August 28, 2013

Mark Millican: Lives, books and their legacies

The great crime (and western) novelist Elmore Leonard of New Orleans died last week. That name may not ring a bell with some, but for others there was none better at the genre than Leonard, 87, who judging by his postmortem profile seemed destined to write from an early age.

Just a few of his books you may recognize from their silver screen adaptations: “Mr. Majestyk” with Charles Bronson, “High Noon,” “Get Shorty,” “Joe Kidd” with Clint Eastwood and “3:10 to Yuma,” the latest version with Russell Crowe.

My stepson Andrew is probably his biggest fan. When I asked him why, he said, “The dialogue.” Sure enough, I grabbed one of Leonard’s books — “Cuba Libre” — and became engaged not just with the repartee between characters, but how the writer could visit a country and absorb enough to write a colorful book. Granted, I’m leaving out the hours and hours of historical research, but it’s the ability to weave it together that impresses.

Andrew came into my life as a grown stepson, and I’ve gotten him interested in Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series of novels, which have taught me to be more observant in large groups of people. That’s not a bad thing in this day and time.

So it’s been an opportunity for us to share something — besides our birth dates — and then as a bonus I get to be granddad to his and Elizabeth’s two fine sons.

Can I thank Leonard for part of that? Good books open doors, great books open lives.

* * *

Bert Lance, the Calhoun banker who rose to become President Jimmy Carter’s director of the old Office of Management and Budget, also passed away last week. Lance, 82, was a staunch Carter supporter before the 1976 presidential election, but the ride in our nation’s capital became rocky for him.

Lance was accused of making a few questionable loans to friends and family, according to his critics, while others said he was only guilty of carrying out banking the way it was done back in the day — with a handshake. That may have worked for gentleman bankers and honest farmers in the Old South, but it didn’t cut the mustard with big-time regulators who often came to government from corporate banks that stretched across international borders.

Let’s just say a lot of folks and institutions from the South — and especially Georgia — came under national scrutiny during those days. But one person who handled it with aplomb and grace was Lance’s wife, LaBelle. In her book, “This Too Shall Pass,” she wrote not only about growing up just a few miles away from here through the mountains and valleys, but also of how she met Bert and the meteoric rise of Carter and her husband to the lofty heights of the U.S. executive branch — and then the downfall.

Instead of disdaining and disparaging the Washington media for camping out on their yard and parking their TV vans so the Lances could hardly get in the driveway during the crisis of confidence, LaBelle Lance got up early every morning, baked treats and brewed coffee and tea, and went outside in her makeup and best clothes, carrying a tray of goodies, to meet the press. They probably didn’t get the comments they wanted, but they saw firsthand what Southern hospitality was all about.

LaBelle Lance believed from what she’d read in the Bible it was her duty as a Christian to treat others with respect and dignity, even as they were savaging her husband.

Fancy that, a Christian blessing their enemies.

I’ve read her book at least three times, and often used that last vignette as an illustration. It’s too late to write Elmore Leonard, but I’m putting on my “to-do” list to write LaBelle Lance and tell her how many times I’ve faced tough, pressure-packed situations — but then out of the blue reflected, “This too shall pass.”

And it always does.

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