Carl Wernicke: The past is never dead. It's not even past.

Aug 8, 2019

Credit IHMC

At a recent event, I discovered that the usher went to high school with one of my brothers. That led to a discussion about living in your hometown, and my career with the Pensacola News Journal also came up.

That led to a name I hadn’t heard in years: Leon Odell Griffith. The usher said he had spent years under the friendship and tutelage of Griffith, and still reveres his memory. It brought back memories for me as well.

I didn’t know Odell well. But he was something of a legend when I met him as a young reporter at the News Journal, where he once worked. He was making a living primarily in PR and marketing, and as a political advisor. He was also one of those people who make it their business to know people. If you wanted to get something done in local politics or business, but weren’t sure how to proceed, you might go to Odell. He knew who to talk to.

Unknown to many, he was at one time, in literary circles, a promising author. He had studied under the influential Andrew Lytle, and gone on to write two novels, published by Random House, that had some people talking about him as being on the periphery of the movement that included people like William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren and others who were driving a renaissance in Southern literature. His novels got mixed reviews in The New York Times, and he later penned a well received biography of Ed Ball, an industrial and political baron whose influence is still felt across the Panhandle. Odell was a captain in the Marines during World War II, and was at Iwo Jima as a military journalist.

For whatever reason, he never fulfilled his literary promise. By the time I met him he was a heavy drinker. I have no idea if his failure to capitalize on his early success led to the drinking, or if the drinking smothered his talent or ambition.

In the late 70s, Odell was a regular fixture downtown, rubbing elbows with journalists, politicians and lawyers.

Back then, a regular part of a reporter’s job was developing and working sources. You were given time to do what people like Odell did instinctively: get to know people. A good reporter could sniff out news just by knowing who that was leaving a commissioner’s office as you walked in.

One morning, walking across downtown on my way to the courthouse to see what I could dig up, Odell hailed me and said come back to my office, let’s talk. His office was a tiny, cluttered little den stuffed with papers, books and memorabilia. As soon as we sat down, he pulled a bottle of Early Times from a drawer and offered me a drink. “It’s a little early for me, Odell,” I said. He shrugged and poured a slug into a coffee cup and proceeded to tell me a story that even today I can’t relate, as some of the participants might still be alive. I’m not sure why I didn’t pursue it then, because if it was true it would have been a scandal. Perhaps I was still young enough to be intimidated by insiders. Anyway, I always did wonder why he would tell such a story to a reporter; maybe he just needed to tell someone.

Anyway, we talked for awhile, and then I went on my way.

Odell was already in bad health then, no doubt exacerbated by his drinking. He died just a few years later, at 62. But at the time I had not fully understood who he had been, and thus who he was. Thinking back, I wish I had taken that drink.