Simple Life

Simple Life

The Wish Book’s Final Chapter

Saying a fond farewell to Sears’ last remaining North Carolina store

By Jim Dodson

I learned that the last Sears department store in North Carolina honest-to-goodness brick and mortar store — was closing. Out of simple curiosity, and a dose of nostalgia, I went to pay my respects.

Truthfully, I hadn’t set foot in our local shopping center’s Sears since purchasing a new Craftsman lawnmower there more than five years ago. Happy to report, it’s been a fine mower.

Before that, my last visit to Sears was probably as a kid in the mid-1960s when, fueled by the firm’s famous “Wish Book” Christmas catalog, every kid I knew haunted the toy department at the downtown Sears retail store during the run-up weeks to the holiday. My first bicycle came from Sears, and was later parked outside the store the year my buddy Brad and I innocently drifted from the toy department into the adjacent lingerie department to stare in wonder at the display mannequins in all their undergarmented glory. As she escorted us to the exit doors, the unamused clerk with the pointy-blue eyeglasses refused to believe we were simply looking for presents for our moms.

That iconic downtown store, in any case, is now a giant hole in the ground, awaiting construction of a swanky office building as time, life and commerce march resolutely on.

Let’s pause and have a moment of fond reflection for — as Smithsonian recently described it — “The retail giant that taught America how to shop.”

Sears began modestly in 1887 when a former railway lumber salesman named Richard Sears moved to Chicago to partner with an Indiana watchmaker named Alvah Roebuck to launch a catalog selling jewelry and watches. Both men were still in their 20s. Six years later, they incorporated as Sears, Roebuck and Company, putting out a 500-page catalog that sold everything an American farmer or thrift-conscious housewife could ask for at a “fair price,” shipped directly to the customer.

In a nation where most Americans still resided on farms or in small towns, this marketing model exploded like a prairie fire, fueling the growth of urban factories. Even Henry Ford was said to have studied the Sears marketing model for making and selling his cars. The company’s first stock certificates were sold in 1906. “If you picked up a big enough chunk of stock when the company went public,” writes Investopedia, “you’d never have to work again.”

The first Sears retail store opened in Chicago in 1925. Four years later, on the eve of the Great Depression, the company was operating 300 stores around the country. By the mid-1950s, the number topped 700. By then, the corporation’s reliable Kenmore appliances, lifetime-guaranteed Craftsman tools, DieHard auto batteries and Allstate Insurance were beloved household names in America’s ballooning mass consumer culture. The stores followed the consumer’s migration from Main Street to shopping centers and, eventually, suburban malls.

Perhaps the company’s most enduring product line was introduced in 1908 when a Sears executive named Frank Kushel came up with the idea of kit houses sold through a specialty catalog called “The Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans,” offering 44 styles of mail-order homes ranging in price from $360 to $2,890. Generally shipped by rail, house packages provided everything down to screws and nails, including pre-cut and numbered framing lumber, flooring, doorknobs, wiring and plumbing.

Between 1908 and 1947,  an estimated 75,000 Sears kit houses — from Bungalow to English Cottage, Craftsman to Queen Anne — were shipped to Americans. Old House Journal notes that unknown Frank Kushel’s Modern Home Program wielded as much impact on the development of American architecture as famous contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sears boasted that its houses were built to last, explaining why thousands of them remain highly prized, lovingly restored jewels in older neighborhoods across America, relics of a bygone golden consumer age.

By the 1970s,  the firm owned the tallest skyscraper in the world in Chicago, was among the first to introduce home internet services, and jumped into the real estate, credit card and financial services businesses.

Perhaps it was too much for the gods of commerce to tolerate. Critics pointed to the company’s legal affrays over sex and race discrimination and a business model fueled by corporate hubris. 

In 1993, just shy of its 100th anniversary, Sears discontinued its famous catalog. Walmart was now the nation’s leading retailer, and Americans were suddenly buying things “online.” One year later, a former hedge fund guru named Jeff Bezos started up an online book service called Amazon, pretty much putting the finishing nail in the coffin of the historic brand. After 75 years on Wall Street, Home Depot took Sears’ place on the Dow Industrials. As the company’s sales steadily spiraled downward, a forced marriage with K-Mart in 2004 failed to stem the hemorrhage.

In January 2017, shortly before I purchased my Craftsman mower, the iconic tool brand was sold off to Stanley Black & Decker.

Less than a year later, in October 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy.

Last December, the company emerged from bankruptcy but announced the liquidation and closing of all its remaining stores. According to reports, less than a dozen made it to this spring. Only one in North Carolina.

Which is why, out of some strange, old fashioned sense of brand loyalty or happy memories of lawn mowers and provocative lingerie mannequins, I felt a final farewell trip was in order.

Bright yellow “Going Out of Business” banners festooned the building. I wandered through looking at the remaining stock items. Fifty-percent bargains were everywhere. I looked at Kenmore refrigerators, top-line Samsung dishwashers and GE Elite ovens, all half-price.

I decided on a lightweight Craftsman toolbox to remember the place by, a steal at $27.

On my way out, I paused to chat with a clerk, Janice, who has worked for Sears for more than two decades. “It makes me really sad to think that Sears is going away for good,” she said. “Like millions of Americans, everything in my house as a young married woman came from Sears. I guess nothing lasts forever, does it?”

She surprised me with a sudden, feisty grin. “You know, I think if we’d only stuck with catalogs, by golly, we’d have beaten Amazon and still be going strong!”

I loved her company spirit. I wished her well.

Then I went home to mow my lawn.

Whenever the math of this world doesn’t quite add up — when the sad subtractions outnumber the hopeful additions, or vice versa — I find temporary comfort by mowing my lawn. Crazy, I know. But it briefly puts things in perspective.

Besides, my Craftsman mower never lets me down.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

Simple Life

Return of Jimmy the Lawn King

Fresh-cut grass stirs up memories

By Jim Dodson

It started with a simple phone call from our neighbor across the street. Mildred Horseman had seen me mowing my family’s yard and wondered if I might be willing to mow her lawn. Her husband, Gene, was just home from the hospital and under strict doctor’s orders to rest for a month. She even offered to pay.

It was early summer, 1968, and I was 15. We were new to the old neighborhood where everybody had lush green lawns. I’d been mowing lawns since age 12, trusted not to destroy anything or chop off my own toes.

“I’ll send Jimmy right over,” said my mom. “No need to pay him. He loves mowing the grass.”

That was partly true. I liked mowing grass. I also liked money, which I needed to buy the beautiful classical guitar I had my eye on at Moore Music Company. It was $95, a whopping $800 in today’s dollars.

