Meeting To Kill a Mockingbird’s Harper Lee

Some would say it is the most unlikely of friendships. He’s best known for his years crafting men from boys on the gridiron. She’s known for crafting iconic characters that leaped from the pages to the big screen. Auburn football coach; Pulitzer Prize winning author.

When Coach Pat Dye sent word to Harper Lee that he wanted to meet her, she responded, “I don’t know why – I don’t know a thing about football.”

To which he replied, “That’s OK – I don’t know a thing about literature.”

But what they do have now is a sweet friendship. He’s read her famous novel, and they can talk football. (A University of Alabama alum, she has her own stories about times with Coach Bryant.) He dotes on her, gifting her with fried catfish, chocolate and Scotch.

I was lucky enough to tag along with my uncle on a recent visit with Nelle, as her friends call her. It was an hour of pure joy for me. Her face lit up when she saw him, and she hardly stopped smiling the whole time. She laughed heartily as the two teased each other and occasionally the rest of us added something that pleased her as well.

When first being introduced, my mother and I (both former English teachers) each said, “I taught your book.” I couldn’t help feel how inadequate a statement it was to the woman who wrote it.

But I had nothing to fear. She was warm and gracious. Quick witted and sassy. All that you’d expect from a Southern lady, without any of the pretension you might anticipate from a novelist who has sold more than 40 million copies in nearly 50 languages.

She spoke freely about “the book” and with great familiarity of her good friend, Truman. When asked about her name, Nelle (my grandmother’s name was Nell, short for Eleanor) she said she was named for her grandmother – Ellen spelled backwards.

She hoped we’d stay long enough to meet her sister Alice (we did). Alice will turn 100 this year and still goes into her law office nearly every day. In talking of her other family, the only hint of melancholy I witnessed was as she described her brother who passed away more than 55 years ago, making obvious that she still grieves the loss.

She hugged and kissed us as we left, and pleaded, “Surely, you don’t need to go quite yet.” And if I had my druthers, I might be there still.

Miss Lee, thank you for your time and charity. It is a memory I’ll cherish for a lifetime.


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