In an age before viral cat videos, long before 140 characters could confer either instant fame or infamy, Celestine Sibley — a columnist for this newspaper for more than a half-century who was born 100 years ago May 23 — earned a place in readers’ hearts for her masterful chronicling of the world around us.
“It’s very hard to walk around downtown Atlanta now,” she wrote in a 1989 column lamenting Atlanta’s penchant for knocking down its history. “The tearing down and rebuilding must have been an Atlanta trademark since the first returning householder after Sherman’s big fire found a few boards and nailed them together. No use to ask for whom the bulldozer growls … if you live in Atlanta, it growls for thee.”
In 1994, she grieved over the trees at her beloved Sweet Apple cabin (where her daughter now lives) whose time had come.
“Only a fool would let herself get mushy-headed and sentimental over a maple tree,” she wrote. “I was reluctant to do anything about those trees except walk around under them and urge them to get a grip on themselves.”
Sibley died of cancer at age 85 in 1999 after more than five decades of writing not only about homespun pleasures but also keeping an eye on statehouse politicians and cranking out gritty courtroom drama.
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Born near Pensacola, Fla., she grew up near Mobile, Ala., and was hired at The Atlanta Constitution in 1941. Three years later she began writing columns and didn’t stop until shortly before her death, also finding time to write magazine articles and more than two dozen books. Twice widowed and the mother of three and grandmother of eight at the time of her passing, Sibley died at her Dog Island, Fla., beach house, less than a month after her final column, titled “Back porch soothes when sleep won’t come,” ran in the newspaper.
“There’ll come a night when you can’t sleep,” it began. “It has to do with doctors and pills and trips to the drugstore, and you pull up the cover and turn on all the lights in your room, and stack up books you may or may not want to read. But you can’t sleep.”
As the century mark of her birth approaches, her friends, colleagues and family members celebrate her legacy.
“There was always a lilt in her voice,” said her granddaughter and namesake, Sibley Fleming. “She just had a really great ear for language. She loved to hear stories. She had a lot of compassion for people and the human condition.”
Fleming lives in metro Atlanta and works for Bisnow Media, a commercial real estate trade publication. She thinks of her grandmother often as deadline approaches.
“She had a really strong work ethic,” she said.
Sibley’s interest in writing began at Murphy High School in Mobile, where she was editor of the school paper. In 1929, at the age of 15, she landed a part-time job at the Mobile Press-Register working the weekend shift. Following high school, she worked there full time while attending Spring Hill College in Mobile. That was followed by a five-year stint at the Pensacola News Journal.
Over the years, she received many accolades. She was named Woman of the Year in a ceremony at the Piedmont Driving Club in 1956 and honored by the 1978 Georgia Legislature with a resolution praising her political coverage. In 1999, she received the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Georgia Department of Transportation renamed part of Ga. 140 the Celestine Sibley Highway.
Fleming said it didn’t dawn on her as a child that her grandmother was a big deal, and she treasures the special simple moments they shared.
“When we were little and we spent the night, we would go take a nature walk,” Fleming said. “She would have projects where we would make toys, like dishrag dolls. Every space she inhabited was warm.”
That includes the newsroom.
“Celestine was a representative in my view of the golden age of newspapers, when the possibilities were endless,” said former Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker, now a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. “She showed all the wonderful ways you could connect with readers. She also represented for me the first wave of women who were accepted in newsrooms. She proved herself with very hard work. She proved she was just as good as any man.”
Indeed, former Atlanta Constitution editor Jim Minter said she was a valuable newsroom asset. In reminiscing he referred to her by her last name, as if he might snatch up the phone at any minute and dispatch her to cover breaking news.
“You couldn’t get anything better to sell newspapers than to have a good murder trial and send Sibley to cover it,” he said. “She was tough as rawhide. Her strong suit was covering murder trials.”
Former AJC photographer Joe Benton recalls discussing another famous Atlanta newswoman with Sibley.
“On one occasion we were driving to or from an assignment and talking about Atlanta journalism in the early days, particularly about the rarity of women journalists in those days,” said Benton, now retired and living in Charleston, S.C. “Margaret Mitchell’s name came up and I started asking Celestine questions about her. I was a huge fan of Mitchell and ‘Gone With the Wind’ and was thrilled to talk to someone who actually knew her. Celestine painted a colorful picture of her for me and at one point said something like, ‘Peggy could hold her own with any man in that newsroom, or in a bar for that matter.”
Just before her death, politicians Sibley had monitored as a Capitol reporter christened the House press gallery in her honor.
“I never knew anyone I admired more than I do Celestine Sibley, ” the late House Speaker Tom Murphy said at the time. “She just wrote it like it was.
Longtime state legislator Larry Walker, now practicing law in Perry, developed such an affinity for Sibley that a chapter in his book “Life on the Gnat Line” is titled simply, “Celestine.”
“I loved her to death,” he said. “She was a most unusual lady. She actually liked legislators. That didn’t mean she didn’t report on them accurately.”
He enjoyed her work as she transitioned from covering politics to writing columns.
“She had a great common touch,” he said. “She could see things in people. It didn’t matter to her whether you were the king of England or someone riding a mule every day.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell still misses cracking open his AJC and reading her work.
“Celestine was such a standard — yet celebrated — part of our daily newspaper,” he said. “It’s still hard to accept her absence.”