So off I went with our crotchety old Sears & Roebuck power mower, which normally took forever and required a number of impolite muttered oaths to start. Mr. Horseman sat on his screened porch watching me unsuccessfully crank until I had to rest my arm. He finally got up and stepped outside.

“Jimmy,” he said. “Come with me. I’ve got just what you need.”

In his garage sat a bright green Lawn-Boy power mower, one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

“She’s got a few years of age on her, but will almost always start on the first pull. I keep her tuned up.”

He was right. One pull and she started. Gene Horseman went back to his club chair on the porch and I got busy on his lawn, marveling at the way his Lawn-Boy cut grass. When I finished and put his mower back in the garage, he waved me onto the porch. Mrs. Horseman had brought out lemonade.

“So what do you think?”

“Great,” I said. “Wish my dad would get one of those.”

“They’re pretty reliable,” he said. “One of the oldest brands in America, invented by a guy who built the first outboard motors for boats.”

As I drank my lemonade, I learned Gene Horseman was a retired business professor from Michigan. The Lawn-Boy mower, he explained, was created before WWII by a Wisconsin man who built Evinrude outboard engines. “I knew him when I was young. He became quite the successful businessman.”

Gene Horseman handed me a ten dollar bill. Sadly, I was compelled to explain that I was unable to take his money due to a mother who didn’t care a fig if I became a successful businessman.

“In that case,” he said, “how about we do a deal. You mow my lawn this summer and you can use the Lawn-Boy to mow lawns along the street. Sound good? I’ll even buy the gas.”

It did sound good, a potential gold mine at ten bucks a clip. But I didn’t know any of the neighbors yet.

“Print up some fliers,” he said. “Or, better yet, I’ll have Mildred get on the phone. You’ll have a job or two in no time.”

Within a week, I had two paying jobs, half a dozen regulars by the middle of summer. At ten bucks a pop, I was the richest kid on the block. By July, the Yamaha classical was mine. My mom took to calling me “Jimmy the Yard King.”

It was my first real job.

I also had my first real crush that summer on a cute girl from Luther League named Ginny Silkworth. Ginny had a great laugh and a solid right hook. When I asked her to go to the movies, she laughed and punched me sharply on the arm. We went to see Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at the Cinema on Tate Street near UNCG, an evening somewhat diminished by the fact that my father had to drive us to the theater and never stopped chatting with my date.

That summer was long and hot for America, one of the most tumultuous in the nation’s history. Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Bobby Kennedy were both gunned down by assassins that spring, and an unpopular war in Vietnam took an even ghastlier turn. Race riots erupted in Cleveland, Miami and Chicago.

But it was also the summer that Ginny Silkworth and I went to see The Graduate, the Beatles released “Hey Jude,” and I snagged a second job teaching guitar to kids and senior citizens at Mr. Weinstein’s music store. Between mowing and teaching, my pockets overflowed. I started saving money to buy my first car.

Something about the orderliness and smell of fresh-cut grass and the satisfaction of a job well done permeated my teenage brain and grounded me in a way that made my narrow world seem oddly immune from all the bad news on TV.

It was the first and last great year of Jimmy the Yard King, though its impact was lasting.

Perhaps this explains why, when my wife and I built a post-and-beam house on a high forested hill near the coast of Maine — my first home ever — I created a large garden that featured more than half an acre of beautiful Kentucky bluegrass and fescues.

By then I’d graduated to a serious deluxe John Deere lawn tractor that gave me more than a decade of mowing bliss. A sad parting came, however, when we packed up to move home to North Carolina and discovered there was no room in the moving van for my dear old John Deere.

I seriously considered driving my Deere all the way to Carolina, but finally gave up and sold it to our snowplowing guy for a song. I still have dreams about it.

Today, back in the old neighborhood where I started, I own a modest suburban patch of grass I can mow with my Honda self-propelled mower in less than 18 minutes.

It’s a fine mower, but nothing compared to Gene Horseman’s marvelous Lawn-Boy. Professional lawn crews now roam our streets like packs of Mad Max mowers, offering to relieve me of my turf obligations for 75 bucks a pop, roughly what it once took me a full week to earn cutting grass. They seem offended by an old guy who loves to mow his own yard.

Sometimes, when I’m cutting grass, I think about that faraway summer and Ginny Silkworth, my laughing first date. We stayed in touch for four decades. Ginny became a beloved teacher in Philadelphia and passed away a few years ago. I miss her laugh, if not her punch.

Maybe the smell of fresh-cut summer grass does that. Whatever it is, if only for 18 minutes once a week, Jimmy The Yard King is back in business.


Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

Simple Life

Cadillac Joe

While some of his dogwoods are long gone, the legend lives on

By Jim Dodson

As spring broke this year, I had a startling realization.

I may be turning into Cadillac Joe.

His real name was Joe Franks. Mr. Franks and his delightful wife, Ginny, and their two boys, Joe Jr. and Chuck, lived across the street in the old neighborhood where I grew up. I was good friends with the Franks boys. My mom was one of Ginny Franks’ closest chums.

Big Joe was a highly respected lawyer in town, though that’s not what made him something of a local legend.

Every spring, the Franks family lawn burst spectacularly into bloom with luscious beds of mature azalea bushes Joe had planted and groomed. During the peak blooming stage, usually around Easter, a constant stream of cars cruised slowly past his house just to take in the impressive floral show — rather like people do at Christmastime to look at over-the-top lighting displays. And thanks to several hundred pink and white dogwood trees that bloomed along the street just as the Franks’ yard exploded in color, Dogwood Drive lived up to its name, including a magnificent Cherokee Brave (pink) and Cherokee Princess (white) that proudly stood for more than half a century.

Over the years, our street — and the Franks house in particular — found their way into numerous newspaper feature sections and a host of top gardening magazines, including a couple big spreads in Southern Living magazine.

What made the show bigger than life was that most Sunday mornings throughout spring and summer, Big Joe Franks lovingly washed or waxed his Cadillac in the Franks family driveway while playing the music of Frank Sinatra. His neighbors must have been fans of Ol’ Blue Eyes because nobody I know of ever complained. My mom even took to calling him Cadillac Joe. Looking back, I’m half convinced Cadillac Joe’s music is the reason I have a thing for Sinatra today.

“Dad sure loved that Cadillac and his azaleas,” Joe Jr. confirmed with a booming laugh when I tracked him down by phone. “And, of course, Sinatra. That was the music of his life. Waxing that Cadillac and growing those azaleas were his passions.”

