R.I.P. David Halberstam

April 24, 2007

David Halberstam, a great reporter and a great author, died in a car crash yesterday. After graduating from Harvard in 1955, he came South to cover the growing civil rights movement in Mississippi. That job didn’t work out, so he came to Tennessee. Here is his version of the story, given in a speech in 2005 upon receiving the Columbia Journalism Award:

“I went from there to four years on the Nashville Tennessean – probably the best and most aggressive paper in the South in the Civil Rights Days – where I was taught by very good people. (With all due respect to the faculty, in the end, journalists mostly teach each other.) Every night I would go out to dinner with member of a great staff of an embattled newspaper. Each night was like a great seminar in journalism; I could listen to them talk about what they had done that day, how they had put their stories together. I was a human sponge.

“One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.)

“I learned how to work a story, how to talk to ordinary people, and what a joy doing legwork was. I learned the best question of all for any interview: “Who else should I see?” To this day, the back cover of my notebooks is covered with lists of names of people to see.

“I learned that the more legwork you do, inevitably the better the writing seems because you have more details, more anecdotes, and more authority. And I learned that the great fun of journalism was talking to people, that it was where you kept learning. What a marvelous way to grow intellectually!

“So when The New York Times called in 1960, I was ready.”

That’s an understatement. Here is the Tennessean’s piece on him.

halberstam.jpg

Photo by Yann Nicolas


Tennessee naming expert dies at 84

April 24, 2007

“We are at the mercy of our name givers,” said Kelsie Harder, a native of MIddle Tennessee who became a world authority on naming practices, and who died April 12. He was born in Perry County, got his B.A.and M.A. at Vanderbilt, and spent his professional life in upstate New York. Poor fellow.

My sons and I wrote a baby name book a couple of years ago, and I have long been fascinated with Tennessee names. I came up through rural Tennessee schools with kids who had all manner of unusual given names. Some of the boys’ first and middle names were William Otto, Vivert Aaron, Rush Floyd, and Gale Omar. The girls included Mozella Ann, Cheryl Ruthita, Mary Alyce, Neda Jane, Eufaula Carole, and Rena Rebecca.

After school and in the summers, I worked at my family’s construction company, where I labored alongside guys named Royal, Fate, Shirley and Jehovah. I can remember our dispatcher saying something like, “OK, I’m going to send Jehovah and Fate over there, and they’ll take care of you.”

I later became a reporter, writing about a blind Baptist gospel disk jockey named J. Bazzel Mull and interviewing Judge Sue K. Hicks, the real-life inspiration for Johnny Cash’s hit “A Boy Named Sue.” You can’t come from a background like that and not have an interest in names.

coverwtmk.jpg

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.