I first met Jesse Stuart when he spoke at my 8th grade graduation ceremony at South Portsmouth School. By that time he had published more than 50 books – volumes of poetry, short stories, essays, stories published in the leading national magazines, and several novels, his most famous being “Taps for Private Tussie.”
I liked the way part of his address described the Theory of Evolution.
“So your ancestor,” he told us students, “was a tadpole that wiggled up out of the sea, sprouted legs and a tail, and climbed up into the trees. One day he swung down, hit the ground running, stopped at Marting’s and bought himself a new suit, then enrolled in the university and got his degree.”
Something like that, anyway.
In 1970 I was working at The Greenup News and Jesse and Naomi Deane were back home in W-Hollow from their travels abroad. Editor Doug Everman assigned me to get an interview.
Jesse wound up driving me to the ridgetop of their 750-acre hillside farm, talking nonstop about how he and his father cleared the land, plowed the steep hillsides with a mule, and reaped a harvest of corn and beans and potatoes.
The resulting story ran in the newspaper under the heading, “Two Hours with Jesse Stuart.” Jesse liked it so well that he encouraged me to send it to The Cincinnati Enquirer. The newspaper bought the story and sent their top photographer, Allen Kain, out to illustrate it with photos of Jesse working at home and hobnobbing with the courthouse whittlers in Greenup.
The story and photos ran as a cover feature in the Enquirer’s Sunday Magazine on or about the day I started work as a reporter for the Portsmouth Daily Times.
And Jesse and Naomi Dean and I became close friends for the rest of their lives.
When he suffered the stroke in 1978 that left him paralyzed down the left side of his body, my job as a reporter with the Ashland Daily Independent included covering trials and gathering the courthouse news in Greenup.
Two and sometimes three times a week I would stop by the Stuart home in W-Hollow on my way home from work. I would arrive about the time Richard Prince was swinging Jesse into a wheelchair and wheeling him through the house, where the pendulums on the floor and mantel clocks kept their rhythmic track of time, and out the kitchen door into the backyard, where chipmunks played and robins chirped.
Jesse would light up a cheap cigar, exhale the blue smoke, and listen with interest as I read from my notes the latest news of the county – who was getting married, who was getting divorced, who had been arrested and for what.
The air was filled with the sound of Jesse’s deep chuckles as we made up stories involving those characters, changing their names to some outlandish monikers.
Naomi Deane would admonish us for what she called “crass” – or was it “gross?” – behavior. But she, too, often caught herself joining in on the laughter.
I continued my visits for four years. And no, it was not because of Jesse’s fame that I did it. I felt they needed me. I believe that those visits were part of his rehab, something that gave him a reason to keep hanging on in a world reduced to a hospital bed in their bedroom.
I offered to let Jesse dictate stories to me and I would type them up and send them in for him.
“No, Sam,” he said once, “I’ve got to have a clean sheet of white paper and a felt-point pen.”
But, after the 1978 stroke, he never picked up the pen again.
Jesse died in 1984. Naomi Dean joined him in Plum Grove Cemetery in 1993.
Those visits into the hollow were good days, days of sunshine and shadows.
Reach G. Sam Piatt at email@example.com or (606) 932-3619