Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Ancient stranger's letter conjures warm brew
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   10/13/2000)

A stranger gave me a gift on Saturday (the kind of brisk October day made for stirring memories). It's one of the best gifts I ever got, for Mrs. Bonnie Vandagriff, 88 years old, gave me a version of my father I had never known. You see, Daddy died in 1985. Yet for a few minutes Saturday afternoon, Bonnie evoked my father's life in a way that humbled me as only something wondrous or mystical can do. No, it wasn't like seeing a ghost. It was more vivid than that. I saw my father clearly, as I never saw him in life.

It takes many years of living--of having been a child and bequeathing children to the world in turn--to clearly consider your father's childhood, even if, like my dad, he was an incurable storyteller. Daddy told lots of tales about pranks he pulled, fights he fought, whippings and blessings his parents gave him on the way up. And he told stories of WWII, where he participated in the Battle of the Bulge, lived in a fox hole and sang in a USO show.

Lots of people knew my daddy as a member of "Your Christian singers, Don and Earl," as they billed themselves. They were on radio stations from New York to California, from stations in Chicago to mammoth border blasters like XERF and XEG in Del Rio, Texas, with their giant broadcasting towers located across the Rio Grande. To me, radio waves were like magic dust blown across the country from great wands, and if conditions were right, we'd get letters not only from most of the 50 states, Mexico and Canada, but from listeners in the Canary Islands in the North Atlantic, or even from far-off Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific.

People responded to Father. He was a charismatic man, with wavy black hair and a generous laugh and a way with a joke or a song, particularly an old sentimental standard, that drew you in. He was the best whistler I ever heard, and although he mostly sang, played and whistled gospel music in churches or on the radio, I've seen him reduce grown men to tears when he'd sing "Old Shep," a song about a boy who must lay his faithful dog to rest. On the other hand I've seen him fill a room with laughter with tunes like "Sippin' Cider," a song about two straws and a shared drink at a county fair that resulted in an accidental kiss.

He liked to play tricks--water in the milk carton, magic tricks, out jumps "boo!" He could tell jokes and stories for hours on end and often did. When my brothers and sisters and I were children, he liked to take us swimming, or to slice open a water melon to sweeten summer evenings.

But he could be stern too, and my relations with my father were often strained, as I went through the sort of rebellion that children of evangelical men seem destined for. I've seldom thought of him without the filter of those old conflicts coloring memory's portrait.

Bear in mind none of the above impressions were in my thoughts as I sat down Saturday to sort through a stack of mail--mostly businesslike correspondence, bills and such. When I opened a letter-sized manila envelope and pulled several sheets of notebook paper from inside, I quickly scanned the first page with it's generous, crisp hand-writing, then, spellbound, began reading in earnest words with magic enough to turn back the river of time. For once I saw my father fresh, living beyond memory's power to distort. Bonnie wrote:

"Dear Don Williams,

When I first saw your face and your writing in the News-Sentinel, your face kept haunting me--so I started reading your 'Friday offerings'--then you really told me who I was seeing--Ladonuel Williams from Briceville! One of my 3rd graders in 1934! I taught in the 'Little Building' that year. I had 63 in my class! The school was growing then.

But I vividly remember your dad. He was a bright-eyed whirlwind. When he burst through the door most mornings his cute little face was shiny clean and red from his hurrying to not be late. He told me sometimes the things he saw on the way to school. 'The train' of course, and I felt like he stopped on the railroad bridge to count all the minnows in the creek below. A cheerful, friendly little boy, I remember his enthusiasm and all the interest he took in everything going on around him….

"I'm writing you today because I so wanted you to know I knew the dear little boy who became your dad….

"Now I have grown old and (experience) all those pesky things like hearing loss, cataracts and laser treatments… A friend of mine in Lake City sent me a letter today and told me I should write a book. Many people have told me that. It was always my lifetime wish, but it never happened. I've lived many places over the years--all up and down the east coast, the west coast, Panama Canal Zone. I have a daughter who lives in Cleveland, Ohio….

"Sorry to be so messy, but as one little old lady said, 'My hands don't always do what I tell them to do any more.' At 88 years plus, I know a lot of things to say on that subject….

Bonnie Vandagriff."

Bonnie, maybe be you weren't destined to write a book, but your writing, in your clear, strong hand, has seized this reader by the heart. I'll try and tell you about it as soon as this lump leaves my throat and the mist dries from my eyes.