Some Personal Reflections on Byron Herbert Reece

(The following is excerpted from an article by Ethelene Dyer Jones, which appeared in the Union Sentinel on November 12, 2003. Mrs. Jones is a member of the Advisory Council of the Reece Society.)

Up until Byron Herbert Reece’s first book of poems, “Ballad of the Bones,” published in 1945, Hub Reece, as his family and friends called him, was a neighboring farmer close to my father’s farm in the Choestoe District, Union County, Georgia.

True, we had sometimes read an occasional poem by Reece published in the Union County paper in the early 1940’s.  I knew, too, that he was two years older than my sister, Louise, and one day both missed the afternoon bus at Union County High School and walked the entire eight miles southward along Highway 129 from school to their homes in Choestoe.  They were near dark or after getting home and my parents were greatly concerned about Louise.  However, they took her word and Hub’s that they had been busy with a project after school and had simply “missed the bus.”  There were no telephones in Choestoe in those days so they could call home explaining their dilemma.  In the vernacular of the mountains, their only choice was to “foot it home.”  That they did, with Louise having Hub Reece as her companion and protector on that long walk.

In 1945, something happened to draw our attention to Hub Reece.  “The Atlanta Constitution” to which my father, J. Marion Dyer, faithfully subscribed, began having reviews about Hub’s book, “Ballad of Bones.”  None other than the noted editor, Ralph McGill himself, wrote columns praising the “poet of the mountains.”

Some of the articles we read in “The Constitution” were not as complimentary as those by Mr. McGill.  Reviews in the Sunday paper often implied that this mountain man must have plagiarized his poems, since one with such ability and yet with limited formal education was not likely to produce poetry of the caliber bearing Reece’s byline.  However, we knew the integrity and honesty of the Reece family.  The poet would never pass off as his own something he had copied from someone else.

We had in our midst not just a neighbor farmer, someone I had known all my life, but a literary person of notable stature, receiving both accolades and criticism.  From then on, we his neighbors stood in awe of him, viewed him in a completely different light.  A genius lived among us and we were proud to know him.

When I visited him with my high school teacher, Mrs. Grapelle Mock, to interview him for the school’s page in our local newspaper, I approached him with a sense of awe and shyness even though I had known him all my life.  Now he was more than a neighbor with whom we passed the time of day, talking about crops, the weather, the health of his parents, Juan and Emma Lance Reece, or commenting on World War II (as we had during that conflict and when my brother Eugene lay critically injured in a hospital in Italy).  Now Reece was somebody—a famous person, he had been promoted in status through the words he penned from lowly farmer to literary giant.

However, he never let his fame go to his head, but remained humble and reclusive, preferring not to be in the limelight.  In that interview, I shyly told him that I liked to try my hand at writing poetry too.  I had only recently presented my first sonnet and another lyrical poem in my high school English class.  His advice to me was biblical and fitting, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel,” he said.

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