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Essay on Jim Whitehead aired on "Ozarks at Large"

Aired Aug. 22 and Aug. 24, 2003, on KUAF "Ozarks at Large"

By Katherine Shurlds

Used with author's permission.

Larger than life. It's a phrase often used to describe Jim Whitehead. Jim wouldn't like that description, if for no other reason than it's trite.

Sure, he was a big guy. Big Jim. Six foot five, beefy and boisterous. His booming voice unmistakable in a crowd.

It wasn't until his memorial service, though, that I realized he really is larger than life. The energy contained in that man couldn't be extinguished merely because his aorta had a weak spot that gave way.

It was clear in that bittersweet setting, there in Giffels Hall, that Big Jim's largeness, his energy, was fueled by love. Yeah, love -- that emotion so susceptible to triteness, still, that's what fed Big Jim's furnace.

So many of the people he loved and who loved him spoke of Jim's largeness, and largess. They spoke of how he sometimes showed his love in a traditional way -- calling sick friends daily, keeping up with former students' careers. And they told the funny stories of Jim's other way of showing love -- the challenging, gruff, intimidating kind, the kind that forced you to stand up for yourself.

People even on the periphery of that love, myself included, knew of his energy. I first met Jim because, as I was leaving Ole Miss, having finished my master's degree course work, Willie Morris gave me an assignment to interview Jim.

Morris was beginning a new magazine at Oxford and he wanted it to focus on Mississippi. And Jim loved Mississippi.

Meeting Jim in his office at Kimpel Hall in the fall of 1981, I was of course immediately impressed by his size. And the intimidation that people often feel when in Jim's presence fell on me immediately, when Jim asked: "Have you read my novel?"

My whimpering attempt to appease him with "I read the first couple of chapters" prompted a well-deserved lecture on how one doesn't interview a writer having not read what the writer has written.

I thought he was going to throw me out of his office. Instead, he went on with the interview and invited me to his home and to his study -- the famous study where he has engaged so many good friends and students.

We talked about teaching, poetry, the struggle to write a second novel, the pride he had in the writing program at Fayetteville, and of course, we talked about Mississippi.

In an oration that seemed to come from one breath, he said, "I miss the piney woods in south Mississippi, the coast, the Delta a little bit. I love the landscape, the storytelling. I miss being around a certain kind of talk. I care about the history, the politics. I worry about who's governor and who's not governor, about who is doing what to whom. I read the papers, letters from home. I worry about it not working out with the black people of Mississippi. I worry about the collapse of a first-rate public education, about white flight from the schools."

But he loved Fayetteville too. "I live in the South," he said. "I live in a good place in the South. It's not as if I live in Dubuque."

As anyone who knows Jim knows, he and I didn't just talk about things I could put in my article. We talked about racism, literature, world politics -- or I should say, I was quizzed about racism, literature and world politics.

It was a few years after the interview and publication of the story that I began to realize something about Jim that one of his Mississippi friends said at the memorial. He said, "When Jim met a person, he would keep that person."

Jim kept me, not in the same way as he kept his family and close friends and former students, but in a way that whenever I approached him for some project I was working on, he would be enthusiastic and supportive.

The last project we worked on together was a book of Bob Douglas' memorials. Jim had spoken at the memorial service and was allowing me to reproduce his words for the book.

True to style, Jim was the only one to demand to see a galley proof. "Hell, yeah," he said, "I'm not going to let you print something of mine if I don't see it first."

Once he read the proof -- and changed some of his own words he didn't like upon second reading -- we talked. We talked about Bob and about growing older and about death. It was as if we had a habit of talking every day, the intimacy of that conversation. Only someone with so large a soul could embrace an occasional friend with such warmth. Only someone larger than life.

January 21, 2004 in Articles | Permalink


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