Novelist Richard Ford said he did not choose to be born in Jackson in 1944, but he did choose to make Clarksdale his home.
Ford resided in Clarksdale in the early 1980s when he wrote his book, The Sportswriter, which came out in 1986 and won him international acclaim as the book was named one of Time magazine’s top 100 novels published since the magazine’s inception. He was honored with a Mississippi Writer’s Trail marker in Clarksdale last week.
Ford currently resides in East Boothbay, Maine, but his marker was unveiled outside of the Carnegie Public Library in Clarksdale Thursday morning.
Jen Waller, Coahoma County Higher Education Center director, was the main speaker.
“I am just so delighted to be able to witness this day finally after several years we’ve been working on it,” Waller said. “It’s taken a while, but the marker is finally up and there’s so many people to thank and recognize.
“This is technically an unofficial event and we had a large event planned. Richard was going to fly in and, Kristina, his wife, they were going to fly in from Maine and be here and they were so excited about it. Representatives from the state were going to be here and it was going to be a big to-do, but with the uptick in the COVID crisis in America, we decided that it would be better to do something really small.”
Waller said it was still a big day for the library and community and important to celebrate.
Waller talked about her involvement and getting to know Ford.
She said in August 2019 a facsimile of the marker was unveiled at the Mississippi Book Festival and the Fords were present. The Mississippi Book Festival was one of the primary sponsors for the marker while Visit Mississippi, Mississippi Arts Commission, Visit Clarksdale, Carnegie Public Library and the Coahoma County Higher Education Center all made it happen.
Waller connected with Ford as she was putting the community book talk lecture series together. She used the Mississippi Book Festival as an opportunity to recruit authors.
She said Ford was at the Mississippi Book Festival in August 2017. She along with then-library director Sarah Ruskey went up to Ford after his talk. She recalled Ford asking if they knew how far it was from Maine to Mississippi. But Ford gave them his card and Waller kept emailing him.
Waller said in 2018 the Mississippi Writers Trail markers were announced and Ford would have one. In an interview with the New York Times in April 2018, he stated he wanted his marker in Clarksdale.
Waller said many people have markers where they were born.
“He often says that it wasn’t his choice to live in Jackson,” Waller said. “It was his parents' choice, but living in Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta and coming to the library was his and Kristina’s choice. The years that they lived here they were very happy and made lots of friends.”
Waller said she would still like Ford to come for a community book talk.
She said the marker has been in the Visit Clarksdale office since 2019, but COVID stopped anything else from happening sooner.
Waller said Ford expressed disappointment for not being there, but also said the silver lining of him being absent was it gets him out of the way and helped people think of the irreplaceable institution library. She read a letter from Ford.
“I elected to place this on the grounds of the Carnegie Public Library in Clarksdale instead of where I was merely, not by own choosing, born in Jackson,” said Waller reading Ford’s letter.
“Because at a crucial time in my writing life when Kristina and I lived on the Jonestown/Coahoma Road in north Coahoma County, it was to this library I came to for assistance, encouragement and fellowship in completing the third novel I was then writing. The novel that changed the track of my life.”
Waller read where Ford said librarians and library workers are essential workers of the human spirit and reading is one of the many freedoms people have. The library preserves that freedom.
Waller read where Ford said one day people will come by, see his marker and not know who he is, but come in the library and read a book.
“At which point, this marker will have done its valuable work,” said Waller reading Ford’s remarks.
Carnegie Public Library interim director Mary Caradine provided the welcome.
“It is indeed a pleasure to have each of you present with us today,” Caradine said. “Thank you for taking the time to join us on such a happy occasion and you know what that is? For the unveiling. For the unveiling. The unveiling of Richard Ford’s marker.”
Caradine said she is pleased to pay tribute and honor one of the most well-known and greatest writers of all-time.
“A native Mississippian,” Caradine said. “A novelist. A short story writer. A Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s Richard Ford.”
Visit Clarksdale executive director Bubba O’Keefe did the unveiling of the marker and said he wished the Fords were present.
“That is a great wonderful letter,” said O’Keefe of Ford’s letter. “That is one to keep forever. I am just so excited that Richard chose Carnegie Public Library and had such a wonderful experience in Clarksdale. I think that ought to speak to all of us and one we should express to our guests because sometimes we just get beaten down with all of the day-to-day trials and tribulations.”
Erin Rivers, a freshman culinary arts student at Coahoma Community College, sang the “Hero” by Mariah Carey. Dr. Kelvin Towers, director of the CCC choir, put together the special performance.