Journey of a Native Son

I first encountered Frye Gaillard on the page. It was some 15 years ago, during a somnolent Mobile afternoon, typically muggy after a summer thundershower, and I had sought refuge amid the genteel stacks of the Minnie Mitchell Archives, deep in the heart of the Oakleigh Garden District. There, a slim and likely volume, “Lessons from the Big House: One Family’s Passage Through the History of the South, ” caught my eye. The author was a Mobilian of distinguished pedigree named Frye Gaillard, but his extraordinary little book was anything but a hymn to Old South verities. It was, in fact, dynamite, and I well recall my astonishment at his description of an emotional confrontation in the family parlor. The year was 1964, and Gaillard “was lecturing the family on the latest outrage” (the murder of civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels and a white jury’s acquittal of the killer), when an uncle “bolted angrily across the room and with both hands braced on the arms of the chair … he called me a traitor to my family and the South.”

In the almost 50 years since that incident, Gaillard’s distinguished career has shown him to be no such thing. Rather, it has eloquently highlighted his abiding love for a distinctive region and a burning desire that its people overcome their often difficult and painful history. I recently sat down with Gaillard at a Dauphin Street eatery, and over fried chicken, mashed potatoes, squash, cornbread and iced tea, he shared a few memories of his eventful life and career.

Gaillard was born two days before Christmas in 1946. His family lived in a comfortable antebellum home in Spring Hill, and both his father and his grandfather were legends in Mobile’s legal circles. Ancestors had served in the Confederate army, and Gaillard grew up breathing that air. But he also came of age at a time when momentous changes were sweeping the South. On a school trip to Birmingham, he personally saw Martin Luther King Jr. arrested. “I was within a few feet, ” Gaillard told me over the noonday din of our perch. “These two Birmingham policemen were shoving King along up the sidewalk, right past where I was standing, and I was struck by the look of sadness in King’s eyes. It wasn’t like a blinding revelation about civil rights, like I suddenly understood the issue, so much as it was a blow to the midsection, a jolting awareness that something pretty bad must be wrong. It was disturbing for a sheltered 16-year-old kid.”    

Not surprisingly, by the time Gaillard graduated from Vanderbilt University five years later, his sensibility was thoughtful and firmly liberal. He could not accept that blacks were inferior when he saw them making better grades in math than he did, and counted it a rare privilege to hold an umbrella over Bobby Kennedy during a rainstorm and escort him to where he was giving a lecture on campus. Journalism became his chosen career, and in a steady march, Gaillard advanced from the Mobile Press-Register to the Associated Press in Nashville to a 17-year stint with The Charlotte Observer. During that time he covered the civil rights movement closely, as well as sensational regional stories, such as Elvis Presley’s funeral. “Roy Blount and I were the only reporters to see Elvis in his casket.”

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Besides slinging newsprint, Gaillard turned out nonfiction books (more than 20 so far) on subjects ranging from rivers, baseball and music to American Indians. Two new books, published nearly simultaneously by different presses, illustrate Gaillard’s wide-reaching interests and productivity. In “The Books that Mattered: A Reader’s Memoir” (NewSouth, $27.95), he meditates on favorite books and authors, and in “Quilt” (Solomon & George, paper, $19.95) he and co-author Kathryn Scheldt share stories and lyrics from their songwriting collaboration. “I had always admired the art of songwriting, and had written about it extensively, in fact, but never expected to do it myself. Kathryn, who is a fine songwriter, convinced me that I could.”

Now loaded with honors and comfortably ensconced as writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama, Gaillard shares his eventful personal history and experience with a new generation of Southerners. They, and anyone who chooses to read his books, will hear a cultured voice that condemns the worst of the past, but praises the best of what has made and molded our enduring South.     

John S. Sledge is the author of the forthcoming book, “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”

text by John S. Sledge • photo by Jon Hauge

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