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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

An autograph and a check presentation

Wilbur Lee Todd of Oxford recalls a friendly Faulkner giving his autograph to a young man — and a scholarship event at Rowan Oak where the author didn’t even show up.

Having grown up in Oxford, I knew William Faulkner through several contacts. I went to University High School with Malcolm Franklin, his step-son. Estelle’s sister, Dorothy Oldham, was my mother’s Sunday school teacher at the First Presbyterian Church. My Daddy was one of the two night policemen in Oxford in the ’50s and could tell you many stories about taking Faulkner home at night under the influence of alcohol.

Let me tell you two stories of my even closer contact with William back in the ’50s.

A World War II Army buddy, Harry Bryant of Jacksonville, Florida, was an ardent fan of William’s writings and on one of his visits to Oxford after the war, he wished to meet Faulkner.

I told him this was a big order, however, we would see. I knew Faulkner’s routine, bringing his wife, Estelle, to Kroger, located back then on South Lamar where Soul Shine Pizza is today, parking his old sedan station wagon on the south side, and while Estelle was shopping, he would pace up South Lamar to the Oxford Square in his top coat, hat and cane, walking around to the post office, now City Hall, picking up his mail and on around the Square to Gathright-Reed Drug Store, now Old Venice Pizza, where Mac Reed would wrap his manuscripts while Faulkner browsed through the paperback books in the back of the store.

So one afternoon Harry and I parked near Kroger and when we saw Faulkner headed toward the Square, we got out of my car. Harry, with pen and paper in hand, met William and got his autograph! He was — to our surprise — very friendly and cooperative. Harry was one happy admirer of William Faulkner!

Then on a Monday evening at 8 o’clock, Nov. 21, 1955, at Fulton Chapel at the University Of Mississippi, the Oxford Lion’s Club sponsored Dorothy Berliner Commins, a pianist from New York City in a concert where William was to present a $500 scholarship to a music student at Ole Miss. Faulkner had won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1950 and the Pulitzer Prize for his book, “A Fable,” in 1954 so he had become financially at ease.

A.G. Bowen, a music professor at Ole Miss, had approached the Lion’s Club about sponsoring this event and doing the leg work to make it possible for Faulkner’s presentation. Our club was the largest service club in Oxford at this time with 100 members and very active in the community. We met at Mr. Aubrey Seay’s Mansion Restaurant, next to Kroger on South Lamar where William regularly hung out at night.

The program was sold out at Fulton Chapel and William was there in his tuxedo, sitting on the fourth row. The scholarship awarded by William was to be made immediately following intermission. A.G. Bowen came to me during the break and reported, “William says he is not planning to get up on stage to present the scholarship. As president of the Lions Club, you will have to do this for him.” So it was up to me to present this award with William looking on! There was a reception at Rowan Oak following the program; William didn’t even make an appearance!

On several occasions since moving back to Oxford eight years ago, it has been exciting for me to tell total strangers, who are inquiring about Faulkner and Rowan Oak, “Yes, I knew him and I can direct you or take you to his house!”

Wilbur Lee Todd, 88, moved to Oxford around 1929 and he lived here until about 1960. In 1955, he was president of the Oxford Lions Club. He moved back to Oxford about eight years ago. (April 4, 2012)

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