103712778_-1_240213cBill Emerson, a legendary writer and editor who died Tuesday at age 86, was a one-of-kind force field, a gargantuan figure of Southern theatricality. He amazed everybody who met him, as far back as when he opened Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau in 1953 and began covering a decade of what he called “riots, revolutions and everyday politics.”

Whatever he did, from keeping the Saturday Evening Post frisky long past its bedtime, to teaching journalism at the University of South Carolina, which he compared to “trying to start a reluctant lawn mower,” he radiated a heady sense of rule-breaking possibilities.

William Austin Emerson, Jr., wrote serious books, gave Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., their first serious journalistic interviews, and knew practically everybody worth knowing in New York before he circled back to his hometown Atlanta in 1986 to make a satisfying splash. But his so-called career was nothing compared to his gusty delivery of words – wild, polysyllabic, Shakespearean, backwoods, profane words uttered with a pitch and volume that carried like a jazz trombone.

His talk curved hilariously into Emersonian punch lines. “Old Governor Cherry was a wonderful man,” he would roar. “He hated people.” Introducing his reporter son Bo to a crowd, he’d say, “We’re proud of him, and hope he doesn’t disgrace us.” Or to an interviewer, he would allow: “Southerners are generous, fun-loving people. Homicidal, but basically decent folk.”

His physical presence, tall and cocked back from a Bacchanalian midsection, could be as inspiring as his words. He would greet you with a bear hug and a ready nickname – Ol’ Tiger! Peach! – and love you with the rambunctious play of his broad face and glittering eyes. He was the best of company with every sort of folk, except the pompous. The cleaning lady at the Post wept with him at the end. His best drinking buddies were the Pulitzer-winning newspaper editors of Atlanta and Little Rock, Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore.

Throughout my life, I had the good luck to draw energy, and always delight, from his presence and wild words. Now that he’s gone, I wonder at the silence. “Did you feel that great sucking sensation of a vacuum?,” my mother asked when she called with the news. Emerson died at Canterbury Court in Atlanta in the midst of his children, who had been summoned from Connecticut, Chapel Hill, Decatur. His health had been declining for about a year, and he had been hospitalized two weeks ago.

There’s no explaining Emerson, but surely one of the more mysterious acts of his life was hiring my father in 1957 to help him cover the South for Newsweek. Emerson had a natural talent and background for journalism, having been a student editor at the Harvard Advocate, then a young editor at the former Collier’s magazine in New York. But my father was in the family building and supply business in Augusta, and not showing much talent for that. Emerson, who knew my father through post-war house parties and was impressed that he came from a “good family,” got him to file a few reports on President Eisenhower’s golf visits to Augusta.

And in ’57, as the South was heating up with the civil rights story, he hired Joe Cumming. My father wrote later about how Emerson for the next few years hammered away at the task of teaching his protégé reporting and writing. “It was a painful and exhilarating experience,” my father wrote. “He was tough and inspiring.”

Across the years, my encounters with Emerson have been remote from the world of journalism, which I also fell into as a career. Instead, I have basked in his fun, funny energy off in mellow vacation homes, by the spell of firelight, mountain twilight, candlelit suppers or cocktail hours on terraces. It seemed always to be in loud social gatherings, with dear kith and kin, lifted by the ethers of the mead hall. Off in Tamworth, N.H., or the Emerson place in Larchmont, N.Y., that looked down the street to a glittering Long Island Sound, or the rustic house called Wildcat Hill on a windy mountain ridge in Georgia.

In 2003, I sent one of my journalism students from Washington & Lee to interview Emerson in Atlanta. “The fluctuations in his strong, booming tone and fabulously familiar southern drawl made it impossible not to sit captivated,” she wrote. “At one point in the discussion he described Martin Luther King, Jr., as the coolest man he’d ever met: ‘cool, cool, cool,’ he said as if each word had at least three more ‘o’s in it, and goose bumps quickly appeared on my arms. There are people who can tell stories that bring across the emotion and power in their words, and then there is Bill Emerson.”

Even in his last days, as a frail man inching along on a walker, he could tell amazing stories that had remarkably hard facts scattered in them. “The truth can be very frightening,” he’d say about facts, then deliver one of his punch lines: “And I don’t want anyone to tell the truth about me under any circumstances.”