Joe, the son, is something of a legend, too. He grew up to become a beloved athletic trainer and successful men’s football and women’s golf coach at Grimsley High School. The playing field at Jamieson Stadium is named for “Little Joe Franks,” as my mom called him. Today, Little Joe is semi-retired and lives in Danville, Virginia, where his wife, Dr. Tiffany McKillip Franks, is in her 14th year as president of Averett University.

“So how are your azalea bushes doing?” I asked him.

“The college has plenty of them. I don’t have my dad’s thing for growing them, but I do have a Cadillac Escalade just like Dad. And I recently picked up a second one, an ATS two-door coup. Really nice.”

I wondered if Joe had any idea how many azalea bushes his dad, who passed away in 2001, planted and groomed to perfection.

“At least 250,” Joe said, explaining how Big Joe’s favorites were red, white and pink azaleas. “If you recall,” he added, “there was a huge peach-colored one by the front porch. It was probably seven or eight feet tall.”

I remembered this bush and almost hated to inform him that the bright young college professor who owns the Franks house today is growing artichokes where Cadillac Joe worked his magic each spring.

“Yeah, by the time my mom was ready to give up the house,” Coach Joe told me, “the plants were showing their age and had probably seen their better days. I guess they just dug them up.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, pleased to inform him. “I think I might be channeling Cadillac Joe these days.”

Six years ago, my wife, Wendy, and I moved back to Dogwood Drive, purchasing an old house that sits two doors from the one where I grew up. As she got to work restoring the house’s interior, I got to work outside. To date, I’ve planted more than 30 trees in my yard, including five dogwoods, a trio of southern redbuds and several cherry trees that outrageously bloom every spring. I’ve also planted 24 azaleas and 17 hydrangeas.

A garden-loving psychologist wouldn’t be wrong in suggesting that I’m rebuilding the blooming street of my boyhood. I hail from an old Carolina clan of farmers, gardeners, preachers and storytellers, after all, and grew up hearing legends of the dogwood tree’s origin, one of which holds that long ago the dogwood was a mighty tree — like the oak — that was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Because of its role in the death of Christ, the legend goes, God both cursed and blessed the little tree. It would never again grow large enough to be used as a cross for a crucifixion. Yet it would also produce beautiful flowers in the spring, just in time for Easter, with petals shaped like a cross, clustered berries resembling a crown of thorns and specks of red that symbolized drops of blood. 

Over the half a century since I’d lived on our street, most of the dogwoods disappeared from yards. In fairness, dogwoods generally only live anywhere from 40–70 years, and the beauties I remember were probably at least already middle-aged. Even so, we count no more than 15 dogwood trees on the entire street.

For that matter, azaleas are also dramatically thin on the ground these days. Maybe they are just too finicky for casual gardeners and the new generation of busy young families that inhabit the neighborhood to keep up with, requiring annual trimming, fertilizing and mulching in order to flourish.

In truth, I was never terribly keen on planting dogwood trees and azaleas bushes until we moved back to Dogwood Drive, at which point a mysterious desire overtook me. Perhaps I am becoming Cadillac Joe 2.0?

Little Joe Franks was pleased when I mentioned this botanical phenomenon.

“That’s great,” he said. “Now all you need is an old Cadillac and the music of Sinatra!”

He may be right. For the moment at least, an aging Subaru and Mary Chapin Carpenter will have to suffice.

Maybe someday I will be remembered as the legend of Outback Jimmy.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

Simple Life

“The Birds of Paradise”

The bad news Birds help a tired journalist find good news

By Jim Dodson

I hear a voice and look up. The face is much older, the voice deeper. But both are so familiar.

“Hey, Coach,” says Peter Gay, giving me what I used to call his sly fastball grin.

I stand up and we hug.

“You grew up, buddy.”

“And you grew old, Coach.”

“Funny how that happens.”

We both laugh.

Forty years ago, Pete and his brothers, Fred and Rodney, and their friend, Alvin, were the invincible infield of an inner-city baseball team I coached for two spring seasons called the Highland Park Orioles. I nicknamed them the Birds of Paradise because most of the players came from a tough inner city neighborhood where, by agreement with their anxious parents and guardians, I dropped them off near a street named Paradise after every practice and game.

Atlanta, in those years, was anything but a paradise. Due to the infamous “Missing and Murdered” crisis that besieged the city between 1979 and 1981, in which 30 Black kids and young adults were abducted and murdered by an unknown person or persons, the city that declared itself “too busy to hate” earned the distinction of being the “Murder Capital of America” for several years running.

Looking back, going out at my editor’s suggestion to write a sweet little feature story about the hopefulness of spring baseball tryouts in my Midtown neighborhood and getting strong-armed by a frantic league director to take on a wild bunch of Orioles whose coach never bothered to show up was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me.

In the spring of 1982, I was the senior writer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday Magazine, the oldest Sunday magazine in the nation, where Margaret Mitchell worked when she wrote Gone with the Wind. During my six years there, I’d written about everything from unrepentant Klansmen to corrupt politicians, presidential campaigns to repo kings, a constant stream of violence and social mayhem. Upon reaching age 30, I decided that I was rapidly becoming a career burn out case. In a nutshell, I’d had enough of covering the sorrows of my native South.

An early tipping point came while working on a story about Atlanta’s famed medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stivers — reportedly the inspiration for the hit TV show, Quincy — when I actually saw my next-door neighbor, a med student, gunned down in his darkened backyard doorway by an assailant. The young man died as his hysterical girlfriend and I waited for the EMTs and cops to arrive. The cops took their own sweet time, shrugging it off as just another drug deal gone sideways. I followed the ambulance hauling my neighbor’s body downtown to the ME’s office to await his autopsy. Talk about art imitating life’s worst moments.

My editor, a charming true-blue Atlantan named Andy Sparks, who’d been on the magazine since the days of Margaret Mitchell, had spotted my brewing crisis and suggested I write about “lighter” subjects for a time. So I went over to the rutted ball field with pen and pad and not a lot of hope in hand.

Our first practice was chaos. The team horsed around and barely paid attention as I placed them into tentative playing positions. Somehow, I managed to get the four best players into key spots. Pete and Alvin would rotate between pitching and playing third; Fred at first base, and Rodney catching.

On the way home, I stopped at a popular neighborhood joint called Woody’s just two blocks from the ball field, foolishly thinking that if I bought them a milkshake and got to know them better, the four best players on the team might help me whip the Birds into shape. Instead, they hooted and hollered and made such a rude ruckus that the owners tossed us out and warned us not to come back unless we could learn to behave.

“I remember how you gave us a lecture about being gentlemen in public places,” Pete says as we sit together at Woody’s 40 years later. The place is now owned by a Black couple. Its milkshakes and steak-and-cheese sandwiches are better than ever.

