Atlanta Journal writer Celestine Sibley with comedian Groucho Marx in 1952. Sibley would continue to write for the AJC until her death in 1999. AJC file

Celebrating Celestine Sibley at the century mark

Writers love writing about writers they love.

And so right before what would have been beloved columnist and author Celestine Sibley’s 100th birthday, we share some thoughts from her fellow scribes.

“Outside my own mother, she was probably the most unforgettable person I’ve ever had the honor of knowing,” said her former colleague Kathy Hogan Trocheck, now a novelist known professionally as Mary Kay Andrews. “She’d had a hardscrabble life, but that never made her bitter. She had a soft spot for the downtrodden, and appreciated the rascals she met at the statehouse and the courthouse. But she had no tolerance for bigots, bullies or puffed-up pretense.”

Sibley died of cancer at age 85 in 1999.

“She showed unimaginable courage when she had breast cancer, keeping up her columns, riding the bus into town wearing a scarf and a bad wig after chemo treatments,” Andrews said. “She was so tickled when her stick-straight hair grew back curly! And when the cancer came back and the news wasn’t good, she was determined to die her own way.”

Sibley died at her Dog Island, Florida, beach house less than a month after her final column, titled “Back porch soothes when sleep won’t come,” ran in the newspaper where she worked for more than five decades.

“I talked to her on the phone that week,” Andrews said. “I did ask if she was ‘picking at the covers,’ her own term for those contemplating death. There was a long pause and she said, in that familiar drawl, ‘Well, honeeeeyyy,’ and I thought that would be the last of our talks.”

Sibley seemed to be making peace in her final column.

“On such a night when the weather turns cool, it’s good to have that extra piece of cover handy,” she wrote in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s July 25, 1999, Dixie Living section. “Old quilts are intended for such a night. When they are old and faded and almost weightless, you pull them up and remember the women who made them and the families they ‘kivvered’ with them.”

Journalist and author Elliott Mackle recalled Sibley fondly.

“Along with Pat Conroy, she was one of the two best listeners I’ve known,” he said. “She could take a pack of cigarettes across Marietta Street, hang out with the homeless people and get two columns out of it. For the same reason, she rode MARTA rather than driving downtown — to listen. That’s why, at least for many, including myself, she was the voice of Atlanta.”

Sibley’s fans remember not only her heartfelt columns but also her hard-news reporting. The Georgia State House press gallery was named for her to honor her legislative coverage.

“Don’t forget, she covered the statehouse and criminal courts earlier in her career, before she started doing the column,” Mackle said. “She looked sweet and ladylike, but she was as tough a reporter as they come.”

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