Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 24, 2007

By Maggie Blackwell
For The Salisbury Post
It was a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon when I ran into Mayor Susan Kluttz in the detergent aisle at the grocery store. Cordial as always, Mayor Kluttz inquired about an article I had written for the Post. She had been looking for it and wondered when it would print.
I shared the publication date with her and confided that I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to write.
My own father was a writer. Now that he is gone, writing is one way I can feel close to him.
When she asked about the nature of Dad’s writing, I shared that he covered the Civil Rights Movement first-hand. He was onsite the day Rosa Parks declined to move to the back of the bus.
In fact, I have a copy of the article he wrote that day ó the first article anyone wrote about the incident. From that point, Dad was there for most of the hallmark moments in the Civil Rights Movement and has been cited in many books on the subject.
He appeared in the first installment of the well-known PBS series, “Eyes on the Prize,” and is considered by many to have been the first-hand authority on the events that led to anti-segregation laws in the South.
We stood there in the detergent aisle, the mayor and I, and discussed those events and the drama my father was a part of. As we parted, Mayor Kluttz maneuvered her buggy around to the next aisle, and said over her shoulder, “You know, I’m doing what my father did, too.”
I stood there, dumbstruck. Right there by the Tide. She is? Whatta story!
Not being a native of Salisbury, I did not know this. I hurried home to call LifeStyle Editor Katie Scarvey. Has there ever been a story of Mayor Kluttz following in her father’s footsteps? She didn’t think so, and the concept for this story was born.
Mayor Kluttz graciously agreed to allow me to interview her, with one caveat: I must also share the story of my own father.
I interviewed Mayor Kluttz the third week of January. In honor of all our fathers, we decided to hold that story until Father’s Day.
My father, Joe Azbell, was born in dust-bowl Texas in the Depression. The oldest boy of 10 children, Dad had a speech impediment and was making failing grades in the first grade until the Lions’ Club visited and realized he was legally blind. They gave him free glasses.
Dad’s grades soared and he became a voracious reader and Lions’ Club supporter ó he would remain so until his death.
Dad’s father abandoned the family when Dad was only 10. His mother relied on him to bring home money for food and rent. Dad learned at a young age how to hustle. He shined shoes, sold watermelons, sold newspapers, and raised all the money he could to help support his mother and nine siblings.
In the fourth grade, he ran away to north Texas and worked for an uncle who owned a cafeteria. Swathed in an apron that came to his feet, dad stood on a milk crate to wash dishes 10 hours a day.
As miserable as he had been at home, this was worse. Dad ran away again, this time to a town where he knew no one, and was drawn to the only building in town that had lights on at night: the newspaper. He slept on blank newsprint at night and ran errands for the staff by day. When he had free time, he went to the library to read, as it was the only place truant officers would not look for him.
Enlisting at 18, Dad worked as a journalist for the Army Air Corps. When his time in the Army was over, dad and his new bride moved to Montgomery, Ala., where he started as a city reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser.
Parks’ adventure happened a month to the day before my birth. Dad covered all the historic moments of the movement.
He was at the massive rally at the Holt Street Baptist church where a very young Dr. King encouraged all participants in the upcoming bus boycott to remain peaceful and respectful. Dad was there the night someone bombed Dr. King’s little house. He testified for Dr. King in Birmingham and interviewed him there in the Birmingham jail. He knew the movement’s public figures and the behind-the-scenes folks. He earned their trust and was respected by people of both colors in that little southern city. Dad completed only the fourth grade but educated himself with books and his innate curiosity. As an adult, he had honorary doctorates hanging on his office wall. He asked questions so much more than he gave answers. As children, our lullaby was the rapid-fire of dad’s typewriter as he pounded out his columns with two fingers.
Dad’s work was being a journalist, but he was so much more than that. He was an analyst, he was a networker, he was a counselor, he was a confidante.
Dad appeared on the local news channel every election night throughout my youth and provided insights into the candidates and elections. He predicted results with uncanny accuracy.
Newspaper work kept dad out ’til 2 a.m., when the morning edition was put to bed. Mother was virtually a single mom until he finally resigned from the paper and became a political advisor in the late ’60s. He wrote a weekly column until his death in 1995.
Dad’s career provided well for our family. He surmounted obstacles that no child should ever have to face, and ensured his own children would never face such obstacles. He worked hard and loved to learn. The pecking of my keyboard reminds me of the sound of Dad’s typewriter, and I am honored to write.
Here’s to you, Dad.