The last time I saw my dear friend and mentor Celestine Sibley was a few days before Christmas in 1998. She had invited my husband, Joe, and me to come down from Chattanooga for lunch.
Sweet Apple was arrayed in its Christmas finery, but the question she greeted me with when I walked in the door was decidedly unChristmasy.
“I know you can pray,” she said, as I was taking off my coat. (I had written the invocation and blessing when she received the Shining Light Award the year before.) “How are you at doing funerals?”
“Good,” I answered. “But why are you asking?”
“I thought I’d commission you to do mine,” she cheerfully replied.
A sick feeling in my stomach, I repeated my question.
“Well, I went to the doctor yesterday and he said I have a little brain tumor,” she answered in the same dismissive tone she might have used to tell me about a trip to the dentist.
It was pure Celestine. Matter of fact, no maudlin tears, no feeling sorry for herself, no request for sympathy. After I promised I would do her funeral, she declared that we weren’t going to talk about it anymore.
Columnist Celestine Sibley at her beloved Sweet Apple cabin in 1967. AJC file
Photo: COPY/AJC Staff
And we never did. If I tried to bring it up, to ask if she had any favorite Scripture readings or hymns, her reply was always, “You’ll know what to do.” The last time I talked to her, three days before she died, she told me, “I’m counting on you to take care of things.”
And so, on Aug. 18, 1999, three days after her death, I did as she had asked, “taking care of things” in a funeral that was attended by hundreds and watched on television by thousands across the state.
Celestine has been dead for 10 years now, and I think she would be delighted to know that a decade of death has qualified her for a new honor — membership in the Georgia Women of Achievement. Today at Wesleyan College in Macon, she will be inducted into that hall of fame, taking her place among noted Georgia women from all walks of life.
At the induction ceremony, we will hear about Celestine’s many impressive achievements in her nearly 60 years of work as a reporter and columnist, first for The Atlanta Constitution and then the combined Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
That work includes nearly 10,000 columns, countless stories about Georgia politics, coverage of numerous murder trials (including James Earl Ray’s) and 25 books.
For her, being a reporter was not just a job, it was a calling, or as she said, “a sacred obligation to let the people know.”
It was a calling she loved until the day she died. “I can honestly say,” she wrote, “that there has been nothing in my life so painful and saddening that it wasn’t eased a little bit as I walked toward my job in a newspaper office.”
Celestine was one of the best-known journalists in the state, but she was never too busy or important to befriend those starting out in the profession. I first met her in 1974 when I was a senior at Ridgeview High School in Sandy Springs, editor of the school paper, and planning a career in newspapers.
I was writing a term paper on women in journalism, and Celestine agreed to be interviewed. I went to her office, list of questions in hand, and nervously read them out to her, furiously writing down her responses. I probably never looked up from my note pad.
What I didn’t know at the time is that Celestine got her own start in journalism as a high school student at the Mobile Press-Register, and saw something of herself in me. She later put it this way in a column, “If there is anyone I’m soft and mushy-headed about it’s the high school journalist.”
At the end of the interview she told me if I was still interested in journalism after a year at the University of Georgia to call her, and she’d help me get a summer job at the paper. I did, and so did she, putting in a word for me to be hired as a “copy boy,” a job with the amazing perk of being able to see and talk to her every day.
By summer’s end we were fast friends, a friendship that lasted a quarter of a century. I can think of no one outside of my parents, husband and son, who has been more influential in my life. She was a touchstone for me, cheering me on during my years in journalism, flying to Nashville and taking me to lunch hours before my ordination (which she jokingly called “the last supper before you get holy”), passing judgment on the man I married (“I like him; I think we should keep him.”).
One of the greatest gifts I learned from Celestine was to look for the extraordinary in life’s ordinary moments. “You have to look sharp, you have to pay attention, to catch small, quiet, often fleeting blessings and know them for what they are,” she wrote.
Sitting under an apple tree, learning to ride a bicycle, salvaging furniture from a dump, holding a baby, going to work each day, talking with family and friends — these ordinary moments contain life’s greatest blessings, as she frequently reminded us in her columns.
“An awareness of the nowness of happiness is not easy to come by,” she wrote. It was that awareness, to know happiness at the time it happened, that distinguished Celestine.
One of the Scripture readings I chose for Celestine’s funeral was from the 31st chapter of Proverbs, which seemed to be written with Celestine in mind.
“Who can find a valiant woman?” the writer asks. “She is far more precious than jewels ... Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is upon her tongue.”
I ended my homily that day with a paraphrase from the passage. “Today her children, grandchildren, and friends rise up and call her blessed, and say to her, ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ ”
Ten years later those words still ring true.