For me, and most native Alabamians of my generation, Kathryn Tucker Windham was always there. I read her collections of ghost stories when I was a child. I heard her speak on various occasions and I saw her on TV many times through the years. Her stories made me smile as I listened to her each Friday morning on Alabama Public Radio.
It was comforting to know that she was at home in Selma writing something new to share with the world. But now she’s gone.
Mrs. Windham was widely known for her collections of Southern ghost stories. She was the inspiration for my 1998 documentary titled, “The Ghosts of Selma.” The documentary featured several Selma, Alabama ghost stories and I interviewed people who told me they had seen ghosts at locations around the city. It ended with Mrs. Windham, who many in Selma lovingly called “the ghost lady.”
The closing credits appear over an image of Live Oak Cemetery in Selma where Mrs. Windham liked to go for picnics. Some people thought she was a bit strange. She loved life and approached everything with childlike curiosity and enthusiasm.
Her weekly commentaries on Alabama Public Radio ran for 26 years. Mrs. Windham told stories about growing up in Thomasville, Alabama or shared her observations about things that “made her wonder.” She collected folklore and traditions from around the world and wove them into tales of south Alabama life in the early 20th century.
Those stories were recorded in her dining room by various people through the years. When Brett Tannehill left Alabama Public Radio in late 2010 to become program director at WLRH in Huntsville, I was asked to carry on this tradition. Mrs. Windham was 92.
In early 2011, her health declined and she was unable to record new material, so I searched though the library of past recordings for something to air each week until she was able to record again. I called her every few weeks and she would say, “I need just a little more time to get over this illness. Check back with me in a couple of weeks.”
For the last six months of her life, the public radio programs were all reruns but I didn’t hear complaints. Several people said something like, “I think I’ve heard her tell that story before, but it was good to hear it again.” Mrs. Windham provided a link to life before the advent of air-conditioning and television, when people sat on their front porches and told stories to pass the time. Her stories were amazing and all were true.
She recalled her grandfather talking about being taken prisoner during the Civil War. Her father, a banker, told her that the change she brought back from a class field trip was all the money the family had at the advent of the Great Depression.
Her best friend started driving at eight years of age. Her brother had a pet possum that escaped and was missing for weeks until it was found hanging by its tail from the living room curtain rod. When the boy she really admired showed up to take her to the school prom, he smelled like a skunk.
My favorites were the account of the circus monkey escaping and the story of the Easter pageant that went awry. Her sister ran terrorized from the circus tent when the monkey escaped only to find it waiting for her on their front lawn. After the stage manager and the Jesus character had a fistfight during scene changes, Jesus, dressed in loincloth and fake blood, ran out of the auditorium shouting, “They’re trying to kill me!” The actor who had played Judas, dressed in gym shorts, ended up on the cross in the final scene.
Mrs. Windham lived a remarkable life and shared bits of it with us in ways that kept us tuning in for more. In her final commentary, which aired two days before her death, she urged us all to record our family members telling their stories before they are gone forever.