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Harper Lee, the 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning author of 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' with Gov. Bob Riley in Montgomery. Lee received a resolution commending her contribution to public education in the state.
AP photo by Jamie Martin
Harper Lee, the 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning author of "To Kill A Mockingbird," with Gov. Bob Riley in Montgomery. Lee received a resolution commending her contribution to public education in the state.

State honors 'Mockingbird' author Lee

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee normally shies away from publicity, but she made an exception Thursday to accept an award from the Alabama Board of Education and to help honor a diverse group of high school students who brought her words to life for a new generation.

It was an unusual board meeting that brought tears to the eyes of Alabama first lady Patsy Riley and ended with Lee stopping in front of a sign that said "no photographs no autographs" to pose for a picture with several students from mostly white Mountain Brook High School and all-black Fairfield High Preparatory School.

"This is unreal. She is really a national treasure and she doesn't meet many people. It's a privilege she would take the time to meet with us," said 17-year-old Mountain Brook senior Gena Casey, who played "Scout" as a grown-up in a stage production of Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," published in 1960.

The play was a joint production of students from the two Birmingham area schools and was performed Wednesday night at the Davis Theater in Montgomery.

The state board made Lee its guest of honor at Thursday's meeting and passed a resolution honoring her for "sharing her extraordinary literary gift with Alabama and the world."

Calling her a "true Alabama icon," Gov. Bob Riley presented Lee with the resolution.

Lee, who rarely speaks publicly, spoke quietly with Riley when she accepted the resolution.

"Thank you, governor. This has been overwhelming," she said.

It was a rare second appearance for the 80-year-old Monroeville native, who was presented with a piece of pottery following the Wednesday performance and met with students and fans afterward.

Board member Ethel Hall, a retired educator from Fairfield, said when she taught English she made Lee's work a mandatory part of her classes.

"Every student had to read 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and every student had to write a paper on it," Hall said.

Riley said he was impressed by the collaboration of black and white students on the play.

"This was a brilliant idea to bring these groups together. I would love to see this done in Huntsville and Mobile and across the state," Riley said.

At the start of Thursday's meeting, the students stood in front of the board members and sang "A City Called Heaven," the closing song in their production.

Sitting on the front row of the board room, the governor's
wife wept as she listened to the song.

"You literally brought my wife to tears," Riley said as he thanked Lee and the students.

After the meeting, Lee was quickly escorted from the room, but she paused in the foyer to pose for the picture with students who had key roles in the play.

"There are some things you never expect to do in a lifetime," 17-year-old Regan Stevens of Mountain Brook said of having her picture made with Lee. Stevens played the young tomboy Scout in "To Kill A Mockingbird," which looks at racial injustice through Scout's eyes.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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