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The Sixth Annual Clarksville Writer’s Conference presented an array of not only famous authors but personable ones as well, not the least of whom was Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Introduced by Taylor Emery of Austin Peay State University Department of Languages and Literature faculty, Rheta Johnson was one of three finalists for a Pulitzer Prize in commentary in 1991 and is winner of the 1983 Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for human interest reporting. Her other numerous awards include the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for commentary, the Headliner Award for commentary, and induction into the Scripps Howard Newspapers Editorial Hall of Fame.
Well known as being the biographer of Charles Schultz (Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz published in 1989), Rheta became a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a post formerly held by the late Lewis Grizzard. She previously wrote for The Auburn Plainsman while at Auburn University and later for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Her columns are syndicated by King Features of New York and they appear in about 50 newspapers throughout the United States.
She has written also the following books: American Faces (1987); the text for a book of photographs, Georgia (2000); Poor Man’s Provence (2007); and a recent memoir, Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming (2010).
Born in Colquitt, Georgia, Rheta grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. She began her writing career in eighth grade on the school newspaper.
When Rheta began speaking at the conference in her quiet way, she told us that she thought being a writer would mean that she would never had to give a speech. Going on book tours changed that mistaken impression.
“Taking part in a book signing will keep you humble,” she led everyone to believe. “I once was signing books when a 92-year-old man told me he’d been reading me all his life!”
Rheta said, “I always feel like an imposter at the writers’ conferences because these other people are the real writers. I’m a newspaper writer so my work mainly contributes to mulch piles or is used to Windex windows.”
She majored in journalism at Auburn University but stopped just short of her degree to marry cartoonist Jimmy Johnson (who later created the cartoon, Arlo and Janis). “We went on our honeymoon to St. Simon’s Island where we found out there was no weekly newspaper,” she said. In her memoir, she writes, “Oh, there were a couple of advertising shoppers, which we dismissed out-of-hand….And any community, we figured, could use its own newspaper.”
They were able to get seed money for the paper from a friend, Millard Grimes of Opelika, Alabama, and so started the St. Simons Sun with a manual typewriter and a habit of swapping ads for free meals. “I couldn’t look at a shrimp or blue cheese dressing after I left there,” Rheta confides.
Rheta and Jimmy had to deliver the papers themselves not only on St. Simon’s but on nearby Sea Island “where you were supposed to get permission to sneeze.” Rheta said she had to be accurate to throw papers to rich people so she would let papers fly through the passenger window of their “slime green” Pinto after their van broke down.
The paper lasted from June, 1975, to the following December when all the original $10,000 (that had seemed such a fortune initially) had run out. None of the original money had gone for salaries but had managed to pay the rent for seven months in addition to printing costs that escalated every minute they were late—“and we were always late,” Rheta writes. The last issue of 3,000 copies was delivered on Christmas Day. “We were broke, owned a car payment and our van was on blocks!”
The experience was life-changing, of course. The birth of a newspaper is one that all journalists wish for. The thrill of seeing that first issue is like giving birth and is one never to be forgotten.
“I went back to St. Simon’s five years later,” Rheta said, “and found that the three tabloids are still working!”
In those days before the Gannett chain embraced the “incestuousness of the business,” most newspapers had nepotism rules and would not hire a husband and wife to work on the same paper. Luckily, Bill Stewart, the owner and publisher, ran a family newspaper where his son Steve was the editor and his daughter-in-law Patrice made up the rest of the team. Jimmy and Rheta, “in spite of our limited experience and one memorable failure” were hired for the Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Alabama, the town that was the childhood home of both Harper Lee and Truman Capote. “We worked cheap,” she writes.
Splitting their workload in half, Rheta refused to write more than half of the engagements and weddings (formerly considered woman’s work). “We’d get most of the correspondent’s articles with a jar of fig preserves; of course, it was all hand-written in those days,” Rheta remembers. She felt at 22 years of age that her career was over as she covered city council meetings where the arguments were over whether or not to pay overtime to the police chief for cleaning off a dirt dabber nest or writing about the first cotton blossom of the season. The big stories were about the Bicentennial; Jimmy Carter’s running for President, and swine flu.
During her days in Monroeville, Rheta never met Harper Lee, well known for being reclusive. At one point in Rheta’s life, her mother sent a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird to Harper Lee with a request that she inscribe it to Rheta. Ms. Lee replied, “I don’t know her; I don’t know what she’s written.” She autographed the book, “Best wishes, Harper Lee.”
Rheta’s life with Jimmy eventually ended in divorce; she finished her degree at Auburn; she went on to become a great writer.
About Charles Schultz, “who was nearly agoraphobic,” she reveals, “I asked him why (unlike most cartoonists who have other people do all the mundane copying and coloring) he did it all himself.” He said, “Why would I work so hard and turn it over to somebody else?”
Rheta, famous for her Bastille Day party, for being a celebrated writer, and for being a thoroughly nice person without pretensions, told her eager listeners who hoped to become writers, “I feel privileged to share something. Writing is a great way to make a living and to live.”
Rheta said she was inspired by the house where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling, Cross Creek and others) lived in Florida. “She had two sharecroppers shacks put together in an orange grove. Across the front was a porch with a writing desk, a bed and table on which to eat. I went home and had one built just like hers.”
Rheta had sixteen years with her husband, Don Grierson, journalism professor at the University of Alabama. Their love story (described in her “Barbie” book) is not to be missed, but his death in March, 2009, and her description of her life without him will make anyone with a heart weep and weep.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson was the first writer I heard at the Sixth Annual Clarksville Writer’s Conference, but she is the one I shall ever remember as sharing not only her writing but a part of her self.
Author of Tennessee Literary Luminaries: From Cormac McCarthy to Robert Penn Warren (The History Press, 2013) Sue Freeman Culverhouse has been a freelance writer for the past 36 years. Beginning in 1976, she published magazines articles in Americana, Historic Preservation, American Horticulturist, Flower and Garden, The Albemarle Magazine, and many others. Sue is the winner of two Virginia Press Awards in writing.
She moved to Springfield, Tennessee in 2003 with her sculptor husband, Bill a retired attorney. Sue has one daughter, Susan Leigh Miller who teaches poetry and creative writing at Rutgers University.
Sue teaches music and writing at Watauga Elementary School in Ridgetop, Tennessee to approximately 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She also publishes a literary magazine each year; all work in the magazine is written and illustrated by the students.
Sue writes “Uncommon Sense,” a column in the Robertson County Times, which also appears on Clarksville Online. She is the author of “Seven keys to a sucessful life”, which is available on amazon.com and pubishamerica.com; this is a self-help book for all ages.
SectionsArts and Leisure
TopicsAfaa Weaver, Annual Clarksville Writers Conference, Austin Peay State University, Chris Smith, Clarksville Writer's Conference, Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Sue Culverhouse, Taylor Emery, The Leaf Chronicle
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