Bill Emerson, whose life is portrayed brilliantly by Doug Cumming in a tribute that also appears on likethedew.com, delivered a remarkable eulogy for his fellow journalist, Celestine Sibley, 10 years ago this month.
A long-time reporter and columnist for The Atlanta Constitution, Ms. Sibley died of cancer at the age of 85 on Aug. 15, 1999. Mr. Emerson died Tuesday at the age of 86. Many of our readers have suggested that we re-print the tribute one legendary journalist paid to another. Mr. Emerson’s prepared text was widely circulated among Ms. Sibley’s friends and appears below. It honors both of these towering figures.
A Eulogy by Bill Emerson
In this moment I speak for you and for Celestine’s friends everywhere. It is a great honor and a terrifying responsibility. Friends were her wealth and friendship was her genius and many hundreds of you are here now. I salute you. You have given her your love and your prayers and these are things she can actually take with her.
“Heaven Bound” is my theme for this celebration. And, I know that she would hoot at this. She would never admit that she had ever thought about her life that way at all.
Just 10 days ago she told me, “Bill Emerson, get them to stop this legend talk. You can tell them I’m not a legend.”
It is modest and typical that Celestine would say that, but she is a legend. There is going to have to be some celestial intervention to edit out all of that legend talk. There is a scarcity of legends in the journalism business today, and Celestine’s death is a serious loss.
It is a piece of fortuity that Celestine’s name is actually Celestine. C-E-L-E-S-T-I-N-E is the mineral strontium sulfate. This is the illuminating ingredient in fireworks, flares and tracer bullets.
Poetically, these explosive threads are apparent in Celestine’s writing. And, incidentally, in her personality.
Celestine was not a goody-two-shoes. You made a mistake if you thought she was a passive, accepting sort of person. She had mirth and instant wrath, but along with the fire came good taste and a keen sense of justice. If you knew her or read her carefully you discovered that she was mischievous, insatiably curious, improvident and very bold. If you were seriously rude to Celestine or one of her friends or family, she would tack your hide across her next column.
Celestine was a consummate craftsman and brilliantly able as a newspaper journalist. She was an indecently fast writer; there was no competition in the trade. As John Egerton said of her, “Celestine could write a column while you were adjusting your margins.”
About vitally important matters, she took her time. When death was at her door, Celestine would not be hurried and she was not frightened. She planned a trip to Florida.
“And if the doctor tries to stop me,” she said, “I’ll push him out the window.”
A bulletin came in: Celestine is on her way to Florida. Her nurse Carol driving, they were headed for Muv’s house in Alford, Fla. Celestine would sleep in Muv’s bed and read a couple of books. Sightings traced the voyagers to Celestine’s grandfather’s grave in Holley and then back to Dog Island.
Now Celestine is well into a more mysterious journey. She was a star reporter, and I wish she could file us a few stories. It would be a great scoop, even for Celestine.
But Celestine didn’t leave us empty-handed.
She left us more than 10,000 columns and 25 books. Her columns created a vast confederacy of loyal readers and a horde of friends.
She was the best columnist that the Atlanta newspapers ever had, better than Bill Arp, Henry Grady, Ralph McGill, Lewis Grizzard or any of the others. Of course her columns were about everything in the world — she did write idyllically of nature: buds opening, fragrances wafting about, quitting-time light; but then she was great on street people, love triangles and grisly murders. Murders fascinated her.
Celestine was one of the three or four most celebrated sob sisters in the country. And she was reckoned by her peers to be a superb trial reporter, one of the finest in the profession.
Claude Sitton, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting and his columns, says, “I started out working for the INS in the Atlanta office, and was covering the great Carpenter-Lockwood love triangle trial. As I recall, Bob Carpenter, a Supreme Court judge, was caught in a downtown hotel with Mrs. Lockwood.
“Lockwood chased the judge down Peachtree and cornered him in a construction pit where Peacock Alley used to be. Lockwood shot the judge several times. He didn’t kill the judge, but it was quite a trial. Sibley was covering for the Constitution,” Claude said. “Every morning I’d pick up the Constitution and be embarrassed. Celestine had all the facts and her writing was poetry.”
Celestine and I have had our own near-misses and fateful collisions. When you intersect with Celestine in a high-speed situation, you’re in trouble.
Celestine and I were covering the Lyndon Johnson whistle-stop during the 1960 presidential campaign. I say “covering it” — it was a miracle that she was on the train at all. I had been aboard since Culpepper, Va., and we had stopped in Atlanta briefly with Lyndon making his usual corn pone speech from the caboose.
We were pulling out, and I happened to be in a vestibule between cars. I was looking down the track toward the station when I saw this figure racing down the platform. It was Celestine, running like a racehorse — suitcase in one hand, portable typewriter in the other. She and the train were in a dead heat. The only problem, she was running down the wrong side of the train. The bottom halves of the doors on her side of the train were all locked.
I struggled with the catch. She was swinging her bag against the door. I got the suitcase and the typewriter and then somehow I got her over the top of the bottom door. We fell in a pile on the floor of the vestibule with the grinding, clashing metal plates snapping at our ears. Nobody hurt; a little disarray, maybe. Celestine was just beginning another reportorial assignment. All of this made me aware that Celestine was a very dangerous person to know.
You understand: I can’t imagine not having known her.
I am not going to let her go now, either. I have three heroes in my sort of eclectic pantheon of heroes. There’s Benjamin Franklin, Emanuel Zacchini (the human cannonball who was fired 175 feel in 1940 for a world record) and Celestine Sibley. They will be immensely congenial, with Zacchini to satisfy Celestine’s vagrant interests in exotics, and the great Franklin in his snuff-brown suit, a man of many parts, for intellectual, scientific and social conversation and profound appreciation.
My memory of Celestine is inextinguishable. I have a terrible time writing or speaking of her in the past tense. She will live on in the affectionate regard of thousands of us, and we will remember Celestine as long as we remember anything.
Thank you, Celestine, and goodbye!!
Photo of Celestine Sibley by Billy Howard