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Rheta Grimsley Johnson: One writer to another


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



When I moved to Monroeville, Alabama, in 1975, it was because of Bill Stewart, not Nelle Harper Lee. Stewart was the publisher of The Monroe Journal, an excellent weekly run by Bill Stewart's son, Steve, and his daughter-in-law, Patrice. 


I needed a job. So did my former husband, Jimmy. We had tried to start our own weekly in Georgia and failed. The Stewarts had no nepotism policy and would hire us both. 


It was a sin to miss a Ford payment. 


There was no play based on "To Kill a Mockingbird" then. There were no mockingbird murals painted on the buildings. You sometimes could buy a copy of the famous book at the religious bookstore on the square; sometimes not. A lot of townspeople I met professed never to have read the book. Some who had didn't like it, and would say so. 


I never met Harper Lee. We would hear after the fact when "Nelle" had been in town. 


I did meet Alice Lee, Nelle's lawyer sister. Jimmy and I shared a car, and one or the other of us lost the Pinto in the constant game of musical cars. Alice gave Jimmy a ride home from a Planning Commission meeting. I talked to her in the courthouse while looking for Sheriff Lynwood Sager to get details of his latest moonshine still bust. Alice Lee was approachable and kind. 


I usually was too busy to worry about the literary legacy that draped the town like Spanish moss. I was describing Juliet sleeves on wedding gowns or typing up community correspondence from Uriah, Repton, Frisco City, Excel, Peterman. Proper ladies would bring in hand-scrawled, indecipherable reports of who had motored with whom from where. If you misspelled a name, you caught hell. 


I learned to spell "boutonniere" and "cummerbund." There was no "spell check," only two manual typewriters in an office the size of a phone booth. I misspelled "inoculate" in 72-point type atop a swine flu story while the younger Stewarts were on vacation. 


In many ways, Monroeville life was memorable. We were caretakers in a cold old mansion on the edge of town. When temperatures dropped, the water in the toilet bowls froze. I strapped on my accordion and teamed up with a fiddler to play nursing homes. We ate fried chicken at the Heigh Ho. 


They cut the Boo Radley oak the year I lived there. Its branches were dropping and posed a threat to schoolchildren who played nearby. We wrote a story about it. Other than that, I might have been living and working in any town in the Deep South. 


It would be a while, still, before universal acclaim and changing attitudes about race convinced the town that one of its own had written a masterpiece, till unsung prophet became cottage industry.  


I realized, of course, that I'd been privileged to breathe the same air as Harper Lee. My mother, being my mother, didn't see it quite that way. She knew someone who knew someone who could get the author to sign my book. Never one to trust chance, Mother sent a note telling the author how to sign: "From one writer to another," she instructed. 


I kept the note because Lee added a few words before signing, "Best wishes, Harper Lee." 


"I don't know her. What has she written?" 


Mother had this to say about that: "You would think Harper Lee read her hometown newspaper!" 


Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book is "Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." Comments are welcomed at [email protected]



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