend a few days there on my extended fall trip this year.

(You can read more about that trip from the September archives.)

The plan was to run into a former protégé of mine from my time in the master’s program at the University of Alabama in the mid-1990s who lives in Brooklyn. And the plan was to meet in person with Scott Horton of Harper’s magazine blog fame and Joe Conason at The Nation Institute to further cement my relationship with them on covering big stories out of the American South.

I crossed into Manhattan after sundown on Monday, Sept. 17, and got into Brooklyn in time for some food, beer (and a special Coney Island refreshment) before crashing for the night in a basement apartment in an old Jewish neighborhood not far from where Mailer was born and raised.

The next day, I called up Scott Horton and arranged to meet him at the Union Station Oyster Bar for an appetizer and a few glasses of wine. We talked about the Siegelman case, Jill Simpson and the funny state of Alabama, and then I got back on the subway for the 30 to 40 minute ride back to Brooklyn.

As I sat in the back of a subway car and looked out the window over the East River at the Statue of Liberty off in the distance, I noticed four old men just a few seats in front of me laughing and talking and having a good time. One of them looked exactly like the photograph on this page, and I began to study his face. Could it really be Norman Mailer?

I had started up a conversation with an attractive, exotic young woman and hated to interrupt it, but I just had to know for sure if I was riding the subway with Norman Mailer. So I asked her: “Do you think that could possibly be him?”

She had no idea who I was talking about, so I got out of my seat, approached the man, and asked: “Are you Norman Mailer?”

I immediately felt a little guilty, since I hate it when I see and hear stories about tourists approaching famous people and bugging them in public. He did not answer right away, but smiled and looked at his compatriots. I looked at them too and mouthed the words: “Is this him?” The one who made the most eye contact with me glanced at Mailer to make sure he was not looking and gave me a little wink and a nod in the affirmative.

I tried to get a conversation started by telling them that I was a visiting writer from Alabama who was a big fan of Mailer and Willie Morris, thinking that might get him to open up and talk to me.

In fact, I mentioned that I had recently taken a trip to Oxford, Mississippi where David Rae Morris had a show in a gallery there with many pictures of his dad Willie Morris.

(You can read my column on that trip here: Escaping Shadows: The South as a Backdrop for Art).

Instead of engaging me, Mailer started speaking Yiddish and making a joke with his buddies, probably about my Southern accent and knowing I would not be able to understand a word they were saying. I was still not 100 percent sure it was him, sitting there holding a walking cane and a folding chair.

I just stood there holding onto the silver pole in the subway car listening to them cut up, but when their jibberish slowed down and then took a long pause, I asked the man I thought was Mailer what he did.

“What do I do?” he said with a New York accent, looking right at my face good for the first time, almost angrily.

Then, looking down at the chair he was clutching in his old, wrinkled hands, then back up at me with a smile and a remarkable twinkle in his old blue eyes, he said, “Mostly I sit.”

“Sit?” I asked, joining in the fun. “Where do you like to sit? And what do you do while you are sitting?”

“I sit down on Broadway and watch the girls walk by,” he said, cracking up his friends.

It had been a beautiful fall day for sitting outside and watching people, so it made perfect sense.

The men kept on speaking in Yiddish and joking around and I figured I had interrupted their fun enough, so I said good night and went back to my seat in the back of the car by the exotic young woman.

When I got back to Alabama, I looked up Mailer in Wikipedia and in the Harper’s magazine archives and read “The Steps of the Pentagon.” It was then that I realized what Mailer had accomplished writing about himself in the third person.

Like Truman Capote or Hunter S. Thompson, I am more comfortable writing in first person, but the style of journalism is often the same. A writer who places himself in the action of the story goes beyond mere objective journalism and is able to construct a more readable and complete narrative coverage of events. And that is what this Web site is often dedicated to doing.

Le׳hitra׳ot, Norman Mailer. You were a great American character. You will be missed.