William A. Emerson Jr’s funeral, held at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta Saturday afternoon, was a celebration the veteran writer and editor would have delighted in attending.
Any any given moment throughout the hour-long service, passersby on Peachtree Street were treated to a brass band banging out a boisterous “Down by the Riverside,” great humor, gut-busting laughter, the telling of tall tales, liberal use of 50-cent words and multiple members of his family acting impish.
Blame it on genetics.
Emerson, the former Saturday Evening Post editor, Newsweek Southern bureau chief and civil rights reporter died last week at age 86, following a stroke.
His old friend and former Atlanta Constitution editor Gene Patterson, who described the prolific public speaker in his New York Times obituary as “A Renaissance man at high volume,” eulogized the writer Saturday, saying: “He loved to find the comedy in life. He appreciated the ridiculous.”
Patterson also noted the native Southerner’s serious work covering civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
“The reporting he did [for Newsweek] finally gave the South and the entire nation a clear look at the cruelties of racial segregation. He was tempered journalistic steel that did not break. He risked his own personal safety in order to give the South the opportunity to better itself.”
The wittiest lines of the service came from Emerson himself. Quoting the journalism professor on his teaching stint at the University of South Carolina, Patterson said Emerson once told him: “It’s the only respectable job I’ve ever had” but described the challenge of engaging young minds akin to “trying to start a reluctant lawn mower.”
Emerson’s daughter Lucy Emerson Sullivan described homelife with the scribe, saying: “We lived in a dense thicket of words that no one else had ever heard of. We went through our teenage years and then moved on. Papa didn’t. He remained forever a teenager.”
Added Sullivan with a smile: “I won’t go into my list of grievances here” as she unspooled a prop scroll in her hand, prompting laughter in the church.
William Austin Emerson III (or Bo as he’s known around the AJC newsroom where he works as a reporter) discussed the challenges of living up to his namesake and of going into the family business of journalism.
“I thought that I would get to be taller,” Emerson said. “That didn’t work out. I thought I would be funnier and that didn’t work out. So I took up the trumpet. . . Papa was like The Grateful Dead. You really had to experience him in concert.”
Recalling the tickets he once bought for his parents to a Rolling Stones concert at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Emerson said: “I thought for sure that he would take out his hearing aids.”
Later when his son inquired about the concert, Bo recalled his father telling him: “Loud? No! It was the first damn thing I’ve heard all year!”
The trumpeter led the brass ensemble that closed the service with a rousing rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
And on the final chorus, the band’s spirited playing approached a volume that quite possibly reached the ears of its intended honoree.
With or without hearing implements.