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Famous Athens Resident Terry Kay Loved to ‘Discover’ Stories for his Readers

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By Don Rhodes | Photos Courtesy of Terry Kay

World famous novelist and long-time Athens resident Terry Kay observed the 40th anniversary of the publication of his first book with several lectures, including one at the Athens-Clarke County Library in April 2016.

He used the occasion to talk about his passions for reading and writing and to promote his then-latest book, The King Who Made Paper Flowers, whose tale of colorful characters was based in Savannah.

You can find the video of his entire talk that day by going to Google.com and typing: “Terry Kay, 2016, Athens library.”

Kay told his audience at one point, “I’ve said this before — I’ve said it here, and I say it everywhere I go — I do not write to tell a story. I write to discover one. And it’s that discovery process that keeps me interested in doing a job that I never intended to do at all growing up.”

And, lord, could Kay discover some wonderful stories that began with his $40-a-week job as an errand boy, floor sweeper and classified ads writer for the Decatur-Dekalb News weekly owned by Bud and Mary Crane.

The author of this article came to know Kay about 10 years before other world-wide fans; not only through his regular articles being printed in the Atlanta Journal but also from talking to Kay almost daily seated just a few desks away.

It was my good fortune to work as one of the Journal’s four copy boys the summers of 1964 and 1965 when Kay was a sportswriter under the legendary Furman Bisher, and as one of the two newsroom reporter interns the summer 1966 when Kay had become the entertainment editor.

Those memories of my early days with Kay flooded back a few months ago in learning that the distinguished resident of Athens had died of liver cancer on December 12, 2020. He was 82. Kay had been inducted in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2006, received the Governor’s Award in Humanities in 2009 and had been presented the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Georgia Writers Association in 2011.

Three of his 18 works of fiction were turned into Hallmark Hall of Fame TV network movies including To Dance with the White Dog, The Runaway and The Valley of Light. He also was presented the Georgia Author of the Year award four times.

One of my favorite memories of Kay from those mid-1960s at the Journal always caused me to smile, because Kay was one of my first journalism colleagues to chew me out over something that was basically a lapse in youthful judgement.

The summer of 1966 was a magical time when Journal city editor John Pennington (a future Pulitzer Prize winner) let me suggest feature story ideas along with completing his own assignments.

That led among other things to interviewing soul music superstar Otis Redding at the old Atlanta Municipal Auditorium the night after he had sold out the Macon Auditorium in his hometown.

For whatever reasons, the Journal editors decided not to run my story and Redding died in the Wisconsin plane crash just over a year later. That same summer the Journal’s newsroom gained several writers from The Atlanta Times newspaper that had folded including Paul Hemphill, another future legendary Georgia author. Hemphill also would interview Redding at his Red Oak farm near Macon and submit the story to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Sunday magazine, which for whatever reasons rejected it. Hemphill, who later mailed me a copy of that story, was assigned a desk that literary touched mine, and we took phone messages for each other in electronic pre-voice mail days.

One day my eyes saw an advertisement that Bill Pinkney & The Original Drifters were going to perform at the Domino Lounge in the Imperial Hotel on Peachtree Street, and I arranged to interview Pinkney in his hotel room that evening before the show. We hit it off and Pinkney invited me to see the Drifters’ show in the lounge downstairs.  Either Pinkney or the club manager got me a small table right dead center of the stage, and some waitress started bringing me free mixed liquor drinks courtesy.

Being a rising senior at the University of Georgia, I was no stranger to alcohol even though the legal drinking age was 21 in the state and I was six months shy of that when I was the VIP guest at the Drifters’ show. The opening act was this belly dancer named Sumara or something close to that, and she started flashing her eyes and everything else at me sitting alone right at the edge of center stage. She eventually lured me up on the stage, had me sit in this chair and made me her stage partner.

The audience was laughing at my obvious boyhood shyness and embarrassment over the attention of Sumara’s charms. She was followed by the Drifters who also showed me a lot of favoritism with Pinkney at one point having me come up on the stage to sing along with one of their popular songs. To understand how terrible that was, you must know that many times in the years since I have had people tell me to my face (even after singing hymns at church funerals) that I have no vocal talents, which I have known anyway.

