Lewis Grizzard: The Favorite Son of Moreland,
by Kendall Bell
Eleven years ago on March 20, 1994, we lost a literary giant when Lewis Grizzard, an author and humorist, died after suffering a heart attack while playing golf in Orlando, Florida.
Grizzard wrote humorous essays about the South that were syndicated in several hundred newspapers across the country. He was also author of several books including “Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel Too Good Myself,” “If Love Were Oil, I’d Be a Quart Low,” my personal favorite: “Don’t Bend Over in the Garden, Granny, You Know Them Taters Got Eyes” and others.
Grizzard made being a Southerner cool. His popularity soared as he played the ‘good ole boy.” He made lots of money playing the stereotypical Southerner, but Grizzard was no dummy; he knew his craft. But Grizzard was known within journalistic circles as being one of the best editors around. He worked briefly for a Chicago newspaper, but missed the South so much, he soon returned.
Grizzard always spoke and wrote about what he loved. And what he loved, in no particular order, were: the University of Georgia and everything about his alma mater; his hometown of Moreland, Georgia; the South and its people -- and Elvis.
I had been a big fan of his from the first time I heard him talking about two fictional hometown characters “Bubba” and “Earl.” And there was Grizzard’s real life dog, Catfish, who often popped up in his stories.
One of my favorite stories is Grizzard talking about Bubba and Earl at a University of Georgia football game. Georgia is facing Alabama for the Southeastern Conference championship and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. The game is on national TV and 80,000 people are in the stands. That’s when Bubba notices Georgia’s mascot, an English Bulldog, licking himself. Bubba turns to Earl and says, “I wish I could do that.” Earl looks at Bubba and says, “That dog would bite you!” And he’d drag out the “ooh” sound in “you.” I still roll every time I hear that.
Recently, I was driving on Interstate 85 south of Atlanta when I passed a sign that read “Lewis Grizzard Highway.” Soon afterward, I saw the exit to Moreland and decided to take it.
I had often thought I’d like to stop by his graveside to pay my respects and figured this would be as good a time as any.
Having never been to Moreland, I wasn’t sure where to start. So I pulled in at the convenience store (there’s only one) and asked the lady behind the counter.
I mistakenly thought Grizzard was buried in the Moreland Baptist Church cemetery, so I asked where the church was. That’s when I learned there IS no Moreland Baptist Church. There’s the First Baptist Church in Moreland, but not Moreland Baptist. And the church, located almost directly across the road from the Methodist church, is not where Grizzard is buried.
On a whim, I added, “That’s where Lewis Grizzard is buried, right?”
The storeowner shook her head. “No, he’s buried in that other cemetery,” she said. “Take this road here and make the first right,” she said, pointing. “You can’t miss it.”
Actually, I had noticed the cemetery just as I arrived in Moreland. I thanked her and headed toward the door, but she stopped me.
“Look for ‘Word’ on the tombstone,” she said. “He’s buried under the name ‘Word.’”
I thought this was one of Grizzard’s final pranks, with him being a writer. But it turns out his mother’s maiden name was Word and his grave is beside hers.
I drove slowly through the cemetery, my eyes scanning the names on the tombstones. I wasn’t having any luck, so I decided to park the car and walk.
But a hot August sun quickly convinced me I didn’t want to do that for very long.
I looked across the street and saw a man working on a vehicle in his yard. Figuring he’d know where the gravesite was, I walked over and asked if he could point me in the right direction. He agreed to show me.
By the time we had crossed the street, I had learned that Tom Davis was a Buffalo, New York native who hated cold weather. That’s why he moved to Georgia. I also learned that his wife was from Anderson, South Carolina.
As we were walking, he suddenly stopped, cocked his head, closed one eye and looked my way.
“What are you, about 30?” he asked.
I smiled. “No sir, I turned 50 last month.”
“Well, you don’t look it,” he said. “Of course you don’t have to look old to be old.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I didn’t.
We walked a few more steps and he pointed.
“There it is, right there.”
We walked up to it and there it was. The tombstone read: “A Great American. Lewis M. Grizzard Jr. Son of Christine W. Atkinson. Oct. 20, 1946. March 20, 1994.”
Two bouquets of flowers and a flowerpot holding several golf balls were beside the stone.
“You know he’s not buried there. Don’t you?” Davis asked.
“No,” I stammered, not sure what to say.
“He was cremated,” Davis said.
“Oh,” was all I could say.
It turns that Grizzard actually is buried there – well, sort of. His family obeyed his wish to have his ashes scattered onto the football field at the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium in Athens. They scattered half of his ashes there and buried the other half beside his mother.
We walked back to Davis’s house so he could return to working on his vehicle and I could move my car from his yard.
I hadn’t seen a sign so I asked about the name of the cemetery.
Davis frowned and looked upward in deep thought.
“I can’t remember,” he said “And my mama used to take care of these lots over here.
“People would come by and bring me pictures of her and tell me stories about her long after she was dead and gone. But they still remembered her,” Davis said, smiling broadly.
I offered to pay Davis but he wouldn’t take any money. So I signed a copy of one of my books and gave it to him instead.
I drove back over the gravesite and took a couple of photos before leaving.
I decided to buy a Diet Coke at the convenience store since the lady there had been so nice about helping me find the cemetery and since this was the only store for miles around.
“I found it,” I said as I entered, showing her the photo on my digital camera.
“Yep, that’s it,” she said, holding the camera at an angle for a better view.
I then learned the cemetery is simply known as Moreland Cemetery.
Her face brightened as she pointed toward Highway 16.
“There’s produce stand up the road on the left,” she said. “They’ve got a museum of Lewis Grizzard in there.”
I paid for my drink and started to leave.
“You know there’s a paper that still prints his columns,” she said, stopping me.
“We still laugh like it’s the first time we’ve read them.”
I thanked her and headed out of the door.
About a mile away, I spotted the produce stand (actually a store) and stopped. Sure enough, for just one dollar, I was able to stroll through the one-room museum that held everything from photos of Grizzard growing up to one of the golf clubs he had with him the day he died. There were T-shirts and coffee mugs available but I spotted the one item I had to have: a paper fan like the funeral home used to give out that read ”I’m a Lewis Grizzard fan.” For two bucks I couldn’t turn it down.
Somehow, seeing all of the memorabilia I felt a kindred spirit with Grizzard.
“My stepdaddy went to school with him,” said the girl behind the counter. It seems that everyone in Moreland was either related to or had had an encounter with Grizzard.
As I was leaving, I noticed the town sign. On the front is the traditional ‘”Welcome to Moreland”. But the back, instead of having “Come Again!” reads “We’ll miss you in Moreland.”
They have to be talking about Lewis Grizzard.
After all, he was a great American.
It says so right on his tombstone.
© 2005, Kendall Bell, All Rights Reserved