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Al took his ‘Ramblin’s’ on to heaven

He loved words, the way he could string and twist and weave them into sentences. Then he would string and weave those sentences into stories that spoke to people.

And boy did he have stories, lots of stories. They were tales that told of ordinary things, family, friends, camping trips and life in a small southern town — the important things.

Every week, the words came out in newsprint and his readers waited anxiously for every installment. Sometimes they laughed with him. Sometimes they cried. Sometimes they just felt grateful for the experience of reading what he wrote.

I was only a kid when I got to know him, barely 20. Now, I’d known who he was for a long time because I was one of those readers who looked forward to seeing the newspaper column every week.

What I didn’t know when I set foot in that newspaper office for my first day of work as a typesetter was that this man and his father were about to change my life. In the space of a few months, they transformed me from thinking of myself as wife, mother and typesetter, to adding the word “writer” to the description. It was a wonderful gift they gave me.

It was great working in that office with Tommy Sue, Nettie Rue (who intimidated me so much) James, Ginny (who also intimidated me a little) Linda and others whose names escape all these years later. Best of all, I got to know the man behind those stories I read every week.

An awful lot of his ramblings were about his family. He wrote about his kids’ adventures and misadventures. There were columns about his wife and the experience of being married and raising a passel of kids together.

People loved reading about the comings and goings of their lives because much of what he wrote felt familiar to their own lives. He made the commonplace interesting and important.

And there were times when his words touched hearts in ways that only a good writer can touch hearts.

I have a clear memory of one of those times. It was something he wrote after a family suffered a tragedy that broke the heart of the entire community. A sweet little boy lost his life to the bite of a rattlesnake.

Sometimes, he asked me to proofread something he wrote before it went on the page for printing. One this day, he handed me sheets of paper with the words he’d strung together. There were tears in his eyes as he asked me to read it and check it for any errors.

I was crying by the time I got to the end. He captured the shock and pain and grief that the whole town was feeling. He poured his heart into the words and you felt it. Some how collectively sharing our grief through his words helped.

I’m sitting here creating this column because he gave me a chance to see my own words in print. Both he and his father told me, “You can do this.” I believed them because I respected their opinions.

Now it is my turn to string and twist and try to put words into sentences to pay to a tribute to a life well lived. It’s my attempt to honor a man who touched so many people with his ability to write about not only the important news but also all those every day things that mattered.

I am forever grateful for the gift of knowing this man. I am glad I had an opportunity to reconnect with him through social media several years ago. Glad I had a chance to tell him the role he played in my life.

A few days ago, he left us. John Alwyn Burgess (Al) took his “Ramblin’s” to heaven, but he left the world a better place because of his love for his family, his friends, his town and his ability to weave words into unforgettable stories.

Nancy Blackmon is a former newspaper editor and a yoga teacher. The opinions she expresses are her own.