The Domino Lounge’s manager must have had a conversation with Kay about my being over spirited from their free alcohol because Kay, as the Journal’s entertainment editor, asked me just how old I was the next day or so. And when I told Kay in that summer 1966 that I was 20 and would be 21 on Christmas Eve, he yelled at me from several desks away, “Do you KNOW that you could have cost that club their liquor license?”

Kay and I went separate ways until the 1980s when I ran into him by happenstance near the second-floor elevator outside the newsroom of the Augusta Herald and The Augusta Chronicle, where I had been working since late 1971 covering politics and entertainment. “What are you doing here?” or something like that was the start of the conversation with Kay telling me he was the senior publicist for the Oglethorpe Power Company and was in town visiting. We caught up some and parted again.

My memory bank doesn’t recall if I knew Kay already was writing novels in his free time — the first being The Year The Lights Came On in 1976 — even though I have a copy of that first one at home. He would continue to work for Oglethorpe Power until 1989 when he decided to devote full time to his growing literary popularity.

Over the years, I watched Kay’s star rise especially with the 1990 success of To Dance With The White Dog. Kay told the audience at the Athens-Clarke County Library in 2016 that he did not intend for his signature book to become a published novel. Rather he was writing the story mainly for his 10 other siblings since it was about their father, Toombs Kay Sr., characterized in the book as tree farmer Sam Peek.

The story, inspired by a real-life incident with Kay’s own father and now known to millions of readers around the world, is that Peek was visited by this strange and friendly white dog after Peek’s wife died. Peek became convinced the skittish canine had the soul of his departed wife. The real white dog even would put its paws up on Kay’s walker, and they would sort of dance just like would be described in Kay’s book. Kay had told the white dog story to his long-time friend, Lee Walburn, who had become editor of Atlanta Weekly magazine that talked him into writing a story in the magazine about it titled, The Strange Dance of the White Dog.

Walburn and Kay had been friends from their days at LaGrange (Georgia) College with both graduating in the class of 1959. Walburn became a sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and recommended Kay to sports editor Furman Bisher who hired Kay for the newspaper. It was Kay’s friends, novelist Pat Conroy and Atlanta Magazine founder Jim Townsend, who strongly recommended that Kay turn the white dog story into a novel.The success of that 1990 novel led to the 1993 CBS Television Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that co-starred husband and wife actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy; drawing an astounding 33 million viewers in its first of its many airings.

Kay and I crossed paths in person again in 2015 when the Georgia Literary Festival was held at Augusta University with Kay to be the keynote speaker at 9 a.m. on November 7, in the Jaguar Student Activities Center. In a phone interview for The Augusta Chronicle before the festival, Kay talked with me about the days we shared at the Journal-Constitution building on Forsyth Street in the 1960s and Kay working for world famous sports columnist Furman Bisher.

“I was 23 when I went to work for the Journal and Bisher already was a writing legend then,” Kay said, “and he was only 43 years old; exactly 20 years older than me.

“Every day when people in the newsroom went home, I stayed late, and I would take his columns and re-type them word for word,” Kay added. “That, my friend, is the single simple exercise anybody can do. Go find a really great book or great article by a great writer and copy it over and over until you understand the rhythm of that writing.”

He also talked about his eight years as the Journal’s entertainment writer and film/theater critic during which he interviewed dozens of world-famous celebrities who came to Atlanta.

“I never dreamed of being a writer, and I never had any romantic notions about it. This is true,” Kay said.  “Being a newspaper writer was an interesting and invigorating way to make a living, much better for me than selling insurance or men’s shoes, but my main goal simply was to make a living for my family.”

At that time, Kay was looking forward to inducting his late friend Paul Hemphill, who had died in 2009, into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame just two days after the Georgia Literary Festival with the induction taking place November 9 in a ceremony at the University of Georgia. He was also looking forward to that Christmas season in 2015 to again be narrating Peter and The Wolf with the Athens Symphony Orchestra.

Before our phone conversation ended, he told me there was one project that had been on his mind for many years with Kay’s extensive background in theater. That was to stage a one-man show based on the life of Ralph McGill, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and late publisher of The Atlanta Constitution.

