Obituary: Lewis Grizzard: Famed columnist dies at 47 following fourth heart surgery

This cartoon by AJC's Mike Luckovich shows Lewis Grizzard being greeted by his dog, Catfish, at the entrance to heaven.

caption arrowCaption
This cartoon by AJC's Mike Luckovich shows Lewis Grizzard being greeted by his dog, Catfish, at the entrance to heaven.

Published Monday, March 21, 1994

Toward the end, Lewis Grizzard, knowing his chances of seeing another springtime in his beloved Georgia were slim, still made people laugh.

Even his doctors.

They recounted Sunday that in a tense moment last week, after they had explained to Grizzard that he had less than a 50-50 chance of surviving his fourth open-heart surgery, he responded:

”When’s the next bus to Albuquerque?”

Grizzard, whose thrice-weekly syndicated humor column made hundreds of thousands of readers laugh, died Sunday morning at Emory University Hospital in an intensive care unit after a life-support system was removed. He was 47.

Death came from massive brain damage, apparently caused by an obstruction that broke off from his aorta before or during surgery and lodged in an artery that fed oxygenated blood to his brain.

His body will be on public view at the McKoon Funeral Home in Newnan from 3-9 p.m. today. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Moreland Methodist Church, the church he called “so dear to my childhood.”

ExploreFurman Bisher writes: Grizzard ‘so young,’ but not for us to say

He married there for the first time (at age 19) in 1966 to Nancy Jones. He married for the fourth time four days ago (to Dedra Kyle) in the hospital where he died.

He once said he wanted “somebody, preferably Willie Nelson,” to sing his favorite hymn, “Precious Memories,” at his funeral. His body, however, will be cremated, and the ashes buried next to his mother’s grave in Moreland.

His mother, Christine Word Atkinson, died in 1989 after a long illness. In many poignant columns and books, Grizzard wrote with near reverence of the former first-grade schoolteacher.

”Mama taught me that an education was necessary for a fuller life,” he wrote. “She taught me an appreciation of the language. She taught a love of words, of how they should be used and how they can fill a creative soul with a passion and lead it to a life’s work.”

The Washington Post wrote: “He compares every woman to his mother, who spoiled him rotten.”

But he reserved some of his most moving columns for his father, Lewis Grizzard Sr., a highly decorated veteran of World War II and the Korean War who died in 1970 of a stroke.

Grizzard said that after his father returned from the Korean War, he was a changed man. “He began to bender-drink heavily. He couldn’t handle the family finances and borrowed large sums of money. He eventually left the army, or the army left him.”

My mother could no longer cope with my father’s problems and had a 6-year-old on her hands. She moved us to her parents’ home and eventually divorced my father.”

Jim Minter, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor and one of Grizzard’s closest friends, said “one of Lewis’s worries . . . was that he didn’t measure up to his dad.”

Grizzard said his book about his father, “Daddy Was a Pistol and I’m a Son of a Gun,” was his favorite.

Humor to the hilt

In large part, his family roots were responsible for making Grizzard a fiercely proud Southerner. His 20 books and syndicated columns in the Journal-Constitution and 450 other newspapers played redneck humor to the hilt. He took special delight in attacking Yankees, liberal politicians, draft evaders and feminists.

Many readers, instead of laughing at his wit, became enraged. Some called him a racist, a label Grizzard vehemently denied.

Divorced three times, Grizzard wrote that women’s activities should be limited to rubbing his back, hugging his neck, baking pies, frying chicken and washing his clothes.”

He’s pricked some people once considered off-limits to pricking,” Minter said. “He [was] absolutely the best of anyone I know at walking up to the edge of bad taste without being in bad taste.”

Pat Conroy, another best-selling Southern author whose novels often decried racism and other problems of the South, once suggested that Grizzard represented mostly what was wrong with the South.

Conroy wrote that he “loathed” the South that Grizzard revered.

Grizzard, who loathed neckties, once acknowledged in a television interview that “I’m not a modern man.” Many of his friends said he was born two centuries too late.

Grizzard poked fun at his record of marital problems and his greatest phobia - flying in airplanes. Whenever possible, he preferred to travel by car or bus.

A favorite target was Georgia Tech, the football rival of his alma mater, the University of Georgia. Grizzard was a fixture at Sanford Stadium on the Georgia campus on Saturday afternoons when his beloved football Dawgs played at home.

Former Georgia head football coach Vince Dooley, whose team won the national championship in 1980 with running great Herschel Walker, was one of Grizzard’s closest friends. Dooley’s successor, Ray Goff, was at the hospital Sunday when Grizzard died.

Grizzard left the university needing one course to graduate. Years later, UGA gave it to him and awarded him a journalism degree.

Popular on lecture circuit

Grizzard was a popular figure on the lecture circuit, commanding up to $20,000 a speech. He occasionally appeared on television, including guest spots on “The Tonight Show,” “Designing Women” and “Larry King Live.”The columns, books and personal appearances made him wealthy, but Grizzard yearned to be taken seriously as a writer.

