Most journalists will tell you that getting involved with your subjects is bad journalism. You lose your edge and objectivity. But every once in a while, you run across someone while covering a story that changes your whole life. Someone who is so extraordinary that you’re drawn to them. In my career as a photojournalist, I have one such person and his name was Jack Williams. Jack, you see, died a few years back of cancer and I, to this day, miss the conversations and friendship that we had. I consider myself a journalist- even today, but also, and above all else, I consider myself a human being who cares about those around him.
Thoughts of my friend come to mind especially around NASCAR race time at the local track. Jack lived under a bridge that I regularly cross to get to the Talladega Superspeedway.
It was 1989, and I was working at the Daily Home in Talladega, Alabama. While on lunch one day, I read a small feature story in our sister paper, The Anniston Star, about a man who was dying of cancer and living under the Choccolocco (pronounced Chalk-O-Lock-O) Creek bridge on Highway 71-about ten miles from town on the way to the Talladega Superspeedway, home of 2 yearly NASCAR events. Immediately intrigued, and since I wasn’t busy that day, I decided to go down and take a look for myself.
There’s a large hill that overlooks the bridge as you’re driving towards it. I could see a small plastic-tarped abode on the far left side of the bridge with a small dirt road leading to it. It was a cold day-the sky matched the grayness of the tarp. I turned onto the dirt road and was shocked to see 10 cars parked out of sight and began to wonder “what is going on?”
Leaving my gear in the car, I walked up to a large group of men and asked if I could speak to Jack Williams. A tall, thin man stood up and declared in a raspy voice: “That’s me.”
I have to admit that after seeing Jack and his living conditions for the first time, I felt sorry for him. The story I had read earlier in the day was written sympathetically, so I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me. Jack came up to me and asked all of the usual questions: “What paper do you write for?” “When will it be in the paper?” “What are you going to write about?”
I answered the last two questions and told him I didn’t know what I’d write about. That was up to him.
He shook my hand and I was amazed at the strength of his grip. It wasn’t something that I had expected from such a frail looking man. I went back to the car and got my cameras and tape recorder and sat down with Jack near the roaring fire. Jack sat across from me and started the conversation by asking “What do you want to know?”. It was a refreshing remark for a journalist to hear.
I immediately liked Jack’s frank, open personality. For the next five hours, Jack and I talked. I found out that most of the trucks belonged to Jack’s former co-workers and friends. Jack was a house painter by trade and was considered one of the best in Talladega. I didn’t shoot a single image that first day simply because I was so intrigued by his words.
Jack, a life-long resident of Talladega, had served in the U.S. Army as a Quartermaster, supplying American and British troops along the Burma Trail during World War II. Jack had also been married, but was now a widower- his wife and daughter had been killed by a man who was trying to commit suicide by hitting their vehicle head-on at 85 miles an hour.
They died, but the man lived.
While researching this part of Jack’s life story in back issues of the Daily Home, I found out that the man had been captured and had somehow acquired a hammer and began beating himself on the head with it. On a small lonesome road in Talladega County crossing that same creek that Jack lived alongside, there is a sign dedicated to his wife and child and is a permanent marker of the accident site.
While researching Jack and his family, I discovered they had a long, distinguished history in Talladega and were among some of the early leaders in the community. Jack’s great-grandfather was Sheriff, started the public library system, became superintendent of the schools and was also mayor. His reputation as a sheriff was equal to the very best Wyatt Earp stories-taking on half a dozen men and capturing all of them without firing so much as a shot (During this time, Talladega, which literally translates to “White man’s border land,” was considered “frontier” country-settled only by the toughest people) . One of the more interesting things that I found out about Jack’s great-grandfather was that he had also started the newspaper that I was working for! Founded in 1867, it was originally called “Our Mountain Home.” His two sons eventually took the company over- one as Publisher the other as Printer.
Jack had cancer in his esophagus and because the cancer had developed to an advanced stage, Jack wasn’t able to eat solid foods. His diet consisted of “Sustical”, various fruit juices, and beer. Beer was the main staple of his diet, really. It was recommended to him by his doctor because of the calories, fiber and basically as “anesthesia.” It didn’t hurt that Jack also really liked beer-and since he was dying, why not?
