On Lewis Grizzard: ‘Uh, could we talk about MY books for a while?’

My wife and I recently drove to Marietta, Ga., for a wedding party. Imagine my surprise when on a stretch of I-85 in Coweta County, about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, I saw a sign that read: Lewis Grizzard Memorial Highway.

It warmed my heart, for I knew the late Lewis Grizzard when years ago I was a writer/editor for The Atlanta Constitution, where his incredible rise to fame began.

I say “incredible” because that’s a good word for it. When it comes to famous columnists, the list is short indeed. After you name Red Smith (of The New York Times) and Mike Royko (the Chicago newspapers, all of them), you’ve pretty much exhausted the list except for Grizzard.

How beloved was this son of tiny Moreland, Georgia (pop. 399 in the 2010 Census)? Listen up.

I write novels and sometimes make guest appearances to talk about my work and maybe sell a book or two. But I have rarely been to one where I wasn’t asked more about Grizzard than about me. Scout’s honor. An appearance at North Myrtle Beach Library was typical. I would’ve been better off reading aloud from Grizzard’s biography and books than my own. Could’ve left MY books in the car. Soon as I stepped to the podium, I was peppered with the kind of question I always hear when the audience learns that I once worked at The Atlanta Constitution:

“Did you know Lewis Grizzard?”

“Him and all his ex-wives,” I quipped. (One of Grizzard’s best lines was: “I don’t call my ex-wives by name anymore; I just address them as Plaintiff.”)

“Was he as funny in person as he is in his columns and books?”

“Uh, could we talk about something else – MY books, for instance?”

Kidding aside, his columns were hilarious, and even the titles of his books, which often were expansions of his standup comedy routines, are LOL:

  • “Elvis Is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.”
  • “Southern By the Grace of God.” (My apologies to my Yankee neighbors in Litchfield Country Club.)
  • “I Haven’t Understood Anything Since 1962.”
  • And my favorite: “When My Love Returns From the Ladies Room, Will I Be Too Old To Care?”

For a columnist who wrote about little more than his love of the Georgia Bulldogs, a (presumably) fictional (and busty) gal named Kathy Sue Loudermilk, cold beer, chili dogs, and Braves baseball games, Grizzard attracted a huge following.

For an idea of how much his fans loved him, search Lewis Grizzard on Amazon and read a sampling of the reviews. “Laughed till I cried” appears often.

Better still, if he’s still doing it, catch Georgetown County native Bill Oberst Jr. onstage doing his portrayal of Grizzard. My wife and I did, at the Newberry Opera House some years back. Believe me, it was well worth the drive.

Lest I leave the wrong impression about Grizzard, he was not your typical corn-pone Southern humorist. He could be serious and even philosophical, as in a line I’ve long envied and wish I had written:

As both an old sportswriter and famous humorist, Grizzard drove many a mile on Georgia’s highways. He preferred the less-traveled routes to the super highways because, he wrote in one of his columns, “On a back Georgia road at night, you can ask yourself a serious question and get an honest answer.”

Dear hearts, in this life there aren’t many places where you can do that.

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