”I wish one time in my life I could do what other writers do . . . get me a villa in Spain and go there to write a book,” he said in a 1992 magazine interview. “I’d like to know what I could do if I really had the time to spend on writing a book, with no columns or shows to do at the same time.”

Lewis McDonald Grizzard Jr. was born Oct. 20, 1946, at Fort Benning, Ga.

After his mother divorced his father, she returned to Moreland and remarried. The young Grizzard grew up there and went to Moreland Elementary. He graduated from high school in nearby Newnan in 1964.

As a UGA freshman, he was a summertime feature writer for the Newnan Times-Herald. That September, he joined the 2-month-old Athens Daily News.

Newspaper ‘boy wonder

He became a “boy wonder” of the newspaper business. He was named sports editor of the Athens newspaper at 19, and, at 21, became sports editor of The Atlanta Journal. He became an assistant city editor of The Journal in 1975, but left after a short stint to free-lance for Sports Illustrated and other publications.

Later that year, however, he joined the sports department of the Chicago Sun-Times, and that October was named executive sports editor.

But Grizzard disliked Chicago intensely, especially its bitter winters. Last year, when he was facing his third open-heart operation, which almost killed him, he said the surgery would be about as pleasant as “having to move back to Chicago.”

In April 1977, pining for Georgia, Grizzard phoned his old friend and mentor, Minter, then The Constitution’s managing editor. Minter said he was thinking of hiring a sports columnist.

”Hire me!” Grizzard said, and Minter did. The column began in The Constitution’s sports section.In February 1978, the newspaper announced that Grizzard’s column would move over to the news section. Veteran reporters at the newspaper speculated that Grizzard might fall flat on his face because he lacked experience in news.

Column caught on

But his columns caught on like wildfire. They became the talk of Atlanta, and then the South. He was syndicated to other papers by King Features.

Decrying computers, he pounded out his columns on a vintage Royal manual typewriter, and phoned them in to his assistant, Gerrie Ferris - “Wanda Fribish” in his columns.

The fictional characters from his childhood, so familiar to his readers, began to emerge: Weyman C. Wannamaker Jr., Kathy Sue Loudermilk and Cordie Mae Poovey.

His move into book-writing became a Southern publishing event. Peachtree Publishers of Atlanta distributed his first book, the 1979 collection of his columns titled “Kathy Sue Loudermilk, I Love You,” and it sold 75,000 copies the first week.

His second book, “Elvis Is Dead And I Don’t Feel So Good Myself,” made The New York Times best-seller list. He was annually the region’s best-selling author.

He chronicled his newspaper career in a book that also summed up his feelings about the South: “If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I’m Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground.”At the time of his death, he was planning his 21st book - about dogs, especially his Labrador retriever, Catfish, who died five months ago.

Stage and album

Grizzard added concert stage appearances in 1985. A favorite closing line: “Life is like a dog-sled team; if you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”

That same year he released a comedy album, “On the Road With Lewis Grizzard - I’ve Seen England, I’ve Seen France, I’ve Seen Miss America Without Her Underpants.”

Most readers, however, knew him through his newspaper columns.

ExploreA collection of favorite Lewis Grizzard columns

As his fame spread, he let readers and audiences in on the details of a playboy lifestyle he had adopted. In one column, the onetime country boy from Moreland described how he had shot the rapids on a river in Idaho; in another, how he had spent the day sunning himself on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France - and taking note of the topless swimsuit attire.

Some of his newspaper colleagues were models for some of the characters. Journal-Constitution reporter Bill Robinson, his longtime friend, became Billy Bob Bailey, the world’s most obnoxious Alabama fan.

He wrote about things he liked - home-grown tomatoes, Moon Pies, doughnuts and especially barbecue - and things he disliked: buttermilk, fishing, computers, electric typewriters, Dom DeLuise and TV evangelists.

Columnists are fair game for every cause and complaint, and Grizzard frequently gave the space to them - a hit-and-run victim, a couple whose home had been burglarized.

But more commonly he wrote about his passions: trains, patriotism, pickup trucks, cowboys, his dog Catfish and country music.

The trivialities of his life filled the column: He couldn’t build or repair anything. At age 7 he wanted to be Roy Rogers. His mother made him bathe. No one could cook eggs over medium-well the way his mother could.

Commentary and criticism

But he also ventured into social commentary, sometimes drawing sharp criticism.

When some friends who had been rafting on the Chattahoochee River found themselves in the midst of a gay raft race, Grizzard wrote that people “have a right to float down the river without having to see a sex show, gay or otherwise. If sex had been meant to be an outdoor activity, we would never have been given motel rooms.”

Gays blasted the column as unfair.

But he frustrated his conservative readers, too, when he supported abortion and gun control. Of the latter, he wrote: “The National Rifle Association [members] are bullet brains. I’d like to see the animals armed.”

After his 1993 heart surgery, Grizzard took a softer tone in his columns, writing appreciatively of his recovery and his relationship with Dedra.

Mainly, he loved life, and it showed, said his friends. Grizzard said one of his big worries was that “somewhere there is a great party going on, and I’m missing it.

ExploreMore on AJC.com: Remembering AJC columnist and Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard

About the Authors

Editors' Picks
The Latest
Featured