Peter Gay is 53 today, a hard-working father of three grown children, and a popular volunteer football coach and recruiter for Booker T. Washington High in the center city. He’s dressed in the bright blue colors of the Washington Bulldogs.

Two years ago, he called me out of the Bulldog blue. 

“I remembered the story you wrote for the Reader’s Digest about us,” he explained on the phone that afternoon. “And I remembered that you left Atlanta to write books. That’s how I found you on the internet.”

“Tell me,” I said. “Is Woody’s still there?”

A day later, Pete sent me a photo of himself in front of the Woody’s sign. We made a plan to meet there when I came to Atlanta for my latest book research.

That first season, the Birds of Paradise never lost a game. Or if we did, I don’t recall it. We often won by football scores. Pete had a lethal fast ball. Alvin’s curve was unhittable. Rodney was an awesome catcher and Fred played first base like a pro. Even better, the Birds calmed down and became true gentlemen on and off the field, though I spent a small fortune on milkshakes once the other members of the team learned about my gambit and got in on the post-game treat.

“You kind of bribed us to behave with milkshakes,” says Coach Pete Gay today. “But I get that now. It really worked.”

Because of the Birds, I stayed for one more spring in Atlanta. In year two we went undefeated. A coach from the all-White northern suburbs even proposed a “Metro” championship game at his team’s immaculate facility north of the city. We set a date for the game, and I went out and purchased new orange jerseys with my own money. A few days before the match-up, however, my opposing coach called back to say that some of his parents were concerned that my kids might feel “intimidated about playing in such a nice facility.”

I assured him the Birds wouldn’t be intimidated. We both knew the meaning of his code words.

“Well,” he said uneasily, “maybe . . . next year.”

There was no next year.

After the season, the owners of Woody’s threw us a party and I left Atlanta for Vermont, where I learned to fly-fish, knocked the rust off my golf game and found a whole new career — and happiness — writing about people and subjects that enrich life. 

I also realized that the Birds of Paradise gave me a gift those final two years — a healing glimpse of what real happiness is like.

As another spring dawns, I’ve seen Pete and Fred several times and even attended the beautiful wedding of Pete’s daughter, Petera, last summer. Very soon, on my next trip to Atlanta, I’m planning to take my entire infield to a very nice, grown-up dinner, with or without milkshakes. OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

Simple Life

A Little Stuffed Potato Wisdom

Lessons from full-grown tater tots

By Jim Dodson

Someone once said to me that it’s not happiness that makes one grateful, but gratitude that makes one happy.

Looking back, I may have seen this poetic syllogism scrawled on an ancient stone wall several years ago while hiking with my wife in Tuscany (where every graffiti artist is a philosopher-in-training). Or maybe I heard Oprah Winfrey say it in one of her SuperSoul Conversations that the aforementioned wife suggested that I listen to on long drives.

Whoever said it, I’m grateful for its pithy wisdom because I’ve suddenly reached an age where I know it to be true.

Back in February, I turned 70, a milestone that took me by surprise.

It’s not that I was unprepared. In truth, I’ve enjoyed getting older and slowing down a bit, giving me the chance to notice the evening sky.

Also, I am not alone in this epic journey into the great gray age and the unknown, as my late father — who lived a full and active life right up to a week before he died at 80 — used to joke. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 69.2 million baby boomers alive and kicking today in America, the second-largest population group next to our children, the millennials (73.9 million born between 1981 and 1996 ). My particular group was born in 1953 ands falls somewhere in the lower middle of the boomer years between 1946 and 1964.

According to the latest actuarial projections used by our friends at the Social Security Administration to calculate how much longer the agency will have to give us back all the money we spent decades putting into the system, my age and gender group — males aged 70 — can expect to live another 14.5 years, while our female counterparts come in at a 16.75. Good for them, I say! Sell the house, dump the stocks, give away the dog and go sit on a beautiful beach in Tahiti for the rest of your days!

By the way, that’s exactly what my wise but cheeky and younger wife Wendy says she plans to do with her giddy 10 extra years after I check out of the Hotel California.

Meanwhile, according to the CDC’s Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), life expectancy at birth in the United States declined nearly a full year from 2020 to 2021, a worrying dip from 77.0 to 76.1 years that is the lowest level since 1996, probably due in part to a thing called COVID. The 0.9 year drop in life expectancy in 2021, along with a 1.8 year drop in 2020, was the biggest two-year decline since 1921–1923, years in which the Spanish flu wiped out millions worldwide, including my own maternal grandmother.

Actuarially speaking, it could be worse, of course. Afghanistan’s current life expectancy is just a hair over 56 years, considerably shorter if the Taliban’s Morality Police catch you whispering about the need to educate girls and women.

Singapore’s life expectancy, on the other hand, is a bonny 86.5 years. Perhaps this means that Dame Wendy — the future merry widow — should consider moving there instead of Tahiti (which has a mere life expectancy of 78.82 years) where she’s likely to make lots of older gal pals living the good life off the insurance money on a lovely Asian beach. As any veteran foreign traveler knows, however, Singaporeans are obsessed with public cleanliness and strict social order. Littering, chewing gum in public or failing to flush a public toilet can land you a whopping $1,000 fine, while showing your bare feet or skin of any sort can earn you three months in jail. That sensational black one-piece my 61-year-old lover debuted at the pool last summer probably won’t fly with Singapore’s own Morality Police. So on second thought, perhaps I won’t suggest Singapore and just leave well enough alone. That’s probably the wisest thing I’ve learned from being happily married for 20-plus years.

The point of all these dizzying numbers, as Oprah or any Tuscan street poet with spray paint can tell you, is to live the best life you can and be damned grateful for whatever time you have left.

That’s exactly what my fellow members of the Stuffed Potatoes Lunch & Philosophy Club try to do on a daily basis.

For the moment, there’s just three of us in the club. We meet every other week or so in the shadowy booth of a popular restaurant to discuss the current state of the world, the wonders of our grown children and the enduring mystery of our wives.

Remarkably, as this March dawns, all three of us will have turned 70 by the end of the month. Joe hit the mark in late January, I did so in early February, and Patrick achieves the milestone later this month.

I’m told none of us actually looks 70 years old, though wives, golf pals and fellow Stuffed Potatoes can scarcely be considered objective sources.

For that matter, we probably don’t even act like old men, save for when we complain about dodgy knees and idiots who run red lights. As a kid, I once asked my lively grandmother on her 84th birthday if she was afraid of dying. She grinned and patted my rosy little cheek. “Not a bit, sugar pie,” she said. “Just afraid of falling.” 