I was lucky, again, to be able to visit him in Canterbury Court, where he loved showing visitors the paintings, hanging quilt and photos that memorialized his rich life, especially his memories of his late wife Lucy. And one final time, I saw him in Wildcat Hill. As he was being pulled out of that cozy old familiar living room in a wheelchair, he looked around the room at a daughter, a son-in-law, a nephew, me, a granddaughter-in-law and a couple of great-granddaughters scattered on the floor, and he fairly shouted, “Seventy years ago, right here, this is exactly how I planned it all. Don’t mess it up.”

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming worked for newspapers and magazines in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta for 26 years before getting a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002. Since then, he has taught at Loyola University in New Orleans and Washington & Lee University, where he is now a tenured associate professor of journalism. His first book, "The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity," has been published by Northwestern University Press. His father, Joe Cumming, was the Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek magazine during the years of the Civil Rights movement.

  1. Mary Kay Andrews

    Oh, Wild Bill. He was a one, wasn’t he? Thank God he left behind his story-telling genes to you, Doug, and to his son and our friend Bo.

  2. Doug, I’m with your student, that ran goose bumps up my arms from start to finish. What great justice you do Mr. Emerson here. A monumental task and you didn’t mess it up.

  3. What a great story. The first five paragraphs alone are Emersonian – which is to say, a tribute properly scaled and apportioned to the subject. Though of us who loved Celestine Sibley think back with gratitude to Bill Emerson at her funeral, saluting her dramatically and properly as a “great dame.” We were enthralled. Theatrical? Oh yes. But also theatrically accurate, which is a kind of genius. And now this story, theatrical, yes and appropriately so, and proportionally accurate, coming from a voice close enough to him to know. One only grieves that there is no seed-bed for another generation of such giants in journalism as Bill Emerson, Gene Patterson, Gene Roberts, Claude Sitton, Reese Cleghorn, Ralph McGill, Hodding Carter, Jack Nelson, et al. They are disappearing with the “Greatest Generation.”

  4. Chrys B. Graham

    Doug, thank you for that beautiful story. It seems that many of our heroes are are leaving us. Their legacy will continue to remind us that there is work to still be done. Our hearts go out to Bill’s family and especially to our friends, Bo and Maureen.

  5. The first time I heard Bill Emerson speak — long before I knew Bo or Maureen — I thought, “Wow, now I finally understand what people mean when they refer to someone as a Southern raconteur.” I only met Mr. Emerson a few times over the years but was always impressed with his ability to fill a room. He really was a legendary figure. You have paid wonderful tribute to him, Doug. He’ll be missed. And my deep condolences to family, friends and all who revered him.

  6. Doug, I had the privilege of meeting Bill Emerson only once and was aware that he was a great journalist — and, of course, the father of our beloved friend Bo. Thanks to this heartfelt remembrance, I feel as if I know him much better now. My sympathies to all who loved him.

  7. Doug, a beautifully written tribute to a pillar of a man. Bo, my heart goes out to you and your whole family as you adapt to a world without your father. Only this week, I was thinking about your father and the fantastic talk he gave when Celestine Sibley was given the Shining Light Award. He could twist a phrase like no other. The last time I remember talking to Bill Emerson was at a party for Mr. Hibbert, another one-of-a-kind personality who had suffered recent health troubles. That didn’t stop the two of them from sitting at a backyard table telling stories that could have entertained us for hours. How sad that both of those great characters are no more. My heart goes out to all of you.

  8. Doug, you really nailed it. I hear Papa’s voice, plain as day, in every word. And there’s no mystery why he picked tale-spinner Joseph B. Cumming, whose genius was apparent, even in the cement business, and whose intelligence runs rampant through the whole brood.

  9. Joseph Gatins

    Doug: Thanks. This brings back a lot of fond and very interesting memories from around 1966-68 up at the lake.

  10. Delightful piece. Love to Bo and family.

  11. Doug, thank you for a lovely story. Mr. Emerson, thank you for living into yourself. And Bo, I will think about and pray for you and your family as y’all become accustomed to being in a world suddenly dimmer without your daddy in it. I continue learning how to live without mine. It’s difficult.

