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Column: Catherine Marshall’s bestselling works inspired my own
Ronda Rich
Ronda Rich

When I was barely out of college, I worked as a sports reporter for a newspaper in Washington, D.C.

There are many things to recall of my time there, such as the occasions I strolled to the Kennedy Center and watched old movies in its small theater or the day that my friend, Debbie, and I were kicked out of the White House by no less than the Secret Service.

Those are stories for another time.

Today is about bestselling author Catherine Marshall.

In a jumble of memories, it’s hard to recollect when I first learned about Mrs. Marshall. Mama talked often of the book, “A Man Called Peter.” I saw the movie first then — years ago — and read the moving true account of an Agnes Scott College co-ed, who met the dashing Scottish pastor of the Decatur Presbyterian Church, married him and followed his path as Peter Marshall became the chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

When Marshall died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 47, his widow turned grief into a best-selling book, which became an Academy-nominated movie in 1951.

I was blessed to have several wonderful English teachers who led me down the joyous path of reading and writing: Mrs. Kathy Lovett, Mr. Larry Hendricks, Mrs. Peggy Moore and Miss Sherry Garrison. I am here today because they were there.

Mrs. Moore’s classes had luscious reading lists, which included the Bronte sisters, “A Separate Peace” and “Silas Marner.” We were given many titles from which we could choose for extra credits, in addition to our mandatory reading. From that list, I chose a thick book called “Christy,” written by Catherine Marshall.

It was a Friday night, I remember that. I was a freshman or sophomore, and I was glued to the sofa, finishing the book, not certain until the last pages if Christy — a teacher in the Appalachians Mountains — would choose the preacher or the doctor for her husband.

The ending was surprising but satisfying. I closed the book and felt as if my soul had been fed. It was stories like these that I wanted to tell. I yearned to move people emotionally as I had been moved.

By the time I arrived in D.C., the mid-1980s had passed and Mrs. Marshall — who remarried to Leonard LeSourd, the publisher of Guideposts magazine — had died. Still, I hungered to read anything I could find that she had written.

In a little basement bookshop in Georgetown, I found a used copy of a later novel she wrote called “Julie.” I toted it back to my Foggy Bottom studio apartment and began to read. “Julie” was much shorter than “Christy,” but both had female characters with faithful morals. 

As I read the tome, I thought of Mama’s story and the similarities. Mama, who in the late 1930s, had the courage to leave the Appalachian foothills and move 45 miles away to take a job in a hosiery mill earning 10 cents an hour.

Though a devastating tornado had laid Gainesville to waste a couple of years earlier, in my mind — for the sake of story — I imagined what would have happened had Mama been living at Aunt Nelly’s boarding house when the tornado hit the town.

When I finished “Julie,” I dropped to my knees on the thin brown carpet by the hard, unforgiving bed and prayed.

“Please, Lord, lead me to a path where I can write a book like this.” I was earnest and pleading.

Fast forward through the years and a few bestsellers that were nothing like Catherine Marshall’s, I pondered what to do next.

“Write a book about your mama, your daddy and the mountains,” Tink urged. “You have incredible stories.”

I shrugged him off for weeks, then one day it occurred to me: This is what I had prayed about in that little apartment. 

Perhaps Tink’s words were a reminder from above.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Let Me Tell You Something.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.

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