None of the Stuffed Potatoes, I can reliably report, are afraid of dying. We’re too busy for that.

January Joe is a professional forester helping set aside beautiful lands for future generations. Patrick, the marketing whiz — I fondly call him the “Irish Antichrist” — is keeping the national economy afloat. And I’m just a humble scribbler trying to finish three books this year alone.

Given that we collectively amount to 210 years of accumulated life experience, I put to my fellow Stuffed Potatoes a timely question the other day: What is the one thing you’ve learned in 70 years?

January Joe, our resident sage, didn’t hesitate. “There are wonders ahead. Don’t fight them — just surrender!” This from a lovely fellow who gets to walk in the woods for a living and surrenders most weekends to the joy of several beautiful grandbabies.

My old friend, Patrick, offered with a hearty laugh, “There’s no good news or bad news. It’s all information. Just keep doing what you do and don’t look back.” The Irish Antichrist means business.

As for me, I hope to finish half a dozen more books over the 15.5 years I may or may not have left. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, we have a joyous new puppy named Winnie and a garden that is springing gloriously back to life by the minute.

I’m deeply grateful for both, not to mention a fabulous wife who says she really has no interest in going to Singapore or Tahiti. And was probably only joking.

That makes me a really happy guy..  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

Simple Life

Where Does the Light Go?

Reflections on a beloved friend’s passing — and growing older

By Jim Dodson

In an early time, according to the late Irish bard and spiritual thinker John O’Donohue, Medieval mystics loved to pose the beguiling question: Where does the light go when the candle is blown out?

I couldn’t help but think of this conundrum one recent Saturday morning as I sat in a pew of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Atlanta, having taken a redeye flight from Los Angeles in order to attend a dear friend’s funeral service.

Celetta Randolph Jones — Randy  as she was affectionately known by hundreds, if not thousands of people — was one of my oldest and closest friends. She walked into my life in 1977 at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution two days after I arrived at the oldest Sunday magazine in the nation. Editor Andy Sparks believed we needed to meet because we were both single, students of American history and Randy knew the city like the back of her most elegant hand.

I’d just turned 24, a wide-eyed bumpkin from North Carolina. Randy was almost 30, the sophisticated media officer of The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. I think perhaps Editor Sparks believed sparks might fly between us, which they did. Just not the kind he envisioned.

We discovered instead a friendship for the ages. During my nearly seven years in Atlanta, Randy became my frequent dinner companion during which no subject was out of bounds — God, politics, my literary ambitions and her string of colorful boyfriends who could never keep up with her.

By the time my career carried me off to New England, Randy had started her own public relations firm and was quickly becoming a megastar representing the likes of Coca-Cola, British Airways and dozens of other A-list regional and international clients. Despite the distance, our friendship only deepened and grew. When my daughter, Maggie, was born in 1989, Randy, who never married, was delighted to become my daughter’s godmother. She came to New England and North Carolina many times for holidays and family occasions, and I never failed to stay with her whenever I passed through Atlanta. She truly was one of the great lights — and gifts — of my life.

It was lovely to learn from the words of remembrance from her adoring brothers, Harry and Powell Jones, that “Aunt Randy” actually had a dozen or more godchildren she faithfully lavished attention and wisdom upon over the decades, even after a freakish illness destroyed her immune system and forced her to sell her thriving company. She moved to a high rise apartment in Atlanta’s Four Seasons Hotel where she became a tireless fundraiser for Emory University Hospital, The Woodruff Arts Center, her church and many other charities. According to brother Harry, everyone in the building, from the hotel doorman to her neighbor, Charles Barkley, considered Randy their best friend. Her generosity to friends and strangers alike knew no bounds.

I saw Randy a month or so before she passed away. She was frail but mentally vibrant and connected to people as ever, wanting to hear about my latest book project and her goddaughter’s life in L.A. We sat together for almost two hours. When I got up to go and bent to kiss her cheek, she remarked, with her wonderful, sultry, deep Georgia accent, “We have traveled pretty far together, haven’t we?”

“And we’re not done,” I replied. “You helped light the way.”

She patted my hand. “Don’t worry. That light will never go out.”

I think she knew we would never see each other again in this world. But had no doubt whatsoever about the next.

So where does the light go when the flame is blown out?  I’ll leave that debate to the Medieval mystics and take my friend Randy at her word that the light will never go out.

The passing of one you love, however, inevitably calls up thoughts of your own brief mortality.

This month, with not a lot of fanfare, I reach my Biblically proscribed threescore years and ten, a phrase popularized by Psalm 90, which was read at Randy’s service. Seventy was considered a ripe old life in ancient times.

Fortunately, I have two best buddies — Patrick and Joe — who are also reaching 70 around the same time I am: Joe in January, Patrick in March. At our regular luncheons of the Stuffed Potato Philosophy & Adventure Club, we often talk about how pleased we are to be “older” dudes who are still working at jobs we love and appreciating life more than ever. True, body parts don’t work as fluidly as they once did, but it’s amazing what we never worry about anymore, including death, taxes, career ups and downs, and the inevitability of growing older. This spring, Patrick and I plan to celebrate 58 years of playing golf together in America and Britain by setting off for a final roving match across Ireland, Scotland and England for perpetual bragging rights. Our legs may grow weary, but, I assure you, not our spirits.

A recent study shows that we are not alone, revealing that the vast majority of older Americans are as happy — and busy — as they have ever been in American society. As anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite recently pointed out in her outstanding TED Talk, older people tend to become more optimistic as they age, worry far less than younger folks, and really only have two things to be concerned about — that someday the people you love will die, and that parts of your body will eventually quit working. Fear of death doesn’t even make the list. Remaining open to new adventures and connected to people turns out to be a path for a long and meaningful life. Applewhite calls it the U-Curve of Happiness.

Was it simply the hand of sweet synchronicity that I happened to hear her inspiring TED Talk on the radio during the long drive home to North Carolina following Randy’s memorial service, or maybe something only a mystic could explain?

I’ll probably never know. But in the meantime, I’ll happily follow the flame wherever it leads next. PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

Simple Life

One Journey Ends, Another Begins

Lessons from the road long ago taken, but not forgotten

By Jim Dodson

In ancient Roman religion, the god Janus was a two-faced chap revered as the deity of doorways and transitions, endings and new beginnings — hence the origin of this month’s name, signaling a moment when we wisely take time to reflect on where we’ve come from and what may lie ahead.

This year, this notion has fresh relevance to me.

Sometime this spring, assuming the good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise, as my Southern granny liked to say, I hope to finish writing a book that means the world to me.

