Monroeville, Alabama – Citizen

AND15 years ago I was driving down I-65 South heading to a news conference that was being held on the Alabama coast.

A mile ahead I saw an exit sign: Monroeville, Alabama. I hesitated for maybe two seconds, then barely stepped on the brakes and tossed off the freeway onto a black, gentle road that took me to one of the most famous cities in the South.

Let’s be honest: if I’d known the town was a good 20 miles or more from the highway, I’d have moved on. Even halfway through I almost turned around. But I didn’t for two reasons: 1) I knew I would always regret being so close and yet not seeing it 2) My friend Stevie Waltrip. She has always wanted a signed edition of “To Kill A Mockingbird” in the 35 years I’ve known her.

If I found one for her, I would give the treasure to someone who was a treasure to me.

Harper Lee—called “Nelle” by those who knew her—was still alive then. She and her sister Alice never missed a Sunday sermon at the Methodist church or lunch at a local home-cooked restaurant. They liked to be normal and they didn’t like that normal was messed with.

I couldn’t find Harper Lee (the townspeople were fiercely loyal to the secrecy of her whereabouts) or a signed copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

A saleswoman in a gift shop said: “One day Nelle was here picking out birthday cards. The woman recognized her and asked if she would sign her copy of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Nell didn’t say a word. She looked at her, then turned and left. She never came back and got that card too!”

After a fruitless search, I was about to leave Monroeville when I decided to stop at the town newspaper office and talk to the publisher. He kindly explained that Nelle liked to be left alone, so “we’ll leave her alone. This is her home and we are happy that she still comes to her from New York and spends time.’

“When was the last time you saw her?” I asked.

He pursed his lips, focused on something on the table, then slowly shook his head. “I don’t know,” he scratched his cheek. “Maybe four or five years ago.

The receptionist, whose desk looked directly out the front glass entrance where a box of newspapers stood, listened to our conversation.

“Well, I see her every Wednesday,”

“You do!” he exclaimed.

“Yes. He comes here every Wednesday and buys a copy of the paper from that box.”

The publisher’s eyes widened and then he looked at me. “I never had a clue.

Last summer, on my way back from Mobile, I decided to drive through the beautiful Alabama backcountry on the other side of Montgomery. I stopped at a restaurant in Monroeville for an early lunch and then ate quickly so I could hand over my table to the Alabama Power rank and file. They took off their hats and thanked me.

Every person in that restaurant said grace before taking a bite.

I took a picture of the city’s water tower from the restaurant parking lot and then drove past the center. In the center of the city is its crown jewel: the courthouse, which is identical to the one in the film – inside and out. Director Robert Mulligan brought in a set designer from LA with the instructions: “Restore this courthouse down to the last stone.”

The courthouse houses a museum celebrating Miss Nelle and her childhood friend Truman Capote, the inspiration for eccentric Dill, who taught Scout (Nelle) the power of imagination and storytelling during her childhood summers.

It’s a visit worth making for those who like quiet towns – even famous ones – with hospitable people who say, “We’d love to have you come back sometime.”

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]

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