VOICES: ‘Walking in tall cotton’ with the Dayton Literary Peace Prize

When Clarence Page introduced Wil Haygood at this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize award ceremony, he quipped that Wil Haygood was “walking in tall cotton,” a phrase his dad had often used. He explained that this meant that Wil Haygood was very impressive, above the crowd, outstanding in his field. Wil Haygood was all of that. He was this year’s winner of the Richard Holbrooke Lifetime Achievement Award, joining such other award winners as Elie Wiesel, Bryan Stevenson, Studs Terkel, Tim O’Brien, Wendell Berry and so many others. Tall cotton indeed!

Clarence Page, the longtime columnist from the Chicago Tribune, connected with the audience in a folksy conversation by pointing out that he was reared in Middletown and that he had his first journalism job with the Dayton Journal Herald. In an aside, he chuckled as he told Dayton Mayor Jeff Mims who was attending the ceremony that his first assignment was to check in with Dayton’s Mayor every morning so he would not miss anything going on in the city. Mayor Mims just smiled.

The evening was filled with winners from the tall cotton. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, the fiction winner as the author of “The Songs of W. E. DuBois,” cited her family upbringing, and assured us that she would speak her piece. And she did, forcefully, but poetically, as she spoke about fighting discrimination throughout her life and yet crafted her novel to bring peace through the written word. Like Honorée, Clint Smith, the nonfiction winner, is a poet who had a forceful message in “How the Word is Passed,” but presented it in lyrical verse, as in “The sky above the Mississippi River stretched out like a song.”

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is an international award that recognizes the effort to make peace through the written word. I think back to the messages delivered by the other winners; they all used their written words to tell the world how and why we must achieve peace.

Sharon Rab deserves great applause for founding the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and for attracting a school of believers and volunteers to bring the organization to life and to give it so much energy. She used our village to raise a family, a family that returns often, as if they are attending a family reunion. Over the years the authors have universally embraced Dayton because they feel they are part of our family. Sharon Rab planted those family seeds and the Dayton community has nurtured them, cultivating them into a loyal clan who appreciate their Dayton family, their comradery, and their Dayton.

Now, more than fifteen years later, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize has made its mark in the community, in the nation, and, indeed, throughout the world. The organization has become an asset of the community, and the Dayton community has assumed ownership by giving it broad support and expanded community leadership, and we all reap the benefits of that leadership year after year.

We also all reap the benefits of the authors returning to the Dayton community year after year. This year Gilbert King proudly proclaimed that this was his twelfth year in Dayton to celebrate the prize. That says so much about the structure and warmth of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. It has brought literary value and economic value to the Dayton community as it has matured into a broad-based community asset that should sustain itself in the future. So, not only are the prize-winning authors in the tall cotton, but when we walk with them, we are in the tall cotton.

Dayton attorney Merle Wilberding is a regular contributor.

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