Sometimes memories take more than one tissue

Published 3:34 pm Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Leaving the Square a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about all the people of our community who died in 2021, and especially those whom were my friends. 

Two deaths in particular stood out and it took a few hours of contemplation before I was able to put the matter into some sort of context and satisfy the curiosity aroused by my unusual reaction to these passings.

First, I should say that my general reaction upon learning of deaths of friends or extended family has become fairly routine. People dying is nothing new to a person of 52 years, as it happens about as regular as sunrises and sunsets around here.

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Generally, after hearing about a friend’s death, I sit quietly at my desk or lay on my bed and think about the newly departed, perhaps shedding a few tears as I recall their lives, and what they meant to me and others.

Often a 30 minute ride along our country roads presents a near-perfect opportunity for a good cry in these situations as well. Tears clear the mind and are proper at these times, although a couple of tissues are usually plenty for me in these cases.

The two deaths mentioned earlier were different, though, and for a while was confusing, and almost embarrassing to me. These weren’t one or two tissues affairs. It was more like a roll of paper towels kind of crying.

The first was the death of Dr. Keith Shaffer, former superintendent of the school district, who died most unexpectedly in his 50s. His death stunned many in Batesville, and saddened those who mourned the loss of a community leader, and father of two young children.

It was a photo opportunity of his widow, Sarah Dale Shaffer, receiving a posthumous civic award on his behalf that started this thinking about those who died last year. I was on the Square to cover the presentation, and that photo was published in last week’s edition.

After Dr. Shaffer died I found myself, more than once, having short sobs when I passed his house or his old office. This was very confusing. I wasn’t particularly close to him and only saw him at a few social events now and again. He had stopped by the office for a long chat about six months before his death, but we weren’t close friends.

It was my early connection to Dr. Shaffer, I’m sure, that caused such strange sorrow. When I was a senior at Clarksdale High School he was a first-year teacher and assigned a senior math class.

Dr. Shaffer was fresh out of college, and only about five years older than most of his students. I am ashamed now when I recall the trouble we gave him that first year. The boys in the class wouldn’t call him Mr. Shaffer. We thought it cool to say Keith, mostly because that’s how we knew him.

Years later I apologized profusely for the way we acted, but he always laughed it off and assured me that he later had much more difficult classes and kids.

The second death was that of journalist Ray Mosby, the celebrated editor of the smallest weekly newspaper in Mississippi, and the dean of editorial writers in the state. When he died other editors and columnists across the state wrote glowing pieces about his dogged determination to keep his small paper publishing, and praised his unique ability to put together words like few others are able.

Of course I admired Ray for his long years of publishing the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork, and for writing his statewide column for more than 20 years. When he died newspaper readers all over Mississippi, including Batesville, were sad because his writing had entertained them for years.

But it was the Ray Mosby of 35 years ago that I thought of then, and do now. Ray gave me my first newspaper job, an internship with the Clarksdale Press Register while I was still at Ole Miss.

He interviewed me as we drove to Tallahatchie County to cover trial proceedings of a big case – a Delta planter’s son murdered his wife in a most heinous fashion. On the way back to Clarksdale Ray wrote the trial story on a legal pad while asking me questions about school and what I thought about news reporting.

Finally, somewhere on Hwy. 49, Ray said he could offer me $250 and maybe a little gas money. I was so anxious to get the job I said yes, although I thought $250 a month was a little low. A week later when I found out it was $250 a week I was elated, but had already fallen in love with news reporting and would have been happy with that princely sum as a month’s pay.

These pages could be filled with things I learned from Ray over the next year or so, and books could be written about his tales from the trail.

One example. He sent me to a polling place early one freezing morning to check on turnout. It was at a junior high school auditorium and when I got there I saw a few people gathered around something against an outside wall.

It was a dead body, my first to see as a reporter. I hustled across the street to the Chinese man’s store and called Ray to shakily report that an old lady had apparently frozen to death overnight. Without missing a beat, Ray said, “Did you check her pocket for a voter card? She may have been waiting to vote. That would be a good angle.” Classic Ray.

Ray had a bunch of sayings and things he would repeat from time to time. Late one night sitting in the smoke filled breakroom of the newspaper waiting for the press to start he looked up and said, “Kid, let me give me some advice. Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man named Doc, and never lay down with a woman who has more problems than you.”

I’ve tried to remember that these 35 years.

What was it about the deaths of Keith Shaffer and Ray Mosby that affected me in such odd fashion? Why did tears fill my eyes, and still do, when I think of these two men. Neither were everyday acquaintances – I would go months without seeing or talking to either.

No, it was something different. These deaths were the end of pieces of my childhood and teenage years. I’m not in perpetual mourning of the recent lives of Keith and Ray, although I’m saddened by their passing.

It’s the fact that these men were part of my youth, my formative years, and somewhere deep in my psyche I realize that their deaths marked an end of sorts and serve as a reminder that all of life is temporary and happy memories are sometimes distant rays of hope and peace, forever in the past and never to be reached again.

I cried for precious and fleeting days gone by, and I suspect I will cry some more.