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Raise a toast to Grif

by John Brummett | January 8, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.

Grif Stockley died Wednesday in a nursing home in Virginia where he'd been taken in late-life cognitive decline to be near his beloved daughter.

Tributes appropriately lauded him as a brave and devoted pioneer in the hard work of chronicling the often- horrific racial history of Arkansas.

He and I were friends to the extent I knew how to be one. He told me once that his daughter asked him why he put up with me, especially my on-court tennis behavior. He said he told her I had a vulnerable side.

I thanked him for looking long and hard.

So, for a more personal reflection on Grif, I'll now reprint, edited for space, the book review and tribute I wrote that appeared in this section in August 2020.

I had written something in this style years before, venturing from a review of one of his books into something probably entirely too personal, which led him to say I was part reviewer and part window-peeper.

So, here goes, a toast to Grif:

You lose a tennis match once a week for years to a guy, and you get to know him.

That's how I can tell you that Grif Stockley is focused, tenacious, purposeful and mentally tough. And it's how I can tell you that no one is perfect and that Grif might be a tad self-absorbed.

It's been 20 years since that fleetingly glorious but ultimately nightmarish weekday afternoon at the public tennis center in Little Rock. I led Grif by 5-0 in the third and deciding set of our weekly tennis battle. He'd won several hundred of these matches to my half-dozen.

About 45 minutes later, I sat beside Grif on the courtside bench. Sweat poured off me and rage boiled inside. Nothing was spoken, but everything was understood.

I said, "You do know this is the last time we ever play."

He said, "Yeah."

He'd plodded back irrepressibly to win the set, 7-6, and match.

I hung my head and drug my feet to the car, hating and loving that focused and purposeful little sonofa ... gun. And myself.

Grif's broader purpose was to practice nonprofit law in behalf of the underprivileged, which he did for a modest living for decades. With the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, he participated in seminal cases that reached the Arkansas Supreme Court and reformed primitive services for children and the mentally ill.

His broader purpose also came to be wrestling with his white privilege from the glory Delta days in his native Marianna amid the racism that engulfed his formative years in the '50s and '60s.

There's another thing he did. Relatively late in life, he decided to become an author.

He wrote a series of lawyer novels featuring a character called Gideon Page who was a good man with issues and a daughter he lived for.

He was rather like Grif Stockley.

Then he turned to nonfiction, to Arkansas' race history, and produced important works including a book about the Elaine race massacre and a biography of Daisy Bates.

He was not a history scholar. He was not a gifted writer. He simply was focused, tenacious, purposeful and successful.

Janis Kearney, diarist for President Bill Clinton, writes in a cover endorsement of Grif's new memoir that he "paid witness to Southerner-ness from a perspective of humanity rather than his whiteness." Guy Lancaster, editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, says in his that the book provides "a map from our perennial state of despair to a state that I would dare call enlightenment."

It's the lightest and best writing of Grif's career, and it's called "Hypogrif in Bubbaville: A Memoir of Race, Class and Ego."

The book is the story of the iconoclastic 70-plus years lived by a scrawny, balding, drawling guy from the Delta who spent his life absorbing his place and determining to understand, explain, lament and challenge it.

And it's a work in which Grif accepts that an honest accounting requires that he devote thoughts to his own ego, arising from being "spoiled rotten," as he puts it, by sisters from his beginning.

He surprised and then disappointed himself by getting invited to and accepting a fraternity offer at Southwestern of Memphis. He was not a frat boy. But he wasn't yet able to decline the invitation to play out the charade that he was.

I had not known until reading the book that he played on the Division 3 non-scholarship tennis team, surely driving mad more than one hard-hitting opponent. He writes that the coach told him he'd teach him to serve and volley, except that he'd inevitably outrun the serve to the net, and get hit in the back of the head by his own ball.

I knew he'd joined the Peace Corps, but not that he'd gone to the northern coast of Colombia.

I wish that Grif and I could play another tennis match and I could take the time during changeovers to ... I don't know ... talk to him, mine his experiences, grow.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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