  12. Doug, fantastic job; great piece.
    T he Emerson’s were family friends in Atlanta since I was, I guess, a toddler–Bo and I knew each other pre-nursery school– a get together of Moms , I suppose. For as long as I can remember, there has been–the larger than life-Bill Emerson. As I child, I was enthralled by his storytelling and also by his enjoyment of life. He took such pleasure in words. And gave it back a hundredfold. He was the first journalist and writer I ever knew so thought all writers were like him. What a let down. He was a Southern Original.
    He was the inspiration for my aspirations. He encouraged me in everything for his whole life.
    I am thinking fondly of Bo’s mom, Lucy Emerson–one of the best people I ever knew. The entire Emerson family–the one Lucy and Bill made–has been more important to me than they know. Years have passed but those happy, music filled days, at Tate are vivid. Live music AND records.
    Yesterday morning, with Bill’s death heavy on my mind, I stepped off the Marta train at my usual stop but my world was momentarily unfamiliar. My thoughts and prayers to the entire, extended Emerson family.

  13. This was a really lovely tribute, Doug. Well done. As I told Faith yesterday, I’ll never forget his euology of Celestine…jaw-dropping storytelling, that was. What a bad day yesterday was.

  14. There will never be another like him… what an incredible piece, written for an incredible man.

  15. Chris Wohlwend

    Great tribute to a classic Southern gentleman, Doug. Bill was a master at turning clear-eyed, insightful observation into pithy, telling stories.

  16. Doug, that was an extraordinary and well-written tribute. My husband John and I were saddened to hear of his death and send our deepest sympathies to the Emerson family — Tate will not be the same without Bill Emerson but may we all strive to live life with purpose and heart as he did. Thank you, Doug, for doing justice to Bill Emerson’s life with your words.

  17. What a beautiful piece of writing! I had the privilege to meet Bill just once, up at Tate, but knew I was in the presence of history. I’d just been reading about him in Willie Morris’s New York Days a couple of weeks ago. The last of one of the great Southern characters, I’d guess.

  18. Doug: What a wonderful gift of word-spinning you have as well. When I was working with your dad on a play at Tate 35 years ago, I had the great fortune of spending a week as a guest at Wildcat Hill. I remember asking myself what planet this family might be from as I sat at the dinner table each night and listened to the incessant banter…back and forth, between parents and son’s and daughters. One challenge would be quickly met with another and I remember being thoroughly exhausted by the time we finished our dessert. I loved Bill and Lucy…they are and will be sorely missed, but I see them both vividly in the eyes and actions of their children.

  19. Doug,
    Brilliant imagery came to my mind reading your tribute.
    I’ll always think of Bill’s delivery as a jazz trombone solo. (more Kai Winding
    than Urbie Green)
    See you in September with my Camino de Santiago paintings.

  20. Doug, what an outstanding tribute to a truly great man who will be missed by us all. Bill was a huge figure in every sense of the word. Now that I am well into my 50’s, now days I seem to appreciate more and more the many great memories from my childhood. One very high on the list was seeing Bill….. every year….. at our annual meetings, and the cocktail parties that always followed. Just hearing the words that so easily rolled off his tongue……..and the smiles and laughter those words always brought to his friends and family……..it just didn’t get any better than that……..you couldn’t PAY for entertainment like Bill Emerson. My thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Emerson family.

  21. Doug- Such a wonderful tribute. One of my great memories is actually of an eloquently delivered, quick-witted diaogue that he put forth on the virtues of eating fried chicken in a “local dive” up in Jasper. I happend to be so lucky to be dining in the same chicken establishmrnt as he and his dear Miss Lucy, when they invited us to join them. He had my husband in I in stitches on the hilarity of finding fine dining in what looked otherwise to be a nearly condemned local restaurant. I loved how he found humor in any situation!
    He felt so near as I read your article. Thank you. God Bless the Emerson family at this time.

  22. Doug Cumming’s appreciation of Bill Emerson is masterful. It is easy to sit down to write about someone so ginormous as Bill, but it’s easier to stall then walk away, feeling one’s words, rhythm and story-telling just could never meet the subject’s approval. Doug, your piece rose to the occasion and captured Emerson brilliantly.

    Let me offer another, simpler recollection of Emerson from Roy Reed, former New York Timesman now residing in Hogeye, Arkansas: “He could make better use of ‘God damn’ than any man I ever knew.”

  23. Thanks for your great remembrance here Doug. We all will miss Papa – as his children fondly called him. Bill Emerson taught me how to love and use words. Not is the elementry sense but how to rearange them to make them more interesting and more fun. I loved to listen to him; hanging on the fringes of his circle of conversation where I would study how he put his thoughts together, how he responded to people and how he could make the normal, brilliant. He could wear you out with it too, which also was Bill.

