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Rich: Forever linked by a tragic accident

POSTED: July 19, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Several years ago, an obituary in the Atlanta paper caught my eye and I clipped it out. I ran across it recently and, again as then, I found myself fascinated by how it summed up the man who died and what that summation says about our society.

Honestly, I don't know which fascinated me more.

It isn't unusual for me to save an obituary, especially one that begins "bells in heavens rang today," or "Mrs. Bertha Mae Wilson went home on Tuesday to join her beloved husband, Franklin, who has been waiting for her there since he departed this world in 1979."

Often I smile when I read a death notice with a headline of "Beloved wife and homemaker." For really, is there much more important in this life than women who proudly and lovingly make homes for their families? I don't imagine so.

Too, as I read obituaries, I wonder if that's what the deceased wanted said about his life or if that's what the ones who remain behind just think should be said.

Those thoughts fascinate me, too.

But this one particular obituary does more than fascinate me. It haunts me. I keep thinking how a few seconds on Peachtree Street in Atlanta would doggedly follow a 29-year-old man to his death. Though he lived for 74 years, his entire life would be defined by 25 or 30 seconds of time. Every loving moment as a family man, every kindness extended to a stranger would be hidden by the mud that covered him for the remainder of his days.

And I suspect that what that obituary said was not what the man or his family would ever have wanted for the last words of his life. But sometimes a few seconds of time can be so powerful, so life changing, that all control is forever lost.

Of course, if it hadn't been her, what happened on that steamy August night on Atlanta's most famous street would not have been such a news-making event and chances are that it would have only affected his life - maybe even changed it - but it definitely would not have defined it.

But it was her, so what became of him was because of what became of her.

People never let him forget it, his daughter said. It trailed him like a riled up skunk for the remainder of his days. He tearfully apologized to both the public and the judge and then solemnly dropped his head and went off to serve 10 months and 20 days for those 25 seconds of reckless driving and 67 feet of skidding, including the seven feet he had dragged her after his car collided with the tiny woman who tried to scramble to escape.

Fate, though, cannot be outrun. And it would appear that both she and he had a date with destiny that night.

She fought to live for five days - even after head surgery - before succumbing on August 16, 1949, at Grady Hospital. It fascinates me, too, that two of the South's most famous, beloved icons would share the same date of death: August 16. Elvis, though, would die many years later in 1977.

She was the most famous author of her generation and still, to this day in the South, she is immensely revered. She won the Pulitzer, inspired an Oscar-winning movie and set sales records that still stand by creating those immortal characters of Rhett and Scarlett.

He and she never met, but both of their obituaries would carry the name of the other and she would even share equal billing in his headline: Hugh Dorsey Gravitt, 74, Cab Driver Who Hit Margaret Mitchell.

Two strangers tied together for eternity, each life ended by the other. I find that fascinating.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Sign up for her newsletter.



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