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Storyteller Kathryn Windham dies at 93

Kathryn Tucker Windham, a perennial favorite at Jonesborough’s National Storytelling Festival, has died at her home in Selma, Ala. She had just celebrated her 93rd birthday on June 2.
A trailblazing female reporter who later became well-known as a writer, photographer and storyteller, died at about 5 p.m. on June 12.
Windham had been ill for some time and was with family members when she passed away.
Windham delighted festival guests with her matter-of-fact southern spirit, as she shared stories that gave them a guided tour through life, a passage that without exception evoked both laughter and tears.
Windham, a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program also helped Selma, become the Storytelling Capital of Alabama.
But she told those close to her that her pride and joy was the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough.
Founder and President of the National Storytelling Festival Jimmy Neil Smith said he first knew Windham as a cookbook author.
“It was in 1973 when I opened the Parson’s Table on the same weekend of the first National Storytelling Festival,” Smith said. “I had asked her to use one of her recipes. It was for a fruit punch. I had no idea that almost 40 years later, I would have spent most of my adult life as a friend of Kathryn Windham.”
Smith soon learned Windham also wrote ghost stories. “I knew if she could write them, then she could tell them,” Smith said. “So I asked her to come tell stories at the second festival. It was in 1974. She thought I was pulling her leg.”
But Smith sent her a ticket, and Windham got on a plane and came.
“From that point on, she became an instant hit,” Smith said. “She was well-respected and well-loved. And storytelling was just one of her many, many talents.”
Windham also was a “pioneering journalist, a photographer, a collector of ghost stories and folk history and an author,” Smith said. “And, of course, she was one of the most respected in the storytelling movement.”
Windham was signed up to be a storyteller at this year’s National Storytelling Festival. But her death leaves more than just a void in the schedule lineup.
“The biggest void this will leave is the impact she had, not only on the festival, but in the lives of everybody who knew her and heard her stories,” Smith said.
“That is the biggest hole — we will no longer have her inspiration.”
Windham’s dream as a girl was to become a newspaper reporter, and she began writing movie reviews for her uncle’s weekly paper in Thomasville, Ala., where she grew up.
She realized that dream in 1940 when she became what is believed to be the first female police reporter at a large Alabama newspaper.
Windham refused to accept discriminatory treatment by her first newspaper editors and proved that she could cover assignments as well as any of the male reporters at the Alabama Journal in 1940.
Windham showed her spunk when assigned to cover difficult murder stories, many involving graphic evidence that she got to see. It did not deter her from her efforts.
Windham’s critics quickly realized that her aggressiveness and persistence as a reporter helped the Journal put out a quality newspaper — one that made her popular in homes throughout Montgomery, Ala.
After a stint selling bonds during World War II, she went to work for The Birmingham News and met the love of her life — Amasa Benjamin Windham, who captured her heart the moment he stepped off the elevator and walked into the newsroom in his dashing white Navy uniform.
The two moved to Selma, where they had three children during a 10-year marriage. He died in her arms as they watched their favorite television program on the couch.
Left a widow with two girls and a boy to raise, Windham had little time to grieve. She went to work for the Selma Times Journal, where she wrote a syndicated column and freelance articles to bring in more money for her growing family.
Jamie Wallace, one of Windham’s reporting colleagues at the Selma paper and a lifelong friend, called her “a national treasure, a woman of remarkable talents who paved the way for others in the pursuit of journalistic excellence.”
— Some material in this story was taken, with permission, from a story published by the Montgomery Advertiser. To see that story in full, visit www.montgomeryadvertiser.com.