  24. Doug, I loved reading this tribute. I found myself thinking about what it must have been like to grow up around Bill Emerson and in a world so rich with words, humor and energy. I remember well some of my first visits to Tate – 4th of July, early August or Thanksgiving – and being awed and well intimidated by his booming presence- thinking that this Southern hideaway was my best kept secret from the other world I lived in and that no one would believe me if I tried to explain just how powerful the people and the place were. You have managed to capture that. Thank you.

  25. Doug: This is a great tribute to a great man. Beautifully done. Our hearts go out to the family.

  26. Doug, you so captured the larger than life Bill Emerson with the same touch he himself might have used. There may never be a more eloquent spekaer, a greater wit or a kinder heart. He and Lucy were inspirations to everyone and his loss ,along with hers, will leave an empty space in my heart and in our lives.

  27. Forgive my typo, professor….

  28. Doug, thanks for those great memories of Bill. Love him, love his children and love all the Commings!! What a blessing to know you all!!
    My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  29. When my sister Marita was quite young, she was sitting on Bill’s lap and asked him why is chest was so hairy. He answered, “Well Marita, you see, my grandfather was a bear”. Of course she believed him. Bill was a bear of a man with a voice to equal his size. I was somewhat intimidated by him as a young child but as I was growing up, I came to love him and his loud and unpredictable proclamations. When he lived over by the duck pond he used to call me to come fix things in his house. He wouldn’t say his roof was leaking. He would say “my roof is caving in, I need you desperately to come and save me from the wrath of the heavens”. When he lost his dear Lucy, he was like a ship without an anchor. I’ll never forget his grief when I would go to his home to fix things for him. He persevered though. He never held back. What a great life he lived. I’m sure that the Emerson family will carry on his spirit.

  30. My earliest memories of Bill Emerson emanate from my childhood, when his family would arrive in Atlanta each Christmas like a tornado, swirling fun, verbiage and ideas around them and leaving us energized in their wake.

    After a considerable hiatus (heading north to college, marrying a Yankee and failing to move back again) my wife Sue and I developed the pleasurable practice – and privilege – of an annual visit with Lucy and Bill with the roles reversed – now we were the New Yorkers and they were the Atlantans.

    Bill was always warm and open, eager to discuss new ideas and current events. He lived as a participant, observer and critic in the midst of a world I had fled. I relished his delightful invective for those who sat in judgment of others, oblivious to their own faults. The exterior that some perceived as bombastic was careful packaging of a heart of gold – deeply caring about humanity and intellectual honesty.

    I am thrilled with the accuracy of the accolades to Bill that are appearing across the country, and am particularly thankful for Doug’s, which completely hit the nail on the head. I regret that I am unable to make it to Atlanta for the funeral, but Susan and I send our condolences and warm wishes to all our Emerson cousins.

  31. Wonderfully stated, Doug. I remember my first meeting with Bill Emerson , back in the ’60’s at your house for some long forgotten occasion. And the last on my back porch, for Dad’s 86th birthday party. Thank you for putting the words together. A fitting tribute to a great man.

  32. This was a wonderful read, a good tribute to a great man. Mr Emerson was so much larger than life to me, a giant really. I always felt like I was in the presence of greatness with him; even when he was just hanging around in the kitchen over a cup of coffee he could make your hair stand on end with a sharp quip or a pithy story. The man radiated warmth and looked evil right in the eye. I know I am a better man for knowing him, and Lucy and the whole family, than I ever would have been had I not known them. I carry a pocket full of riches with my thoughts of Bill Emerson. He loved life, and Life loved him. “Into the hands of the giver the gift is given”.

  33. Thank you for this fine remembrance of Bill Emerson. A mighty oak of a man with a sense of humor possessed only by those blessed with great intelligence and courage. He always made me feel welcome and, somehow, seemed to know me, to get me. Emerson celebrated life and its inhabitants. Long may we celebrate him with our stories and our work. Thanks, Doug.

  34. Bill was my father’s first cousin (their fathers were brothers). You have captured his lightening in a bottle. When I applied for my first job as a family therapist, the (rather mr magoo like) psychiatrist asked me about my family. I told him about the two sides, the Yankee side (my mother’s) and the Southern side (my father’s). He peered across his enormous desk and asked me “Are you related to ‘The’ Bill Emerson?” Completely amazed, I knew it had to be the same Bill and of course I said yes – and of course I got the job. Only in the South.

