Knoxville News Sentinel: Harry Moskos: Author Alex Haley's legacy endures two decades after death

Posted on February 19, 2012

It was 20 years ago that Tennessee lost one of its treasures, Alex Haley. The Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Roots" and East Tennessee resident died Feb.10, 1992, while in Seattle, Wash., where he had gone to give a speech.

Haley was a compassionate person who firmly believed in one of his favorite sayings, "Find the good and praise it."

My wife, Victoria, and I had the pleasure of meeting and knowing Haley shortly after our arrival in Tennessee in 1984, thanks to then-governor — and now U.S. senator — Lamar Alexander and John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia. Alexander met Haley when he was in his early years as governor.

"That was in the early '80s," Alexander recalls. "Even though he wrote "Roots," Alex was a man without roots. He was a little bit connected with his roots but he hadn't put his roots back down." Haley was born in Ithaca, N.Y., on Aug.11, 1921, but within weeks of his birth he was in Henning, Tenn., to live with his grandparents, Will and Cynthia Palmer.

His first book was "The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As told to Alex Haley" in 1965. "Roots" came next as a condensed version in Reader's Digest in 1974 and then as a book in 1976, earning the Pulitzer Prize in 1977. In 1988 came "A Different Kind of Christmas," a story of a white southerner and a black slave. His final book, "Queen," was co-authored with David Stevens and came out the year after Haley's death. "Queen" is the story of Haley's paternal grandmother.

Haley's influence as a writer continues. In Manning Marble's book, "Malcolm X," which came out last year, Haley is quoted and mentioned frequently. And in 2007 Reader's Digest published a collection of articles Haley had written for the magazine. Alexander, in his "Little Plaid Book," recommended candidates running for office read "Roots."

Alexander invited Haley to participate in Tennessee's Homecoming '86 to celebrate who we are. "I was looking for the right person and chose Haley and Minnie Pearl to lead the event," Alexander said. "I took Alex and Minnie to the Museum of Appalachia in early 1982 or 1983." It was there that Alexander introduced Haley to Irwin.

"It was like two teenagers interested with each other and telling stories," Alexander noted. "They became fast friends. Then he bought John Rice's farmland for his home."

"Alex was the nation's best storyteller and everyone's best friend. He lived the words 'find the good and praise it.' He was always finding the good in someone and praising it," Alexander added.

This sentiment was echoed by Irwin, who noted"how gregarious, how friendly he was, how he related to people. He would be really, really happy to meet people."

Irwin relates one vignette of when Haley was attending a dinner in New York City sponsored by Parade Magazine at the Waldorf-Astoria and Haley got up to talk with the kitchen staff.

"It seems he had been recognized and he went back to talk to the help, the cooks in the kitchen," Irwin said. "He never seems to be excited about meeting celebrities but exuberant about meeting people, whether they be coal miners or cooks in the kitchen."

Irwin recalls his first meeting with Haley when Alexander had invited about eight or 10 people to his office to plan the homecoming celebration.

"We went to Lamar's office, and Haley and Robin Hood (the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who also is from Tennessee and also won the award in 1977) were there and we happened to sit next to Alex," John Rice said. "I invited him to come out and visit the museum." Haley accepted the invitation.

The visit obviously clicked. When he came out, Irwin recalls, the trees were blooming at the museum, the gardens were lush and the chickens and other animals were running around. And then they had a lunch of fried okra, country ham and cornbread. After he ate, Haley asked if he could use his phone to call his longtime secretary, Jackie Naipo, to report that he had decided to move back to Tennessee, but East Tennessee this time.

What we remember about Haley, in addition to his personality and sincerity, was his ability as a storyteller. He told us of his interest in writing "Roots" and telling stories can be traced back to his youth listening to his grandmother tell stories as she sat in her rocking chair on their front porch.

I don't know how my times I heard him tell the story of how John Newton came to compose the hymn, "Amazing Grace," but I was memorized each time he told it.

"He was unsurpassed in telling any kind of a story or tale," is how Irwin describes Haley's ability to keep his audience keyed on every word he would say.

"He thought it was important to tell a story and tell the story over and over until he got it right and then he would write it down," Alexander noted.

Haley liked to travel and often would go as a passenger on a cargo ship so he would have the time and quiet to compose his thoughts.

"He invited me to go on a cargo ship for three weeks and we would sit down and talk," Alexander recalls. "I was working on my book ("Six Months Off") and he was writing other things including a 1987 letter to the News-Sentinel" — one of several such lengthy letters he wrote.

Stevens, the co-author of "Queen," wrote that some of his work with Haley was done "on a banana boat to Ecuador." He also noted that two of the happiest years of his life were spent listening to Haley tell stories of his family.

Irwin describes Haley as a "really remarkable person who was so unselfish. I never met anyone who was more genuine."

This was a description echoed by Alexander who noted that during Black History Month that Haley would come to fifth grade classes to discuss black history, adding, "He had a heart and could not say no to the schools. He would even fly back from speaking engagements to keep an appointment with a school."

We were often included in short trips Haley and the Irwins would make around East Tennessee, and once we stopped at a small cafe in Monterey where we were joined by Robin Hood. I was struck with this thought: Did the owners realize that they had two Pulitzer Prize winners eating lunch in their establishment that day?

Haley always will be a Tennessee treasure. The Alexander Murray Palmer Haley Statute was dedicated by then-Mayor Victor Ashe on April 24,1998, at Knoxville's Haley Heritage Square. Haley's funeral service was held in Memphis with burial in nearby Henning on the grounds of his family home, now a state historic site.

Haley truly fits the description of "find the good and praise it." May his memory be eternal.