“I was so much in awe of him, and he intimidated me to no end,” Kay said. “I was waiting one time downstairs in the old newspaper building on Forsyth Street to go to lunch with some sports guys when McGill was heading out the front door. He nodded to me and then came back and said, ‘Terry, I’ve been meaning to tell you something. The first story I ever wrote for the Atlanta papers was one based in your hometown of Royston.’

“That meant so much to me,” Kay concluded. “Because I didn’t think he even knew who I was.”

Although readers around the world came to know who Terry Winter Kay was, the Georgia author encountered disappointments in his later life. He accepted an offer in late May 2016 to autograph copies of his new book, The King Who Made Paper Flowers, at The Book Tavern on Broad Street in Augusta and was hoping that I could drop by to visit with him and his wife of 58 years, Tommie Duncan Kay, who I had met at the Georgia Literary Festival.

But, the previous September just before the festival I had fell off my roof trying to clean away pine straw and had broken my right femur bone and corrupted my right Achilles heel. My slow and painful recovery and being confined to a transport chair kept me from attending his visit. Kay emailed me afterward, “Don, sorry I missed you, but I do appreciate all you did to promote the signing. Sadly, only one person showed up, other than my sister and two nephews. My day in the sun is over. Nice while it lasted, but it’s in the past. Enjoyed the evening, though. It’s a pleasant place [Augusta’s only downtown bookstore]. Take care. Terry.” My last combination of emails with Kay took place last May prompted by the death of our mutual friend, Joe McKaughan, former publicist with Atlanta’s Theater Under The Stars shows at Chastain Park Amphitheater and later with Lincoln Center in New York City.

Kay thanked me to letting him know about McKaughan who had retired to his hometown of Griffin, Ga. “I heard from him occasionally but had not seen him in perhaps 40 years or longer,” Kay wrote. “He was a good man who cared passionately about his work, and my memory reminds me that he was accomplished in his field.  Hope all is well. We’re staying close to home obeying the new culture.”

The same afternoon I emailed Kay again and asked what had happened with The King Who Made Paper Flowers possibly being made into a movie. I also mentioned the death of our mutual author friend, Vinnie Williams, the previous January who owned The Oconee Enterprise weekly newspaper in Watkinsville with her daughter, Maridee Williams.

Williams had authored four novels with two being Book of the Month selections: The Fruit Tramp in 1957 and Walk Egypt in 1961 with the latter also condensed in Reader’s Digest magazine. She wrote her last column for the Enterprise at age 99 the month before her death. “There was a minor flutter of film interest in ‘Paper Flowers,’ but nothing came of it,” Kay wrote back. “If this virus doesn’t shut down the publishing industry, I’ll have a new book — The Forever Wish of Middy Sweet — out in September. Will likely be the last one.

“Vinnie’s death caught me by surprise, though it shouldn’t have,” Kay continued. “She was several years beyond her youth. Didn’t know about her death until after the service. Also, didn’t know she’d had a couple of novels to her credit. Stay safe, Terry.”

That was the last time I would hear from my friend of 56 years. One of Kay’s closest friends, legendary UGA sports publicist Loran Smith, wrote a tribute column in the Gwinnett Daily Post and recalled their Friday lunch bunch gatherings at the Long Horn Steak House in Athens. In the column Smith quoted an email message shared with the fellow lunch bunch members by Mick Gusinde-Duffy, executive editor for scholarly and digital publishing with the University of Georgia Press.

“The only person I’ve ever asked to read anything I’ve written is my wife and that’s because she‘s brutally honest,” Kay wrote Gusinde-Duffy in the email. “Since my newspaper days, I’ve been well aware that the words made today mean very little to anyone tomorrow.” Kay concluded in referring to his rural upbringing in the Vanna community outside Royston, “I write for a living, not to leave a legacy. If someone appreciates what I do, I’m grateful. If they think it’s an insult to the human race, I am okay with it. I could still be plowing a mule.”

Thank goodness, the widespread popularity of his books assured that his days of following a mule down a Georgia red dirt row were long gone. Instead of growing cotton or corn in North Georgia, Kay’s love of reading and passion for “discovering” stories produced crops of books which will be enjoyed for decades to come.

And, by the way, keep your eyes open for any strange white dogs in the area who want to dance.