Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wayne Greenhaw: The Unflinching Observer

A decade ago, I was introduced to Wayne Greenhaw with the words, "He's a friend of Harper Lee." The Mobile Register had recently published a short essay of mine on Ms. Lee; because many in the area love to discuss her, I'd subsequently met many "friends of Harper Lee." (In this neck of the woods, "knowing" Harper Lee is akin to having "been at Woodstock" in 1969: If half as many aging hippies who claim to have been at that festival actually were at that festival, attendance would have numbered in the many millions.) So I shook Wayne's hand with a kind of gentle resignation, thinking, "Sure you are."

He met me with a look I came to know well over the resulting years: a shiny-eyed wink coupled with a wry grin transmitted through pursed lips, the look of a man with a funny secret, a secret he was looking to share with just the right person. He was, after all, wearing a funny shirt, one of those tropical print jobs usually donned by gringos in an effort to validate their citizenship in Margaritaville. What friend of Harper Lee would wear a shirt like that?

Turns out, Wayne Greenhaw.

Prior to knowing Wayne, my ideas of the writing life could be somewhat romantic and limited: wild-haired semi-recluses who observed from afar, perhaps so dedicated to literary craft they were effectively detached from mere human interaction, thus able to comment objectively. Wayne taught me otherwise. Wayne went out and bravely touched the world, and that makes all the difference.

He made his life and his career upon the Alabama earth where he was born and raised, or, rather, forged: Wayne overcame disfiguring polio by a combination of sheer will and the freedom provided by voracious reading while marooned in a body cast after corrective surgery. Early on, he made a habit of difficult, probing questions; upon quizzing his grandfather as to why some of his cousins had participated in a Klan march through his hometown of Tuscaloosa, he was told, "They don't have any sense. But you do." This was a responsibility Wayne took to heart as a reporter in Montgomery, seeking to uncover injustice, to expose those who abused or even simply neglected their power, to give voice to those being denied their say. The list of those he intimately profiled or interviewed (and often befriended) is a Who's Who of the Civil Rights era: from Martin Luther King to George Wallace to Presidents Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton, Wayne covered them all. In the course of a career that included over twenty books, he also managed to scoop the national media not once but twice: beating by a day Seymour Hirsch's famous expose of the My Lai Massacre, and later outing feel-good memoirist Asa "Forrest" Carter as a staunchly racist pro-Segregationist (the author of The Education of Little Tree was the James Frey of his day).

Wayne could have easily angled his career differently, moved up the journalism chain-of-command, probably landed a Pulitzer or two while reporting for the Grey Lady herself. Instead, as Wayne Flynt pointed out in his eulogy, Wayne was the first phone call made by national correspondents who wanted to know what was going on in Alabama when a political story started breaking. He was the man on the ground. He was the touchstone. He held the truth. And all those other boys with their offices in bigger cities, they knew it.

Despite the often painful truth-telling that compelled him, Wayne was a happy man, one of the happiest I've ever known. He relished travel, particularly to his beloved second home of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he'd once done some drinking with Jack Kerouac (and a locale which explains his love of tropical shirts). If he discovered some new music that thrilled him, he was quick to provide copies for his friends, sharing his enthusiasm. He sought good company and conversation, especially in context of gourmet food and drink. Munificent as he was, his heart belonged to Sally, his wife of four decades, with whom he explored the corners of the world (but always ending up back in either Mexico or Montgomery with their dog, Ellie). And though indeed happy, like the best champions, he was not necessarily satisfied. That much is evident in the fact that he never stopped working; his final book, Fighting the Devil in Dixie, is arguably his best, outlining his time in the trenches, placing him firmly within the history he sought to cover, recalling that the hard work done back in the opening moments of the Civil Rights movement only paved the way for the hard work we must all continue to do.

In February, I traveled to Florida to participate in a writing conference; Wayne was there as well, promoting Dixie. On a panel with three other authors of Civil Rights books, he told a story I'd not heard before (and I'd heard Wayne tell a million), of being clubbed from behind one night while inserting his key in his apartment door. His reporting of Klan members and dirty politics had earned him more than a reputation as a skilled wordsmith -- it also earned him a concussion. And rather than shrink back, Wayne Greenhaw wore his bruises like a badge of honor. He never stopped filing stories. And forty years later, here he was with a nationally acclaimed book, recounting it all.

I was struck anew, then, by this warm and generous man I'd known for years -- a drinking buddy, a confidant, a rascal of a guru if ever there was one -- reminded of his honorable place in an otherwise brutal history. We often view our friends as simply our friends, rarely taking time to consider how their works have shaped them, and how these works have, in ways large and small, equally shaped the world we live in. Or how this, in turn, makes us responsible for shaping our own world in whatever ways are available to us. Wayne Greenhaw persistently chose the tools of Truth and Joy, and he worked to shape his world despite all resistance. We should all work so hard, for so long, towards such an accomplished ending.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, June 19 2011

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