  35. Doug, Your remembrance of Bill Emerson accomplished a near impossible task…corraling his larger-than-life presence into a succinct tribute. As I read it, I was taken back to the mountain. Each summer my mother and Mif Rolader would pile us into the station wagons on the last day of school , and we would live on the mountain until school started again in September. One of the big events of the summer was “The Arrival of the Emersons” from up north. Our house was “down the hill” from the Emersons. On a random morning, we would start hearing their screen door slamming, loud directives being given, and of course Bill’s “GOD DAMN” echoing over the mountain. We would announce at breakfast that “the Emersons have arrived!!!”. As I get ready for the funeral , I look forward to seeing all of the people that he loved, and hearing wonderful stories of his wonderful life. My thought and prayers are with all of the Emersons.

  36. Doug, thank you for this wonderful tribute to Bill Emerson, who, like your father, was a muse for so many of us youngsters trying to cope with printers’ ink in the late sixties. Best regards. Terry Adamson

  37. Doug, What a beautiful tribute. It’s sad to see the passing of another legend of Southern journalism. We’re a richer place and people for their lives and words. My thoughts are with Bo and Maureen.

  38. Doug Cumming

    Thanks, y’all, for every comment, which I have read, each one, with the deep feelings I had hearing that brass band (literally, a band of brothers, Bo, and high school buddies Tommy Dean and Jonny Hibbert) play “Just a Closer Walk” and “When the Saints.”

    Now I know what “going viral” on the Internet means. When the editorial director of Time Inc. told me half of America had sent him the link, including Howell Raines, I realize I’d achieved that online nirvana of hits and comments.

    I’d be embarrassed if this was anything but Bill Emerson’s spirit having another hoot and fling. I was just reporting. I sat there thinking about Bill, my heart and memories welling up. But nothing would’ve come unless I’d done some reporting – reviewing some video clips of Bill from the old Popham Seminars, finding the transcript of the interview my student Alex Battey did, reading Daddy’s column on Bill (from an AJC column of exactly 30 years ago today), and reading the page of my journal from my last visit with Bill at Tate. So yeah, the Internet’s great, but not without reporting. No one-source stories, as I tell my students.

  39. Great job Doug. You’re Boswell to Emerson’s Johnson! Eloquent, factual, insightful,gracious sentiment without sentimentality, generous but truthful. If you teach as well as you write, you’re turning out some good journalists at W and L, and maybe journalism isn’t dying afterall. I knew all of those journalistic titans you mentioned and worked with several, and yep, they, like the misnomed greatest generation”( we were the greatest spenders and consumers and good at leaving the Boomers to clean up the mess) are passing on, and if one is of that age, the Passing Parade ain’t that great to be a part of. Friend Calvin Kytle joined it last year.

    My niece, Bella English, has carved quite a career for herself at the Boston Globe and as senior reporter there, conceived a lot of and wrote many chapters and edited others on the Globe’s recent book on Edward Kennedy, The Last Lion. Bella first and best friend in journlism after she graduated from UNC was Bill Emerson’s daughter, who I thought was also named Lucy. They met at their first job on the Greenvile News, I think. I hope I have got that straight. She’s been out of town and country for awhilel but I suppos she heard about Emerson’s death tho’ I confess I missed it till I saw this entry on Keith Graham’s Face Book. Bit I am a recent escapee from UNC hopsitals myself and guess that’s why. Fondest regards to all,


  40. Keith Graham

    Just for the un-initiated, Mac Secrest who just commented on this site is honored in the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame. He also shared the prestigious Sidney Hillman Foundation prize for journalism with Harry Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette in 1957, the year before Ralph McGill won the prize. Mac is a journalistic legend in his own right.

  41. doug, never posted a commment before, but have to tell you…wow…i feel like bill was sitting by me at the computer!! thank you for a great story and memory!! jackie

  42. Wow. Truly Emersonian. And you didn’t even have to shout it.
    Perfect piece.


  43. Doug, Neil and I can’t thank you enough for this tribute. We had to miss the service for Bill, and you have provided the overwhelming sense of gratitude that we would have received there for the life of this trombonist who never played a sour note. We all derive energy and purpose from such a life – and from your reporting of it.

  44. What did i do wrong? If i broke your blog i’m so sorry, i hope i didn’t ruin anything or i’d feel really bad

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