The next day, I went back to see Jack and with a dozen rolls of film. I talked to my supervisor, Jim Smothers, about the story and asked for a full page for a feature story. One of the nicest things about working at the Daily Home was working for Jim. I was allowed to work in-depth stories like this one on a regular basis. Jim would take care of all of the mundane shoots to give me time to pursue these stories. To this day, I am grateful to him for that. It’s a classy supervisor who allows you that “go get ’em” attitude- it’s a rarity in newspapers.
I shot images of Jack for the next week- fitting in time whenever I could while getting back to the business of newspaper journalism. We published the story the following week. I was surprised that what I’d written was almost opposite from the one that I had originally read in the Anniston Star.
After talking to Jack at length, I didn’t feel any sorrow for him. Jack loved hunting, fishing and the outdoors. His last wish was to be surrounded by these things and so, he was offered the chance to “rent” the land that his tent was on for $1 a year- payable at a later date. Jack you see, was doing exactly what Jack wanted to do. I came to admire this. Alabama in the winter time is cold and wet-not an easy way to live, yet this tall frail looking man embraced it.
Jack and I became friends and I started visiting him regularly – even going down on my off time to sit by the fire and talk. Jack got progressively worse and ended up in the hospital several times. Upon his release he would return to his little shack. After one of those trips home from the hospital, Jack found that someone had stolen his car battery, which powered his black and white television and radio-the only two luxuries that Jack allowed himself. It angered me that someone would do this and for months after, I blamed myself, thinking “if I hadn’t written those stories about him that specific someone may not have known that he was there and thus not have stolen his possessions.”
So, I did what any self-respecting journalist would do-I wrote a story about his stolen property. I was amazed me at the outpouring of help from the community. Immediately, people brought televisions, generators, heaters, radios and beer-lots of beer.
Jack had other struggles at the site. The following spring, the rains were particularly heavy and the little home on the creek became flooded and totally submerged in the swollen creek.
When his house flooded, he came to the paper to tell me. I offered him a spot on my sofa until he could get back to his home. I drove him to my apartment on Coffee Street in Talladega-an old Victorian style house that had been converted into four apartments. Jack got out of the car with a strange look on his face. I asked him if everything was okay. He explained to me that he had also lived in this house several years earlier, in the top right apartment-the same one where I lived now. It was kind of spooky and I still get shivers thinking about that moment. It truly is a small world.
That spring eventually turned into summer and Jack was still at the creek. This in itself was pretty amazing since nearly a year before Jack was told that he’d have 6 weeks to live. In July, I was sitting at my desk when my phone rang. It was the chief photographer from the Tuscaloosa News. He told me that he had a job opening and that I had been recommended to him by the Associated Press in Alabama. He wanted me to visit the paper and talk to him about working there.
I got the job. I moved to Tuscaloosa and began working at the Tuscaloosa News on August 6th, 1990, only 3 days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. I worked the night shift, so I had time during the day to make the 100 mile trip regularly to check up on Jack and bring him a case of beer. Eventually, the rigors of working at the Tuscaloosa News engulfed me. I found I had less and less time to make the trip to Talladega. When I heard that Jack had passed away, I realized I had not had a chance to see him for several months
I still have many reminders of my friendship with Jack Williams. Jack was a writer and a poet. He gave me several short stories and poems over the year that I photographed him-one of which made it into the paper as a Christmas story. The poem, entitled “Christmas on the Creek,” was used as the lead for the story. To this day, when I go back to Talladega, I see old friends who still talk to me about Jack Williams and “that poem”. I also have several short stories that Jack wrote, a photo that Jim Smothers shot of Jack and I during one of his many visits to the paper, video and audio from TV stations that did stories about Jack based on my writing and I still have-most importantly, my memories.
Looking back on all of this. I feel that I got more benefit out of our friendship than Jack did. I was able to produce great stories, shoot some very fine images and advance my career partly because of this man’s willingness to share his life with me. I feel that I am a truly lucky person because of this. It is moments such as this one in the career of a photojournalist that make the long hours and low pay worthwhile. Sometimes I miss these moments and wonder what I’d be shooting or writing about if I was still a journalist. Without a doubt though, few, if any would match Jack Williams.
I think that as a journalist, one of the most important things that you can do is to be objective. Jack was an excellent example of this. To look at him from the outside is to see something totally different from looking deeper into the inside of the person. Jack was not rich or well educated. But, what made Jack stand out was his “humanisity” and his love for everything around him. Jack Williams lived a good life and I hope that as I live my life, I can be that same kind of person.
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