By Ed Nelson © March 11, 2010
I never took a class under Mr. Reece, never had a conversation with him, nor did I really know his identity until just a few weeks before he took his life. He probably lived less than seventy-five (75′) feet from me in old Peel Dormitory if you drew a straight line from his room on the first floor through the walls to my room on the second floor where I lived my first two (2) quarters at Young Harris Methodist College.
I do recall some of his students mentioning his name here and there in conversation. The tone was always uttered with immense respect and deep appreciation for a very gifted teacher who had long ago proven his worth as a creative writer, poet, and. novelist. Although I had no idea what or whom they were talking about, I put two and two (2+2) together in my own mind enough to know that this mysterious teacher embodied some musical cadence and rhythmic genius of Appalachian culture.
After allowing sweet milk to sour and turn into clabber in a churn near an open fireplace in the winter, one would sit in a straight chair by a warm fire and begin to churn the milk with a dasher moving one’s arm in an upward and downward motion enough to create gyrations inside the churn. While a cat or two (1 or 2) slept on the warm hearth near the fire, the person churning the milk would begin to hum the tune of some hymn, old bar song, or war melody. As the clabber turned into butter, and the liquid substance called “buttermilk” was strained through a piece of cheese cloth to drink while eating corn bread; something similar occurs when writing mountain ballads. Apparently Mr. Reece had perfected all this to a tee. It is a concoction of words, sounds, rhythm, and music. Until this day, that is all that I understand about crafting the ballad, writing poetry, or hatching a novel. Over the years, I have read everything that Mr. Reece has written. I have tried to study his style, sing his tunes, and get into his frame of mind. I have listened to those scholars and friends who seem to be on the inside of what Mr. Reece was all about in literature. I have made pilgrimages to his grave in Old Union Baptist Cemetery for half a century, and about all that I can come up with about Mr. Reece’s art, creativity, and genius is God. He possessed something inherently innate – a divine gift, talent, soulfulness – like a person who plays the piano, banjo, or guitar by ear.
One day in late spring of 1958, a bunch of boys were horsing around on the lawn a few feet in front of old Peel Dormitory. It was about a half hour before supper time. There must have been twenty-five or thirty (25-30) of us standing around in small groups talking, some wrestling, and a few of us trying to hit a tennis ball with a broom stick. We were just killing time in the spring. The air was warmer, days longer, and new leaves were gracing the limbs of the giant oak trees about the campus.
One fellow whom I did not know, seemed alienated, very much alone, and haunted. At first I thought he might be an older student. Perhaps a veteran of the Korean War. To the best of my memory, he smoked an occasional cigarette while observing all of us at play. Intuitively my heart went out to him because he did not seem to have anyone to talk to or to befriend him. There was something about his emaciated look or gaunt stare which saddened me. He looked like Jesus Christ must have looked after Simon Peter denied him three (3) times in Caiaphas’ garden after his arrest.
So I suggested to some of my buddies that they go over and invite this stranger, older veteran student to join us at our table in the dining room for supper. There was immediate laughter. My friends chided me, saying: “That is Mr. Reece who teaches English and creative writing … He eats at the faculty table!” Naturally, I was embarrassed. Yes, I had seen him many times in passing on campus, but I had no clue who this humble, modest, and very private man was until that moment. And I had never bothered to speak to him.
The Reverend Ryan Seawright reminded me one Sunday afternoon when I visited him near Toccoa, Georgia (around 2005) that he was serving the Blairsville Methodist Church at the time and knew Mr. Reece as well as many members of his family through one of his small Methodist churches in Union County. According to the Reverend Seawright, he saw Mr. Reece sitting on a bench in front of Lawrence and Reba’s restaurant at Young Harris just before he took his life.
Mr. Reece was driving a brand new 1958 Chevrolet red convertible car which he had parked on the street. The Reverend Seawright also noticed a dramatic personality transformation. Mr. Reece’s hair was combed back in a duck tail. His shirt sleeves were rolled up with a package of cigarettes secured therein as teenagers did in the 1950’s. Mr. Reece seemed to exude an emboldened ego, extroverted persona, or a happy-go-lucky and very carefree appearance. I heard from several very reliable sources that Mr. Reece took his life while listening to a classical record. I was told that he left a note and was in the same apartment of Peel Dormitory where Dean Lufkin Dance ended his life twelve (12) years earlier.
According to those who knew Professor Dance, he was a very popular English teacher and very competitive tennis player from Eatonton, Georgia who inspired Mr. Reece when he was a student at Young Harris. Dr. Dance was short in stature but his students called him “Mighty Man” behind his back. He exuded magnetic energy and charisma throughout the campus.
What I recall is the pall that settled upon our campus when the death of Mr. Reece made the rounds just before graduation. Dr. Charles Clegg, President of Young Harris College, gathered all the male students in the yard between old Peel and Manget dormitories. In a very solemn yet fatherly tone, Dr. Clegg told us that Mr. Reece had taken his life. He reminded us that he had been plagued with tuberculosis many years and had spent much time in Battey State Hospital in Rome, Georgia. The disease seemed to recur from time to time.
Then Dr. Clegg paused and said: ‘While we do not condone the taking of one’s life, this act in no way diminishes the genius of Mr. Reece, his many contributions to Young Harris College over the years, nor the special place that he held among all his students, faculty, and many friends …We will deeply miss Mr. Reece around here … It is a very sad and difficult time for everyone, so we ask your prayers and understanding as we try to work our way through all this.” We all drifted back to our rooms, pondering the meaning of Mr. Reece’s short life and mysterious death. It was my first encounter with a Shakespearean tragedy or Hamlet off stage: “To be, or not to be – that is the question” (Act III, Scene 1). I could not believe what I had just heard that afternoon, and I have often reflected upon all of this across the years – if my friendship would have made any difference.
One response to “A Sketch of Byron Herbert Reece”
In reading Mr. Ed Nelson’s recollection of Hub’s death, I too recalled my hearing it. My husband and I lived at nearby Hiawassee where Grover was then pastor of McConnell Memorial Baptist Church. I grew up a neighbor to the Reece family in Choestoe, and I was shocked and tremendously saddened by his death: it seemed surreal to me that he who had so much to give in poetry and prose would be gone! I miss him still, even these more than four decades after his death! I read his works, write about them, share them with others, work in the Byron Herbert Reece Society. To Hub, at this Christmastime, I want to do all I can to make your works known, to help others see and understand your great genius, your vibrancy as a writer, your place among the literary greats of the last century and even into this one–indeed, for all time!