Torpy at Large: Lewis Grizzard — the making of a Southern saga

AJC humorist and columnist Lewis Grizzard (left) with AJC sports writer and columnist Furman Bisher, his idol, on Oct. 17, 1990. (Rich Mahan/AJC staff)

AJC humorist and columnist Lewis Grizzard (left) with AJC sports writer and columnist Furman Bisher, his idol, on Oct. 17, 1990. (Rich Mahan/AJC staff)

From grits to UGA football to the Atlanta Opera, legendary humorist and columnist Lewis Grizzard wrote about it all. On Nov. 7, 2019, Grizzard, one of Atlanta’s most beloved columnists, was inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame.

As a special gift to readers, we’re sharing some of Grizzard’s most memorable columns, published many years ago on the pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We hope you enjoy Grizzard’s work — whether you’ve savored them before or are just reading them for the first time.

A Lewis Grizzard timeline and video from the Atlanta Press Club ceremony

Meanwhile, here’s what AJC columnist Bill Torpy has to say about him …

Lewis Grizzard’s life reads like a country music song: Loneliness, drunkenness, sickness. Fame, fortune, adulation. Long bus rides, a beloved mama, an absent, alcoholic dad and, ultimately, death at an early age.

He had four wives, four heart operations, and was hired to the Atlanta Journal and/or The Atlanta Constitution (they used to be different) four times, if one three-day stint is counted. And on Thursday, he was one of four people inducted into the Atlanta Press Club Hall of Fame.

A "Boy Wonder," Grizzard became sports editor of The Atlanta Journal at age 23 "to the consternation of just about everyone in the building," according to his mentor and frequent editor Jim Minter. He bounced around before heading north to run the Chicago Sun Times' sports section at age 29. There was consternation there, too.

AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard.

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Grizzard had a remarkable knack for page layout, headlines and unusual story ideas. But not personal relationships. The cold in Chicago, both inside and outside the newsroom there, took a toll on the young editor, who phoned Minter each night to commiserate with a comforting voice from home.

One night, Minter told the Georgia native he was looking for a news columnist for the Constitution. “You know anyone?” he asked.

“How ‘bout me?” Grizzard ventured.

Minter had him send three try-out columns and Grizzard obliged. One was titled, “If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground” (later the title of one of his many best-selling books).

Minter’s wife was skeptical, asking him, “You’re not going to hire that guy again, are you?”

He was, but he didn’t ask anyone for permission, knowing there’d be pushback. Minter had Grizzard write sports columns — familiar territory — for a few months, then moved him to the news page.

"He took off like a rocket," Minter recalled this week. "I had no idea he'd be such a sensation."

His formula — and all columnists have one — was that of an old-fashioned Southern fellow bewildered and bemused by a world changing around him, one infested by pushy Yankees, humorless feminists and know-it-all Georgia Tech grads.

A 1979 photo of Lewis Grizzard. (AJC files)

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The column took root at a time of changing sensibilities or political correctness, however you see it. His currency was folksy plain-speak with a heavy dose of humor. He was a champion of guys stuck in office cubicles, beset by persnickety bosses and biting their tongues for fear of HR.

“He’d write something and readers would say, ‘Yep, that’s exactly what I was going to say,’ ” said Minter. “He spoke for Everyman.”

Well, not exactly every man.

The late novelist Pat Conroy thought Grizzard often spoke in racist code and was vastly overrated, saying: "In the great game of literature Lewis Grizzard isn't on the field, he's not even in the stands; he's down in the basement of the stadium, changing the urinal pucks in the restrooms."

Didn’t matter. Grizzard’s “rocket” ultimately included syndication in 450 newspapers, some 20 books, cassette tapes, $20,000 speaking gigs and visits to Johnny Carson’s couch. The Moreland boy could crank it out!

Lee Walburn, a former AJC columnist and friend of Grizzard, has said few newspaper columnists “manage to chisel their names into the granite of posterity.” Grizzard owned a chisel.

An undated photo of Lewis Grizzard enjoying a friendly little game of golf at the Ansley Golf Club in Atlanta. (Nick Arroyo/AJC staff)

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Grizzard saw unusual in the obvious and ventured from the predictable path. During a Super Bowl in New Orleans, Grizzard disappeared, causing editors to fret he might miss deadline. Then he resurfaced — he had visited a leper colony to see what the afflicted thought of the spectacle. Not much, he wrote.

He also carried a melancholy. “I think sadness was a vital ingredient,” Walburn told me. “I couldn’t be a really good columnist, I was too normal.”

I came to the AJC in 1990 and worked on the same paper with Grizzard for four years without ever laying eyes on him. He was sick with a heart condition, at home, on the links or out on the road. I tried looking him up to speak about his time in Chicago, because I was friends with Bill Gleason, a legendary cigar-smoking sports columnist who battled with him.

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In one of his books, Grizzard wrote of being called before an arbitrator after getting crosswise with Sun Times union members.

The book had long passages of quotations of Grizzard’s colorful soliloquy at the proceedings and then the meeting coming to a halt because the Yankees were confused by his use of the word “bumfuzzled.”

As he recalled in the book, “Again, I felt terribly out-of-place. I’m in Chicago-by-God-Illinois getting raked over the coals by a bunch of northerners who don’t even understand a perfectly good word like ‘bumfuzzled.’”

Years later, a Chicago reporter got the transcript of the hearing and there were no such soliloquies, nor was anyone bumfuzzled. Grizzard told the reporter he was writing reality as he remembered it.

It was his truth, and he wasn’t going to let any other truth get in the way of a good yarn. It was the kind of truth that caused readers to love him and remember him 25 years after his heart wore out.

» Check out some memorable Grizzard columns