It’s about the legendary Great Wagon Road, described by historians as the most traveled road of colonial America, the country’s first immigrant “highway” that passed through the Appalachian backcountry from Philadelphia to Georgia, bringing tens of thousands of Scots-Irish, German and other European settlers to the American South, including my ancestors and quite possibly yours.

Joe Wilson, the great historian of American roots music, once estimated that “a quarter of Americans today have an ancestor who traveled the Great Wagon Road. You can still see traces of it, a track across high ridges, a trough through piney woods, guarded by wild turkey and chipmunks, a road that was in use for a century — the most important road in American history.”

Six years ago, an idea nurtured since I was knee-high to a historic roadside marker was born anew. With some encouraging research in hand, I paid a visit to a former Navy engineer named Tom Magnuson who heads up the Trading Path Association, based in Hillsborough, where my own Scottish ancestors arrived in the mid-1700s. Magnuson’s marvelous organization researches and documents America’s historic lost roads in order to preserve and expand public appreciation of them. I figured if anyone could tell me if it was feasible or pure folly to try to find the original roadway and follow it from Philly to Georgia 250 years after the fact, that fellow was Tom Magnuson.

My timing couldn’t have been better. He pointed out that recent scholarship by an army of historians, state archivists, archeologists and ordinary history nerds like me had actually determined the original path of the Great Wagon Road and even posted an exquisitely detailed description of its route through some of the most hallowed places in America.

“The Great Wagon Road,” Tom said, when I mentioned my objective, “is the grandaddy of America’s frontier highways — our creation myth, if you like — one that explains the origins of our national story better than any other. The people and ideas that came down that road shaped the character of this nation, both good and bad. That defines who we are today.”

This was all the encouragement I needed. Not long afterwards, I plotted my route and even purchased my very own “Great Wagon” for the journey — a 1996 Buick Roadmaster Grand Estate station wagon, said to be the last “true” American station wagon before Detroit switched to making SUVs.

I envisioned a pleasant three-week cruise along the winding 845-mile road in which I would encounter all sorts of interesting characters, local experts and fellow Wagon Road flamekeepers who shared my passion for this once lost frontier highway and its unique role in shaping America.

God laughs, as the ancient proverb goes, when grown men make plans.

In fact, the journey took five years and 2,100 miles to complete, in part due to the incredible amount of history, marvelous people and stories I found along the way, but also because a worldwide pandemic struck in the middle stages of my research, knocking me off the road for almost two years.

Certain moments stand out, including meeting descendants of Founding Fathers and Daniel Boone; sitting with a fabled Lincoln historian during the annual reading of the Gettysburg Address; walking Antietam with the National Park Service’s first female battlefield guide; and playing guitar with an Appalachian bluegrass legend.

All told,  I visited with — and interviewed — more than 100 extraordinary and ordinary folks from every walk of life who had their own love affair with the old road.

I cherish their diverse voices on my iPhone recorder because they belong to a wonderfully democratic mix of experts and colorful characters, activists and local historians, thoughtful museum curators, gifted poets and preachers, artists and war re-enactors, history nuts of every political persuasion and kind strangers whose names I simply forgot to write down.

In the end, listening to their stories about an old road that has gripped my imagination since I was a kid standing in front of a huge covered wagon in a museum brought me even closer to the country I love.

It taught me how amazingly far we’ve come — and have yet to go.

Somehow, I think the god Janus would approve.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

Miss Jan for Christmas

By Jim Dodson

As she eats her Sunday morning breakfast, Miss Jan looks across the table at me and cheerfully remarks, “You look very nice. Why are you so dressed up?”

As usual, I have a silly answer ready. 

“Actually, Jan, I’m planning to address Congress today. I’m proposing a constitutional amendment promoting universal kindness and the importance of using proper turn signals in traffic. Thought I should look my best.”

She laughs. “Good for you! I hope they listen!”

In fact, Wendy and I are just heading off to church. But this is a kind of game I play when Miss Jan comes to our house on weekends.

During the week, a lovely caregiver named Waletta looks after her needs at the independent senior living facility where Miss Jan lives, while her daughter, my busy wife, brings her groceries and takes her mom out to lunch at least once a week. She’s incredibly chatty with the waiters and a bit of an old flirt. Miss Jan is, too.

Every day is like Christmas when Miss Jan — as her art students called her — comes to our house. She eats her favorite foods, drinks a little wine, plays with Gracie, the dog, clips beautiful things out of magazines for her scrapbooks, and watches Love It or List It. As her world narrows down, she takes genuine pleasure in the smallest of things.

“I love bacon,” she declares that same Sunday morning. “And eggs, too. They are my favorite foods.”

I knew what was coming next. She tells me how, when she was a little girl growing up on a farm in rural Connecticut, her mother would make bacon and eggs gathered from the farm’s henhouse every Sunday morning. How Jack, the hired man, would sit at one end of the table, her father, the architect, at the other, and Mike, the dog, between, waiting for scraps to fall. She even slips into the stern Irish voice of her mother, admonishing her daughters not to feed Mike. For it is a sin in the eyes of the Almighty to waste food.

I’ve heard this sweet story probably a hundred times over the past five or six years.

“I like that tie you’re wearing,” she declares next, buttering her biscuit. “Where did you get that?”

It came from a clothing shop in Edinburgh, Scotland, I explain, a Sinclair hunting tartan necktie I purchased for my daughter Maggie’s recent wedding.

Miss Jan beams, speaking in exclamation points. “That’s wonderful news! When did she get married?”

“Two weeks ago yesterday. Up in Maine.”

“Oh,” she sighs, “I love Maine. It’s my favorite place. We lived on the water.”

“I know. You and Bill had a very nice life there.”

This prompts her to tell me about their cottage on the water in Harpswell, where they watched boats come and go all day, and the harbor lights at night; about the little kids she taught about the importance of art; about the clear starry nights come winter. This opens the door to other memories. She tells me about the trips to Europe she took with Bill — to England, Germany and Switzerland; her favorite sights; the colorful characters they met.

“Switzerland was my favorite place.”

“How about Swiss chocolate?”

“Oh, I love Swiss chocolate. It’s my favorite!” She says this with an impish grin, like a little girl sneaking a piece from the cupboard.

She tells me more about Bill, who I knew for more than two decades. “He was quite a dancer, you know. He played the accordion beautifully. The girls loved hearing him play.”

Memories are like summer’s fireflies. They carry us through the darkness, but vanish too soon. She chuckles like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. “I like you. You’re a really good guy. You make me laugh.”

“Just doing my job, ma’am.”

