It didn’t surprise me it was him. Although such had never crossed my mind, it was, of course, just the kind of thing that he would do.
We all have favorite people and favorite places. One of my favorite people, Ruffin Smith, lives in one of my favorite places: Mississippi. Whenever I introduce him to friends and family — and he has been welcomed many times in our family’s homes in Georgia as well as our hearts — I explain that he is one of the South’s great characters.
I mean this in the most admirable way. I love people who have colorful personalities with strong opinions wrapped in courtly charm. I especially celebrate them when they have the kind of lilting, gentlemanly Southern drawl as is possessed by Ruffin.
“He is a bon vivant,” I told Tink before they met. Ruffin is the only person I know to whom I ascribe this French term for “good liver of life.” He is an adventurer and pursuer of anything that catches his fancy.
His quick wit is fueled by a strong intellect and the fact that he is a serious reader of books. Recently, when we were with him, I asked what he was reading and then was reminded of the time long ago when he was visiting. Midnight came and I excused myself for sleep. At 5 a.m., when I went to let Dixie Dew out, I saw that he was still sitting on the sofa, a lighted lamp beside him and a book in hand. He had stayed up all night reading.
Tink and I were visiting a place we love, the Alluvian hotel in Greenwood, Miss., for a writing retreat. Greenwood is a charming town that looks much like a Hollywood set. The Tallahatchie River drifts by — this is the hometown of Bobbie Gentry who wrote the haunting Southern Gothic song “Ode To Billy Joe” — and brings with it a sense of history and peace. Often when I am in Greenwood, I hear the lyrics echo in my ear, “Another sleepy, dusty Delta day.” I write this with admiration for I feast on the hospitality and calm we find in Greenwood. It is the sweet comfort we find there that enables us to settle in and write. Most importantly, it enables us to make deadlines. The Alluvian and the Cloister on Sea Island are our muses. Lord knows we need all the help we can get.
So, it was on a recent trip to Greenwood that Tink and I dined with the affable, always entertaining Ruffin. Over crab cakes and steak, I asked, “Are you still mayor?”
He nodded. Ruffin is the esteemed mayor of a tiny town called Louise, Miss. Though there are less than 300 residents in this place in Humphreys County, Ruffin, bon vivant though he might be, takes his elected position most seriously. Seeing to the good of the people in Louise is a driving force with him and he watches their dollars much more closely than he watches his own.
When a newspaper publisher forwarded me an editorial he had written on Ruffin and his city council, I was proud. Ruffin and his council, recognizing the economic challenges for their small town, had voted unanimously to cut their small salaries in half. The editorial proclaimed that these elected officials should be serving on a state or national level.
Here’s what perplexes me: Why didn’t this story make national news? It’s the kind of good news for which folks are starved. These are stand-up folks who did a stand-up thing. They will still have the same worries, aggravations and challenges at 50 percent less pay than they had before but, from all reports, no one hesitated.
When I read the editorial, I texted him, “Should we send money?” He laughed it off. I’m serious, though.
He’s the only bon vivant I know. I don’t want that to change.