Remembering Kathryn Tucker Windham

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One of Alabama’s most beloved storytellers has died. Kathryn Tucker Windham passed away over the weekend at the age of 93. Windham developed a love of reading and writing at an early age. She wrote more than 20 books along with scores of newspaper columns and radio commentaries.

Spend time around Kathryn Tucker Windham, and she’d invariably tell you about her father. He was born just after the Civil War and he raised Windham and her siblings in the south Alabama town of Thomasville.

‘He went to school three months in his whole life, but he learned to read. And he said if you can read you can learn anything you want to know.’

Windham learned a lot from her father, especially the art of storytelling. She started her career as a journalist, including covering the police beat for a Montgomery newspaper in the 1940s, but Windham endeared herself to Alabamians with books full of folklore. Her work may have straddled the line between truth and fiction, but her persona was…

‘Brutally honest.’

According to Jake Reiss. He’s the owner of Alabama Booksmith in Homewood. Over the years, he hosted several book signings and events with Windham and the two became close friends.

‘She would not read. She did not want an introduction. She wanted to speak with her people and she told the truth.’

‘She had the ability to take people back to their own observations and their own past.’

NewSouth Books Editor-in-Chief Randall Williams worked with Windham on many of her books. He says she’d come to him with fully formed manuscripts that didn’t need much editing. Williams says Windham was a clear communicator and that’s why her work resonated with so many readers.

‘She could say it better than you could, but for people who had grown up in Alabama, especially people of a certain age, she understood how to capture those experiences that were common experiences to people in the South and to the culture.’

Kathryn Tucker Windham wrote more than 20 books of ghost stories, Alabama folklore, and recipes. She would also tell her stories in commentaries for NPR, and at events like the Tale-Tellin’ festival in Selma. Windham was best known for her ghost stories, weaving real people and places into her tales. In a 2009 interview with Greg Bass, she said her ghost stories weren’t meant just to scare people.

‘I’m only interested in the true ghost stories. True in that you can visit the places where they happened and the names of the people involved are accurate and the events surrounding the supernatural occurrence did take place. You decide whether you want to believe it or not. You do not have to believe in ghosts to enjoy a good ghost story.’

But Windham did believe in ghosts. She would often talk about Jeffrey, the ghost who haunted her home in Selma. In Jake Reiss’ office at Alabama Booksmith, a photo of Jeffrey and Kathryn Tucker Windham hangs on the wall.

‘Kathryn inscribed it. “For Jake, who I think is jealous of Jeffrey. With love, Kathryn Tucker Windham.” Quite frankly, I am. Because Jeffrey seems to get Kathyrn’s attention all the time.’

Asked how he would like his friend to be remembered, Jake Reiss summed up Windham this way.

‘She was the most giving, wonderful, caring, considerate, loving human being I ever met in my life. We never ever ever ended a conversation without telling each other we loved them.’

Kathryn Tucker Windham died in Selma on Sunday, just two weeks after her 93rd birthday.