We were there when Southern Living beat the odds.
January 31, 2016
IT HAPPENED A LONG TIME AGO in a galaxy far, far away.
I’m sure of it.
Yet, perhaps it only happened yesterday.
A bunch of farmers in Birmingham, Alabama, got together and decided to start a new magazine.
A few favored it.
A few more opposed it.
For the opposition, it was heresy.
And I suppose it was.
For those of us who lived in rural America, Progressive Farmer Magazine was sacred.
It was placed right alongside the Bible.
My father quoted from one as much as the other.
Progressive Farmer answered more prayers.
But then, my father was a weekend farmer.
The Powers at Progressive Farmer, during the 1960s, realized that so many, especially those in the younger generation, were leaving the farms.
They were headed to town.
And a lot of them, God forbid, were moving to the sin-filled streets of big cities.
They were watching their subscribers trading tractors and pickup trucks for little red sports cars. They drank from demitasse cups instead of jugs and mugs.
Their departure from the farms sent a quake that registered 9.8 on the Richter scale through the Southland.
The Powers at Progressive Farmer countered with the launch a new magazine.
Let’s call it Southern Living, they said.
Let’s aim the magazine at the farmer kids who are now the urbanites.
What do they like?
How do they live?
Well, let’s write about travel.
Let’s dish up some good food recipes.
Let’s show them how to turn their homes into show places.
Let’s beautify their yards with flowers and gardens.
They’ll still be sending their subscription dollars to Progressive Farmer.
They just won’t know it.
Here’s how the Powers looked at it.
Southern Living would be cosmopolitan and sophisticated, published by and written by cosmopolitan and sophisticated journalists.
So they hired Gary McCalla from Freer, Texas, population 2,783, as editor.
Here came John Logue from Pineapple, Alabama, population 130, as managing editor.
They went out in the hinterlands and brought in some kid named Caleb Pirtle from Pitner’s Junction, Texas, population depleted, as travel editor.
Handling the food editor’s job was Lena Sturges from Hunt, Texas, She always said Hunt was located smack dab between the two towns of Comfort and Welfare.
And they placed a Nikon Camera in the hands of Chief Photographer Gerald Crawford from Webb, Alabama, population 1,417.
The South had a magazine.
We were in charge of the sophistication.
The ladies drank wine.
The men drank bourbon.
We ate steaks chicken fried.
We believed football ranked just behind Baptists and Methodists as a religion.
We came from places that thought “Half Price” and “Mark Down” were brand names.
We promoted travel to Wizard Wells, Texas, Ninety-Six, South Carolina, Slicklizzard, Alabama, and Plum Nelly, Georgia, named because it’s plum out of Tennessee, and nelly out of Georgia.
We had a small staff.
We flew by the seat of our pants.
We had no idea what we’d do tomorrow, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be what we did yesterday.
And we loved each other.
We were family.
The magazine came along at just the right time.
These were the sixties, remember.
Every other region in the nation looked down its nose at the South.
We were rednecks.
We were hillbillies.
Our women didn’t have teeth.
Our men didn’t have shoes.
Our barns had corn.
Our corn was turned into whiskey.
And, Lord, we were a prejudiced bunch of bigots.
The fight for Civil Rights erupted.
Then it exploded.
And newscasters and editorial writers from all over the nation were lining up to tell the South what a wicked, horrible, and terrible place it was.
The South made Sodom and Gomorrah look like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which were in the South but didn’t count as Southern.
Then Southern Living came along.
We were, a bunch of barefoot boys and girls wandering the back roads of the South preaching a gospel no one had heard in a long time.
The South is a great place, we said.
The South is filled with wonderful people, we said.
The South has fine, progressive cities, we said.
The South has communities with people who genuinely care about each other.
The South has its own rare and gentle beauty.
Just look at its antebellum homes.
Just look at its gardens.
Eden would be envious.
Wait a minute.
We have an Eden.
It’s in Alabama.
No one respects its past and its traditions more than the South.
Down home Southern cooking is the best in the world.
It’s against the law not to serve grits.
If not, it should be.
And God’s only regret was sending manna from heaven instead of turnip greens and sugar-cured ham.
Those first years were tough years.
We hung on from issue to issue with broken fingernails.
But we loved the South.
And the South loved us.
Southern Living became the most important and successful magazine in the nation.
We scratched for 96 pages an issue when we began.
We were averaging 356 pages an issue when I left a decade later.
For subscriptions, we charged you an extra dollar a month if you lived outside the South.
You’d be surprised at the hundreds of thousands who were willing to pay it.
But that was then.
This is now.
Last Monday night, Southern Living celebrated its 50th anniversary. That’s quite a milestone for a magazine that was supposed to die in its tracks. It didn’t die because we wouldn’t let it.
Gerald Crawford and I were there with John Logue.
We lost Gary McCalla and Lena Sturges along the way.
We celebrated the magazine.
We honored those who were missing.
We applauded those who are now carrying the torch.
What was is no more.
What is goes on.
I’d start it again if I could.
Thanks for the memories.