When news of Jerry Barksdale's death reached Athens, memories of the local historian, humorist, author and attorney began to steadily roll in.
People all over Limestone County shared their thoughts of Barksdale on social media. In short, they called him a friend, a storyteller and a champion of veterans, law enforcement officers and history.
He was a Southern gentleman in a seersucker suit who entertained with his slice-of-life stories — sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant — about growing up and growing old in Athens and Limestone County. He also reminded audiences of the lives and deaths of soldier sons and daughters across history.
Barksdale died Tuesday at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. Friends and family said his heart failed. When the novel coronavirus pandemic eases, he will be remembered by the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives, officials said.
Here's what a few of them had to say about his passing:
Writer, editor, friend
Karen Middleton, longtime reporter for The News Courier and founding member of the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens, has a long memory of Barksdale.
"I was slightly acquainted with Jerry since he had done a house closing for us when we moved to Athens in 1975," she said. "But sitting across from him at a 1996 Veterans Day luncheon proved to be a fateful — and profitable — coincidence.
"Jerry had published a series of World War II veterans’ remembrances in The News Courier, working with former editor Sonny Turner. In conversation that day, I complimented him on the series and asked him if he had ever thought about compiling the stories into a book. He said, 'Yes, I’ve been toying with the idea,' or some such words.
"Several days later, I received a call from Jerry, saying he was now thinking seriously about a veterans’ book. He asked if I would be interested in proofing and editing the stories. I was intrigued by the prospect and signed a contract with Jerry.
"Since that time almost 24 years ago, I have proofed and edited several of Jerry’s books and numerous newspaper stories, beginning with the popular 'When Duty Called.' I was touched by the veterans’ stories of the sacrifices of the common soldier, sailor and Marine. On the other side of the spectrum of this multifaceted writer, I laughed until I snorted out my nose at his short stories and newspaper articles.
"He was great to work with and never argued with my suggestions. Three years ago, he returned the favor by advising me on a book of fiction I was writing. One chapter of my book concerns my hero going on trial for murder. In my original text, I played the scene broadly, going for a humorous approach in the responses and demeanor of witnesses and the judge. I sent it to Jerry for guidance because he had defended those accused of murder during his long law career.
"His critique was serious, telling me there was nothing funny about a man on trial for his life. He described the behavior of the accused in the courtroom, the gut-wrenching realization that what transpired that day could seal his fate. Because of Jerry’s get-real critique, I rewrote the scene, and it became one of the strongest in my first attempt at fiction.
"I shall miss my friend and treasure forever the wisdom I gained from our association."
Athens lost her storyteller
Holly Hollman, communications specialist and grant coordinator for the city of Athens, said of Barksdale's death: "Our community has lost a wealth of information with his passing. Athens has lost her storyteller."
Hollman, a former newspaper reporter, said Barksdale "portrayed our city’s traits, from her patriotic bearing to her hometown ambiance to her eccentric nature. He wove together history and humor, meticulously choosing words and colloquial phrases to create our narrative."
She said Athens and Limestone County are fortunate that Barksdale's heart beat for his community for so many years.
"His love of storytelling gave us extracts of our city and county’s memoirs, and in those stories, we find a piece of his heart he left with us," she said.
She said Jerry once called his book, “Cornbread Chronicles,” a love letter to a community that used cornbread metaphorically to depict the Southern way of life. She said if that book was a love letter, his military book, “When Duty Called,” was a reminder to his community of what sacrifice means.
She acknowledged Barksdale's humor was often present in his writing, including in this recollection of his own birth on the kitchen table in Estill Springs, Tennessee, in 1941: "Total cost of prenatal care, doctor and nurse in attendance and postnatal care was $45. An exorbitant charge considering that he was an ugly baby. Unfortunately, he was born with a birth defect. He had half a soul. His Mama was greatly disappointed, but took it in stride. 'Well,' she said, 'if he can’t preach, he can become a lawyer.'"
Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives Director Sandy Thompson said Barksdale was a founding father of the museum and dedicated his writing talents to preserving the stories of our local veterans.
“He was my go-to guy, my resource for information on our veterans,” Thompson said. “He was an integral part of our museum from the books he wrote to being an excellent tour guide.”
Jerry Crabtree, who volunteered with Barksdale at the museum, said Barksdale was the “life of the party” on their man trips.
“He and I would share police and lawyer stories because he defended some of the people I arrested when I was in law enforcement,” Crabtree said. “He loved our community and our way of life.”
Kelly Caldwell Kazek Elrick, longtime editor of The News Courier, said when her parents, Charles and Gayle Caldwell, first moved to Athens in 1983, her mother was a legal secretary for then-law partners Jerry Barksdale and James Moffatt. She said her mother had a great deal of respect for Barksdale.
“Jerry was a skilled attorney, of course, but he also enjoyed using his writing to lift people up and make them laugh," Elrick said. "He was an avid storyteller with a knack for finding the humor in any situation, which he shared in a regular column in The News Courier for many years. Jerry will be greatly missed in Athens. His humor is much needed in times like these, and I’m glad he left his books behind for us to enjoy.”
Adam Smith, who resigned as The New Courier editor in March after many years, was also saddened to learn of Barksdale's death.
"During my time at The News Courier, he never failed to come through when I needed a story for a magazine or special section," Smith said. "He was wonderful to work with, and he was always good for a funny anecdote."
What Smith admired most about Barksdale was his commitment to celebrating Limestone County’s veterans, and his determination to share their stories before their time was up, he said.
"Many veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam endured unimaginable horrors and hardships. Jerry gave them an outlet to unload their burdens, and he delivered their stories through a filter of gritty realism and empathy," he said.
Smith also appreciated Barksdale's sense of humor.
"Jerry had his own unique and often hilarious stories, too, about his time as an attorney, and from having grown up in Limestone County. He was a walking history book when it came to the way Limestone County used to be. He could tell you who lived in what house, what business was in what storefront, and who was kin to whom. As the county continues to grow and change, I hope people will take time to listen to older residents like the Jerry Barksdales in your community, because when they’re gone, a bit of your history is gone, too," Smith said.
Not allowed to die
Rebecca Davis, archivist for the Limestone County Archives, posted a remembrance of Barksdale on her Facebook page Tuesday night. She had known Barksdale for years before he approached her a few years ago to ask if she would edit his book, "Revolutionaries and Rebels." She said she got to know him better during the editing process and the years that followed.
"When I was working on the book, he would come to my office at least once a week to see how things were going, and we would always end up having a long conversation about everything. Life, love, marriage, divorce, religion, philosophy, theology, history … The man had a story for everything because the man had lived more lives in his one life than most people do in 10 lifetimes. There was always a lesson to be learned from his stories, but always compassion, understanding and kindness woven into any lesson. And a whole lot of belly laughs, too! For someone who used to be the toughest lawyer in town, he delivered the least amount of judgment of anyone I’ve ever known."
Davis noticed Barksdale's health issue, she said in her Facebook post.
"The last few times he came up to the archives, his big ol’ heart was working triple time to keep up with him, and it showed. I (would ask) him how he was doing, and he would straight up tell me, 'I’m dying.' I informed him he was not allowed to die, but as usual, he didn’t listen to my bossiness. This town and this world will never be the same without Jerry Barksdale. I know my life won’t be the same. My heart goes out to all his family and all the many many other people who loved him, too."
Books in his head
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks, a Vietnam War veteran, knew Barksdale for years and described him as a fixture at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens.
"What a great American and a great patriot and such a true friend to so many of us," Marks told The News Courier. "Walking into the veterans museum and not seeing him sitting there will be a sad note. I wish we had someone who could do a book on him."
Marks also told Hollman for her Facebook post, "When you were around Jerry, he was never without a story to share from his days as an attorney to his experiences meeting people. There is no telling how many books he had in his head that he had not gotten around to writing.”