“I had to stand up for myself alone, and you know what they did to me. Until all men stand up for what they believe in, the same damn thing can happen to any one of you.”
That’s the opening line from Final Chapter: Walking Tall, the story of real life Sheriff Buford Pusser. At the end of the film they show this historical marker placed at the site where he died in a car crash. August 12th will be the anniversary of the ambush that killed his wife and left him shot up.
His story led me to talking my father into a trip to Adamsville, Tennessee, in the summer of 1983 to go meet his Buford’s mother, Helen, who would open the door to visitors and sit and talk about her infamous son. That home is now a museum.
But Buford’s story taught me the power of public speaking. I was in college around this time and was taking a speaking course. I gave a speech on Buford, a subject I had studied and knew well and this was back when a library and Encyclopedia’s were the Google of the time.
I started my speech with that opening line and I could instantly tell I had the audience. As I got to the part of the story about his wife, Pauline, dying in a hail of gunfire, I noticed one young lady in the class start to wince. It was at that exact moment it clicked. I was seeing how storytelling could connect to an audience and make them feel emotions.
Once I noticed it, I added things I didn’t plan to simply to see if I could get a reaction out of her again, and yes, I did.
I had given other speeches, like the one on how to roller skate and I was assigned a compare and contrast speech of King Tut to Star Trek! I have no idea how I pulled that one out but remember doing it.
Storytelling was in my blood. Like my grandfather and father before me, I could always tell a joke or spin a yarn. That went all the way back to first grade when Mrs. Owen would bring me up in front of the class to regale them with the adventures of space travel since I was the geeky kid who got up each morning to watch the launches of our infant space program.
Eventually I’d go on to work in TV News, Entertainment News, Commercial Advertising and Indie film, telling tens of thousands of stories, teaching and training others about storytelling. I loved it then and I love it now.
But come August every year, I think about that moment in class when a McNairy county Sheriff let me walk tall.