Not long ago, Miss Jan asked her daughter, “So who’s that funny man who stays in your house?” Perhaps she thought I was Jack, the hired man.

“That’s Jim, mom. We’ve been married 21 years.”

“Oh, right,” she said with a good Irish laugh. “I forgot. I really like him. He makes me laugh.”

According to the CDC, about 5.8 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease or some form of related dementia, including 5.6 million aged 65 and older, and about 200,000 under age 65.

Miss Jan is 84. Save for when she grumbles about having to take a shower and wash her hair — my wife’s weekly ordeal — she seems remarkably happy, even a bit of a cheerful con artist. At dinner parties she will listen intently before nimbly joining the table’s flow of conversation, for the moment sounding like the wise, compassionate, opinionated and highly intelligent mother and social activist she was most of her life.

True, every year her boat seems to drift a little farther from the shore. But for now, at least, she seems to be holding her own, defying the outgoing tide, happy as a kid on Christmas morning on days when she’s with us.

Perhaps I cherish such days because they remind me how fleeting this life is, how short the time we are given. Miss Jan also reminds me of my own sweet Southern mother and her cheerful dance with this silent, insidious disease. She, too, was what I call a “happy forgetter.”

After my dad’s passing in 1996, I brought her and her half-blind yellow lab, Molly, to live with us in Maine. She delighted in the fiery leaves of autumn and the deep snows of winter. She loved our big, crackling fire and the sight of the herd of white-tail deer I faithfully fed at the edge of the forest on frigid nights.

When her memory began to fail, we moved her to a fine independent living facility where she became the belle of the ball, squired around by a celebrated Episcopal bishop who’d marched across the bridge in Selma with M.L. King Jr.

One summer afternoon I drove her out to the seaside restaurant where she and my father always ate when they came to Maine to see their grandbabies.

As we sat drinking wine, she told me about the day she met my father, remembered their first date and commented that I laughed just like him.

“I sure miss him,” I admitted. “I bet you do, too.” He’d been gone for five years.

She sipped her wine and smiled. “You have no idea, sugar. But don’t worry. I’ll see him very soon.”

She sounded so sure. Two days later, she suffered a stroke and peacefully slipped away.

I have no idea how long Miss Jan will be with us. With our four kids grown up and scattered to the winds, it will probably just be the three of us again this Christmas. Five, counting the dog and cat whose names she can’t remember.

But having Miss Jan for Christmas will be perfect. She says it’s her favorite holiday ever. We have that in common.

Plus, I can always make her laugh.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

My November Song

A prayer of gratitude for the lives that touch us and those that await beyond

By Jim Dodson

On one of the last warm mornings of summer, I was watering shrubs when I heard a heavy thump behind me in the garden. Turning around, I saw only half a dozen birds feeding at the three feeders that hang from our aged maple’s outstretched limbs. I walked over to investigate.

I found a large squirrel crawling desperately on the ground toward one of the young azaleas planted back in the spring. The critter had evidently fallen from one of the high branches and was either dazed or severely injured. As I approached, the big squirrel curled up at the base of the plant and burrowed its nose under the shrub’s branches.

My first impulse was to fetch a garden tool and end the poor animal’s suffering. But long ago I made a pact with the universe to cause as little harm as possible to creatures large and small, probably the result of reading too many transcendental poets and Eastern sages early in life, and covering a great deal of murder and social mayhem during the first decade of my journalism career.

Not counting the untold number of innocent garden plants I’ve inadvertently offed due to general ignorance or untimely negligence, I’ve generally abided by the naturalist maxim that it’s best to let nature take care of her own. So for this reason I went back to watering the shrubs for a spell, hoping the big fallen fellow was merely stunned.

Our little patch of paradise is a remarkably peaceful kingdom. Dozens of birds feed daily from the feeders that hang from the old maple’s mighty limbs. Over the years, the squirrels that inhabit the forest of trees around us have displayed impressive acrobatic skills and inventive ways to get at those feeders, prompting me to constantly come up with strategies to thwart their efforts. It’s kind of a fun game we play.

When I walked back to check on the fallen squirrel, however, he was lying right where I left him, perfectly still. He was dead.

I picked him up to look him over. He was an older fella bearing scars, nicked-up by life. It seemed only fitting to bury him on the spot where he lived out his final moments on this Earth — underneath the young azalea.

It was my second death of the week.

Two days before, on a beautiful morning when the rains I’d been waiting and praying for all summer finally arrived, we decided to put my beloved dog, Mulligan, to sleep.

Mully, as I call her, found me 17 years ago, a wild black pup running free just above the South Carolina state line, literally jumping into my arms as if she’d been waiting for me to come along. She was my faithful traveling companion for almost two decades.

Three days before we lost her, Mully made the daily mile-long early morning walk we’ve strolled together for over a decade. Never sick a day in her life, it was the rear legs of this gentle, soulful, brown-eyed border collie I called my “God Dog” that finally gave out. She hobbled painfully on three legs around the Asian garden she watched me complete this summer, and settled at my feet where we sat together on a bench most evenings just watching the world. Her upward gaze told me it was time for her to go.

It was the hardest — but right — thing to do.

The idea of the afterlife for all God’s creatures — especially dogs — has fascinated me since I was a little kid. One of my first memories of life comes from a late autumn evening in 1958 when my mother and I were walking the empty beach at low tide near our cottage in Gulfport, Mississippi, looking for interesting seashells washed up from the Gulf of Mexico.

Our dog, Amber, had just died of old age. I was sad to think I would never see her again, and wondered what happens when dogs and people died.

My mom picked up a perfect scalloped shell, pure alabaster white, and handed it to me.

“Tell me what you see in that shell,” she said.

“Nothing. It’s empty.”

She explained it had once been the beautiful home of a living creature that no longer needed it, leaving its protective shell behind for us to find.

“Where did it go?” I demanded.

“Wherever sea creatures go after this life.”

“Do you mean heaven?”

She nodded and smiled. I’ve never forgotten her words.

“That’s where your dreams come true, buddy.”

“Same with Amber?”

“Same with Amber.”

A few years later, a marvelous Black woman named Miss Jesse came to help heal my mom after a terrible late-term miscarriage that nearly killed her. I often pestered Miss Jesse in the kitchen or when she took me along to the Piggly Wiggly. One evening I asked her why all living things had to die. She was rolling out dough and making biscuits at the time.

Her rolling pin kept working. “Let me ask you something, child,” she said matter-of-factly. “Do you remember a time when you weren’t alive?”

I could not.

“That’s because you ain’t never not been alive, baby. Nothin’ you love dies. It just passes on to a new life — just like the trees in spring.”

