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We had hiked the hills and had had dinner and were drinking wine fit for the occasion. Good vintage, but not extraordinary. The mood was melancholy, as it always was in the comedown from hours of merriment that marked the energy of those blissfully young days. That is when he said it: “Boys, they’re about to make me famous, and I don’t know how to handle it.”
Once every few months I have lunch with Lee Walburn, who was editor in chief of this magazine for fifteen years. We usually meet in Marietta, which is sort of halfway for both of us. Lee and his wife live in Armuchee now, just north of Rome—far beyond even the metro Atlanta exurbs. Lee is always giving me grief that in the five years I’ve been editor, I still haven’t made the drive up to his farm, a place that coworkers and friends describe as magical, which may or may not have something to do with the fine bourbon I’m told he has on hand.
He is easier to love as a legend than he was as Henry Louis Aaron, No. 44. Or so it seems. He's just as black as he ever was. He still speaks his mind, unafraid jar someone's consciousness, even stoke the fires of anger. But even when, as a result, he receives a letter of disagreement, most of them don't open with Dear Nigger, anymore.
Written for our 35th anniversary in 1996: In the beginning was Townsend. He hit Atlanta like a force of nature; ebullient, cherub face, buzz-cut hair, and calling everyone "Dear Heart."