Savannah Morning News
March 20, 2016
Underneath it all, Mildred White Greear is a poet. She sees things in metaphor. The sound of black families during a lynching? Think of the lowest note a pipe organ can register, she said. Think of a whistle blowing at midnight sending shift workers back to work.
Greear, who lives in Helen, Ga., is 95. She grew up in Mississippi, where lynchings were not uncommon; neither, she added, were the morning-after burnt smells of a cross in the neighborhood, photographs of Klansmen in parades or, as she writes in her collection of poems, “Going into Mississippi Dark, “seeing one white shroud enter my mother’s room and dissolve into my father.”
After saying that, she stops, her long grey hair pulled back into a ponytail, resting on one shoulder, and looks out the large window that faces horses and hills. She’s wearing tight yoga pants and a pink v-neck short-sleeved shirt over some white quilted long underwear. “It’s a heavy memory to have lived through. I know the secret Klan greeting too but I’m not going to say it. No, no. I won’t repeat it.”
Greear is also a newspaper columnist, first at the Gainesville Times, now at the White County News in Cleveland, Ga. That happened by default. In 1953, when a group of reporters came to her door in the country asking about chickens she gave such a long-winded answer – and then after deriding them for not having any women on staff – they gave her the job. The name of her column back then? Chicken copy.
Greear is a fighter and a thinker. “I don’t know when one wakes up or when one’s consciousness starts,” she says, without finishing the thought. But it’s something she ponders.
“I was born in Mississippi but I was born to be a rebel,” she says. “The Chattahoochee outside here used to flow nine feet high; now it’s one foot. The river is not respected, especially when 30,000 people come here on a weekend. Someone flushes in Atlanta and we feel it. I want to tell every tourist to go home, except maybe if they look interesting. Then I might invite them in to have a cup of coffee.”
Which reminds her of something else.
“Have you had a tomato sandwich?” she asks her brown eyes bright and challenging.
The trim woman, surrounded by books, stacks of papers, art, flowers and relatives down the road, is intense but not without a sense of humor or a sense of irony. She hated when loggers “raped the forest” of the long-leafed pine in her home state but not when the timber was used to build the state’s first free library, “which meant I could go there on Sundays to read.”
The classic E.B. White and William Strunk, Jr., book, “The Elements of Style,” sits turned to a page on a footstool.
“Every other year I would give that book to a student,” she said. “The other year it was Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet.’”
Through her husband Philip, a botanist and professor at Shorter College who died in 2012, Mildred learned of Ossabaw Island. “Philip said I must go. We might have a project there. So there I am, at lunch, seated between Sandy West and Alan Patton.”
For years, Philip took students from Shorter College to Ossabaw. By the time he died he was blind and deaf, Mildred said. “He wanted to resign. The board wouldn’t let him. It’s not your eyes or ears we value, it’s your vision.”
Greear herself wears no glasses but her hearing is a challenge.
“If I could hear as well as I can see I’d be perfect,” she said.
For years she taught language arts, in Georgia and in Japan, “but I’m fascinated with math. I love prime numbers and Fibonacci. Once I had to take a physics class. I was so scared but the teacher said, ‘You ask the right questions and I can teach you,’ Now I adore physics. Everything is connected,” which made her think of a column she was writing, one that included the “Sevenfold Amen.” When I inquired she started singing it and tapping her long shapely fingers on the table.
To be sure of the hymn – “when you write for the public you better be right” – she called a Presbyterian minister she knows. And that reminded her of another story involving the same person.
“It was years ago after a horrific earthquake in Pakistan and when I went to bed I said to Philip, ‘What can one person do?’ That night I work up in the middle of the floor and heard the words, ‘Send coats.’ The next morning Philip said, ‘Sounds good to me.’”
So that’s what she did. One month later she and others and the minister collected and sent an 18-wheeler full of coats to Pakistan.
“And do you know, the day before yesterday I got a note from a woman who helped load coats for Pakistan?” she said. “Everything is all tied together. Life is so mysterious. It goes in circles.”