GENDUSA COLUMN: To Sir Lee with love

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, February 2, 2022

In September of 2015, I wrote an essay inspired by my LaGrange High Class of 1965. The editor of the LaGrange Daily News graciously published the story, and soon after, I became their new weekly columnist. 

Within a few months, I met my old school pal, Richie, for lunch, “Lynn, I thought you would enjoy this!” Rich gifted me a signed copy of journalist Lee Walburn’s new book, “Just My Type.”

Richie continued, “You know Lee is from LaGrange, right?” I did, but I never met the famed Georgia writer personally because I moved to the west Georgia town after Lee left for college. His awards are many for his down-home writing style in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, other publications, and his acclaimed leadership at the helm of Atlanta Magazine.

“Just My Type” is a compilation of Lee’s best essays illustrated beautifully by a young woman, Michaele Prince, a former art teacher at Armuchee High near where the Walburn’s live today. It was no surprise that all proceeds from Lee’s book went to the non-profit Cancer Navigators in Rome.

After two years, the book still occupied a corner of my desk. The more I studied Lee’s face on the cover, the more I began to ponder, “Gee, could I write a book similar to Lee’s?” There was only one way to find out.

I printed a few of what I considered my better columns, wrote a cover letter, found Mr. Walburn’s address, and sent them off. I humbly asked if he would read the enclosed works and sincerely tell me if it would be worth any effort to compile my columns into a book.

As I dropped the large envelope in the mail, my face was red with embarrassment. “Lynn, you have done gone and got crazier!” I mumbled.

And then the phone rang.

“I liked the essays so much I read them to my wife, Jackie!” Lee said with downright enthusiasm. I almost fainted.

His few words spurred my confidence to become what I always aspired to be, a writer.  My advanced age would require me to work fast, but with Mr. Walburn’s encouragement, I believed I could beat time.

Writers are a questionable lot, who seldom trust their skill.

They constantly need assurance that someone reads the words they agonize over. Rejections from editors, publishers, and agents require a daily dose of courage to keep typing.

Russ Rymer was so demoralized by a cruel editor he vowed to never write again. Lee found him working at a construction site and demanded Russ work with him at Atlanta Weekly. After Lee opened the doors, Russ began writing for the famous New Yorker Magazine, The Smithsonian, and National Geographic. He wrote three books, one voted book of the year.

Russ Rymer’s wife is Susan Faludi. Lee rebuffed management objections at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to hire Susan, a quirky, brilliant young writer. In 1991, Susan Faludi was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

In 2002, Mr. Rymer wrote in a tribute to Lee, “I consider myself fortunate, but not special. To be rescued by Lee is to never be alone, for those Lee advanced are legend.”

Lee’s friend, Terry Kay, was hired as a writer by the AJC at Lee’s insistence.  After Terry told Lee the tale of a white dog who mysteriously visited his dad after Terry’s mother died, Lee declared, “Terry, that’s the story you need to write!”

“To Dance with the White Dog” sold millions of copies, won numerous awards, was made into a beloved movie, and Terry Kay became legendary. Before Terry died in 2020, Lee was still by his best friend’s side.

Tom Junod was a struggling young salesman, begging editors for a chance to write. Lee gave him his first job leaving Tom dumbfounded he was given such an opportunity.

Today, Tom Junod has won more National Magazine Awards for feature writing than anyone in history. His Esquire Magazine story on Mr. Rogers was made into a movie where Tom played himself.

“Just My Type” still rests on the corner of my desk. Underneath are the two books I have written since Richie gave me a fine gift. Both are illustrated by Michaele Prince and endorsed on the back cover by Lee Walburn.

I imagine myself on a dusty road watching in the distance a group following a man I call Sir Lee. Lewis Grizzard, Terry Kay, Pat Conroy, and many others who once only dreamed of writing are happy because their words bring joy to others.  I lag far behind, but I am grateful for being invited to walk the path.

Lee Walburn is a gracious, humble man who adores his Jackie, loves pecan cookies, and cherishes spinning writer’s dreams.

Now you know why I call him Sir Lee.

Special thanks to Jackie Walburn