Welty’s visit to Natchez left many memories

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Memories of Eudora Welty’s 1990 visit to Natchez remain vivid for those who saw or met her.

Welty, who died at 92 on Monday at a Jackson hospital, attended the first Natchez Literary Celebration, June 9-7 that year, and shared time, talent and her well-known charms with hundreds of Natchez fans.

&uot;There was standing room only,&uot; Carolyn Vance Smith said as she reminisced about the evening at the Carriage House Restaurant when Welty read from her short story, &uot;A Worn Path.&uot;

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&uot;It was magical. When she began to read, there was no sound whatever in that room other than her voice,&uot; Smith said.

Later that evening, Welty attended a production of &uot;The Robber Bridegroom,&uot; a musical play based on her novella by that name.

Jim Barnett, historic properties director for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, was a member of the small orchestra that played for the production.

&uot;That’s the only time I’ve been with her in person,&uot; said Barnett, who directs Grand Village of the Natchez Indians and the Historic Jefferson College site. &uot;I got to speak to her and shake her hand. It was one of the highlights of my little theater experience to play for that show with her attending it.&uot;

A long-time fan of Welty’s works, Barnett, who grew up in Arkansas, said Southerners especially connect with her writing.

&uot;Anyone born and raised in the rural or semi-rural South can identify with her stories,&uot; he said.

Carol Hobdy met Welty at a reception and booksigning at the Natchez Eola Hotel. &uot;I was so excited to meet a legend,&uot; she said.

Hobdy recalled that when she was a college student at Belhaven in Jackson, she parked in front of Welty’s residence when she arrived for 8 a.m. classes.

&uot;I always looked up and saw a light on upstairs in the corner of the house,&uot; she said. &uot;I thought she must be up there writing.&uot;

Smith said as planning began for the first-ever literary celebration, she began to seek support from people in other organizations. All wanted to know who the featured literary figures would be.

&uot;I told them I was going to shoot for the top; I was going to ask Eudora Welty,&uot; Smith said. &uot;They told me that was a mighty big leap.&uot;

Still, Smith asked around and was told she should call and invite Welty, and she did.

&uot;I told her about the literary celebration and about the theme of the Natchez Trace, and I asked her to come and read from ‘A Worn Path,’&uot; Smith said. &uot;She told me she would be delighted to come.&uot;

Smith, who was an English instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez when she organized and founded the literary event, recalls teaching Eudora Welty works to her Co-Lin students.

&uot;She had all the techniques of writing down pat, but beyond that her dialogue was so exactly right, so wonderful in its detail.&uot;

Beyond the literary greatness and the obvious asset she was to her homestate of Mississippi, Welty was simply a great person, Smith said.

&uot;I remember her modesty the most,&uot; Smith said, recalling a story a Welty friend had related.

&uot;A friend of hers was in the elevator with her in a New York hotel, and they were going downstairs where Miss Welty would be getting some big award,&uot; Smith said.

Welty suddenly told her friend that she would have to go back upstairs. She had forgotten her nametag.

&uot;Her friend told her she did not need a nametag; that everyone would know her,&uot; Smith said. &uot;But she was so modest. She insisted on going back for the nametag. She wouldn’t have wanted anyone to think she would presume everyone would know her.&uot;

Welty’s support of the first literary celebration was a gift to the annual event. &uot;Once I had her on the program, everyone else I called wanted to be a part of it,&uot; Smith said.