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Carmen K. Sisson: Remembering Barbara Bobo

 

Carmen K. Sisson

 

It is June 2002, and I am sitting in the middle of the West Alabama Gazette's office in Millport, Ala., writing an editorial for The Northport Gazette, the WAG's sister paper. 

 

The doors are flung open, and as dusk dims to dark, the cicadas increase their pitch. Around the cubicle wall, I hear owner-publisher Peyton Bobo wrangling with his own tangle of words and Barbara Bobo's voice rising above the clatter: "Where we at?" 

 

Peyton mutters that we're almost finished -- writer parlance for, "Take a nap. It's going to be a while" -- and I smile, because I love this paper and I love these people and there is nowhere else I want to be. 

 

I did not know that 11 years would pass before I saw Peyton again or that I would never again see Barbara this side of life. The black ribbons on the doors Sunday did not make the surreal less so. I can't wrap my head around the notion that Barbara is not still napping, waiting for Peyton and I to give up trying to be brilliant and just get the paper out the door so we can all go home. 

 

Barbara died Saturday. She was never one to back down from a fight, and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she faced it in her usual take-no-prisoners way. It wasn't her nature to admit defeat. 

 

It isn't mine either. But Sunday afternoon, I found myself on Peyton's doorstep, a miserable prodigal child come home. 

 

After a lifetime in journalism and politics, Barbara had earned countless friends and enemies, all of whom will no doubt show up at her funeral Wednesday to bid her farewell. You either loved her or hated her, but you could not ignore her. Made of steel and dipped in Southern charm, she had a personality that could fill a room and leave you wondering what hit you. 

 

Men, in particular, were putty in her hands, and that served the Town of Millport well over her 20-year tenure as mayor and six-year stint on the council. 

 

When she needed to build a new high school, she visited Alabama Gov. Fob James, whose slumping campaign she had once helped invigorate. He loved cigars, and because she remembered such minor details, she was savvy enough to tuck a few in her purse. 

 

"I'll trade you $1 million for a cigar," he told her. 

 

One by one, she laid them on his desk. And just like that, the town received $3 million to build South Lamar High School. Today, a portrait of a young Fob still hangs on the WAG's purple walls, right above the dozens of awards the Gazette newspapers have won. 

 

She was a master at securing grants, using them for a new sewer and water treatment system, library, city park, municipal complex, and National Guard Armory. 

 

It was impossible to tell Barbara no. She would just come at you from a different angle until you gave her what she wanted and congratulated yourself for your good sense. Like close friends Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, she knew the way to people's pockets was through their hearts. 

 

Few saw her own heart or realized how easily it could be broken. Perhaps she saw softness as a sign of weakness. No matter what went wrong, she squared her shoulders and kept going, seemingly unfazed by times when money was tight and small town gossip was in cruel abundance. 

 

She loved Elvis, becoming part of the gaggle of girls invited into his inner circle in 1960s Memphis. He was surrounded by people but always seemed sad, she said. One New Year's Eve, after he held a party at the Manhattan Club, she saw him sitting alone, so she stopped to thank him and wish him a Happy New Year. He was stunned. In a sea of admirers, the King bore a burden few had bothered to notice. 

 

I often thought the same of her, surrounded by sycophants, longing for love. Sometimes a faint shadow crossed her eyes and it disarmed me. I would have done anything to make it go away. 

 

Instead, she gave what she wanted to others, providing experiences they never could have dreamed of, from introducing them to celebrities to dragging them out of their messes, saving them from drug addiction, domestic abuse and, occasionally, jail. As she lay in the hospital this week, cancer ravaging her body, she worried over an employee who had an injured arm. 

 

Everyone has a "Barbara story." 

 

I remember the night we celebrated the founding of The Northport Gazette. It was 1998, and I was 25, giddy at being plucked from a dead-end job at the Walmart Portrait Studio. 

 

Barbara and Peyton took the staff and spouses to The Globe restaurant in downtown Northport, where they told us to order anything, everything. There was a lot of wine spilled that night as we toasted our futures and dreamed big dreams. A passerby looking in the window might have easily mistaken us for New York Times staffers, celebrating our latest Pulitzer. That's how drunk and happy we were. 

 

And that was the kind of night Barbara loved. Wherever she was, she wanted people to have fun. She drew most of her pleasure from the pleasure of others. 

 

I've thought of that night often over the years. In 2002, Barbara and I had a disagreement and parted ways. I was angry and stupid, cocksure and arrogant, as only 20-somethings can be. Too proud to say I was wrong, too embarrassed to say I was sorry, too afraid to even try, the years passed. 

 

I didn't know then about the sacrifices you make for the people and things you love. I didn't know that sometimes even love cannot forestall the end and regrets will eat you alive. 

 

So Sunday, I crawled up Peyton's steps and stumbled into his arms, blubbering all the words I should have said, not realizing I had been forgiven years ago. His graciousness, with both his time and his absolution, left me shaken. Grateful. 

 

Now, I am moving back to Mobile to care for my own mother, who also is dying of breast cancer. And I find that Barbara, in her death, gave me one last gift -- closure, along with the courage to face whatever comes next. 

 

Goodbye, Barbara, and goodbye, Columbus. The privilege has been mine.

 

 

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