Listen to Your Family's Stories
By Sherry Kughn
JSU News Bureau
February 9 2004 -- “Ask me anything you like, even if it’s embarrassing,” Rick Bragg told a recent crowd of about 200 at Jacksonville State University’s Houston Cole Library. “I’ll go ahead and get one thing out of the way. I’m still single. I’ve been dumped 47 times -- by 32 women.”
Bragg, a former student at JSU and Calhoun County’s only Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, spoke at the regular meeting of the JSU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and to his fans.
“How many of you have ever interviewed your own family members for stories?” he asked. “How many of you would rather stick a needle in your toe?”
Bragg told the audience that he asks his relatives to tell him stories from the past. It’s how he’s written two of his four books – and how he plans to write more in the future.
Bragg won his Pulitzer in 1996 for a series of articles he wrote about contemporary America. Included were stories about an Alabama prison where elderly inmates go to die, the sheriff in the county where Susan Smith drowned her children, a Mississippi cleaning woman who left a large amount of money to a university. His career holds special interest to local journalism students because his first writing job was at The Jacksonville News as a sports writer in 1977.
“I’m not going to talk a lot about writing and all that stuff,” said Bragg told the SPJ student who introduced him. “I’m just not in the mood.”
Bragg did have words, though, for journalism students. “Now you have to have a degree. Get that scrap of paper,” he said. “Volunteer to write for the college paper, The Jacksonville News or The Anniston Star. Reporting is no longer a blue collar job. You have to have clips before you can get a job.”
Bragg took a few writing courses at JSU starting in 1977. One of his first courses was in feature writing and was taught by retired JSU instructor Mamie Chisolm Herb, who was present in the crowd. He credits her encouragement with motivating him to pursue writing. He also took a reporting course under her and a speech class, too.
“You always got your ‘A’s,” Mrs. Herb interjected from the audience. “I said to get your ‘A’ you had to try writing about something besides football.”
Bragg worked at The Jacksonville News while attending JSU a couple of semesters, then his career took precedence. He moved from The News to the Daily Home in Talladega, and other newspapers -- The Anniston Star and The Birmingham News. He came back to JSU, attended a couple more semesters and several years later took one more semester. He considers his education status as “still a freshman at JSU.”
As he gained experience, he moved to bigger papers. In the mid-1980’s he went to work for the St. Petersburg Times, where he became a state reporter, and later as their Miami correspondent. He briefly worked for The Los Angeles Times, then went to The New York Times in January of 1994. It was there that he discovered a lifestyle he loved -- traveling and doing stories on topics that he felt helped people: the homeless, inner cities, third world countries. Bragg gained experience in covering wars, too, including the Gulf War and conflicts in Haiti and Afghanistan. He later published a book that chronicled the best reporting of his career, Somebody Told Me.
“I believe our stories that came out of Haiti saved lives, if I may be so pompous to say so,” said Bragg. “They caused the United States to invade Haiti quicker and, I believe, saved lives.”
As much as he loved his reporting jobs, Bragg said he was glad to be back among his people. He was tired of being shot at and hit with rocks, one of which left him “a little hard of hearing,” he said, pointing to his right ear.
Amid the reporting jobs, Bragg also wrote personal stories throughout his years. He wrote a memoir in 1988 about his mother, Margaret Bragg, called All Over But the Shoutin’. He followed it up with Ava’s Man in 2002, his second memoir that centered on his maternal grandfather. He wrote a third book, I Am A Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, that came out in 2003. He got that book project after he resigned from The Times amid a controversy over the use of stringers.
Bragg’s colorful career also includes receiving a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University, receiving the Distinguished Writing Award by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and winning dozens of national, regional and state writing awards. His work has also been included in "Best Newspaper Writing 1991," "Best of the Press 1988," and two journalism textbooks on good writing and foreign reporting.
Bragg has taught writing at several universities and frequently speaks at writing seminars throughout the nation. He lives in Pleasant Valley and is currently writing a book about the effects of the closing of Jacksonville’s mill village upon “his people.”
After Thursday night’s lecture, one attendee, Klaus Duncan, told a personal story from his experience as Bragg’s sixth grade teacher. “I brought him in one day and told him that if he didn’t straighten up he’d never amount to anything. I think about that sometimes.”
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