Half a century later, I heard the voices of both my mother and Miss Jesse in a powerful song called “Take It with Me” by bluesman extraordinaire Tom Waits.

I played it the day Mully left me. I’ll play it again when I spread her ashes in the garden she helped me create.

I play it, in fact, every year when the leaves begin to fall. It’s my November song.

  The children are playing at the end of the day

Strangers are singing on our lawn

There’s got to be more than flesh and bone

All that you’ve loved is all you own . . .

Ain’t no good thing ever dies

I’m gonna take it with me when I go

The leaves fell early this year. By the time we give thanks for tender mercies, missing friends, beloved traveling companions and even fallen squirrels that have graced our lives with their presence, they may all be safely gathered up to wait for us.

Somewhere where dreams come true. PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

simple life

Coach and The Bull

The road less traveled to authordom

By Jim Dodson

Not long ago, following a speech to a historical organization in Georgia, I was asked by a woman in the audience how I became a “successful author.”

Anyone fortunate enough to publish a best seller is likely to get some version of this question from time to time. That’s because almost everyone has a story to tell.

For years my response was, “Because I couldn’t make a living out of mowing lawns in the neighborhood forever,” or, “The Baltimore Orioles already had a decent shortstop.”

The truth is, writing books is a lonely enterprise, and the vast majority of folks who are good at it invariably find their way to the craft via some other pathway.

Before literary success arrived, Charles Dickens worked in a factory putting labels on tins of boot polish. Harper Lee was an airline ticket clerk. William Faulkner served as a postmaster. Nicholas Sparks, a dental equipment salesman.

We were all, in other words, something else before we became writers. But dreamers all. 

In a famous essay titled “Why I Write,” George Orwell, of Animal Farm and 1984 fame, said writers put pen to paper out of “sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.”

Joan Didion claimed she wrote simply to discover what she was thinking — and feared — at the moment.

“Everyone has a novel in them,” the late Christopher Hitchens sniffed, “and in most it should stay there.”

The truth is, writing anything is work that takes time, discipline, imagination, constant revision, false starts, new beginnings and plenty of patience. Hemingway called it the “loneliest, hardest art.”

One of my favorite writers, novelist Graham Greene, actually published a book called Why I Write in which he explained that good storytelling takes place in the unconscious before the first word is written on the page. “We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them,” he said — noting that ideas often come unbidden during unexpected moments of ordinary life — while dropping off your laundry, running errands, or (as in my case) mowing the lawn or working in the garden.

As the youngest son of a veteran newspaper man who hauled his family all over the 1950s South, I learned to read chapter books around age 4, in part because I never had time to make real playmates in the sleepy towns where we lived before moving again. From my parents’ bookshelf (both dedicated readers), I was drawn early to adventure storytelling, particularly the short stories of Rudyard Kipling, Greek myths, and any tale that involved animals and magical places. Absent a flying carpet, I often read books sitting in a large cardboard moving box on the porches of our old houses. And sometimes in the shady, cool dirt beneath the porch.

Inevitably, I grew up imagining someday becoming a journalist like my father, traveling all over the world to find such magical places. When he eventually introduced me to the essays of E.B. White — this was after reading Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web — I even pictured myself someday living on a farm on the coast of Maine.

When I look back, I see a clear pattern of how I became a writer. Including an unlikely pair of school teachers who changed my life. 

In a faraway October of 1969, I was a junior underclassman who landed in the American literature class of an aging spinster named Elizabeth Smith and — to my dismay — a newby math class teacher named Larry Saunders. English lit and I were natural companions. But I detested algebra and was probably the slowest student in “Coach” Saunders’ class, a nickname we teenage geniuses were inspired to give him due his skinny, geeky frame and non-athletic orientation.

I don’t know what Miss Smith saw in me. She was short, round and half deaf. Her unflattering moniker was “Bull” Smith. This was her final year of a long teaching career that stretched back to the mid-1930s.

Out of the blue, Miss Smith pulled me aside one day to urge me to enter the Gate City’s annual O.Henry short story contest which had been running since the 1920s — so named in honor of hometown boy William Sydney Porter. So, on a lark, I did. My simple tale was about visiting my quiet grandfather on his farm for several weeks one summer, not long before he passed away. 

The story won first place, deeply shocking my sports pals. I dropped by Miss Smith’s classroom at the end of the term just to say thanks and wish her a happy retirement. She gave me a copy of Robert Frost’s Complete Poems, and, in return, wished me a long and happy career writing books. I think I laughed.

Larry Saunders was an even bigger surprise. Early on he realized that I would never a mathematician be — and proposed a remarkable compromise. If I never missed class, agreed to pay attention and try my best, he would agree to giving me a C-minus or better. I made the deal. Saunders was famous for writing daily inspirational quotes on the chalkboard. Once, the jokester in me managed to alter one of his quotes. “Familiarity breeds contempt” became “Familiarity breeds.” Even Coach had a chuckle.

During my senior year, good fortune found me in Larry Saunders’ class again for geometry — which, shockingly, I found to my liking. Geometry became very useful when, decades later, I became an amateur carpenter like my father and grandfather, and I built my post-and-beam house on the coast of Maine with my own hands. I couldn’t have done it without Coach Larry. About the same time, I published my first book, which turned out to be an international bestseller. I always meant to write Larry and thank him.

In 1983 on my way to a job interview at the Washington Post, I stopped by the Greensboro Public Library to do some research and spotted — of all people — Miss Smith paging through a dusty travel atlas in the reference room. 

“Miss Smith,” I quietly interrupted her work. “I don’t know if you remember me . . .”

She looked up and chortled. “Of course I do, Mr. Dodson. I have followed your career with great interest. I am very pleased that you are writing.” 

I was at a loss for words, but thanked her and wondered what she was up to these days. “I’m off to the dusts of ancient Egypt!” she trilled.

Before we parted, I also thanked her for seeing something in me — and for the volume of Robert Frost. Within weeks, I would withdraw from the Post offer in favor of a senior writer position at Yankee Magazine, a job that shaped my career and life.

Sadly, I never got to say thank you to Larry Saunders, who passed away in January 2021. “He loved teaching, playing the piano, and his nieces and nephews. He had a huge sense of humor,” notes his considerable obituary. He spent almost four decades teaching math and would inspire the creation of the annual Larry Saunders Excellence in Teaching Award in his honor.

A good coach — like a great teacher — recognizes a young person’s strengths and weaknesses, and strives to help them find the right path.

Larry Saunders was both. Thanks to his wisdom, I built a beautiful house, found my way to writing books and even fell in love with inspiring quotes.

Which is why I think of “The Bull” and “Coach” every October.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at