One day in 1957, in the fall of his senior year, Neal cut…class and wandered in the library, set up by Grady, the English teacher whom he had tormented. Neal wasn’t a reader, but he spotted a book with a risqué cover of a sexy woman.Neal told his own story at Storycorps and to NPR.
Called “The Treasure of Pleasant Valley,” it was by Frank Yerby, a black author, and it looked appealing. Neal says he thought of checking it out, but he didn’t want word to get out to any of his classmates that he was reading a novel. That would have been humiliating.
“So I stole it.”
Neal tucked the book under his jacket and took it home — and loved it. After finishing the book, he sneaked it back into the library. And there, on the shelf, he noticed another novel by Yerby. He stole that one as well.
This book was also terrific. And, to Neal’s surprise, when he returned it to the shelf after finishing it, he found yet another by Yerby.
Four times this happened, and he caught the book bug. “Reading got to be a thing I liked,” he says. His trajectory changed, and he later graduated to harder novels, including those by Albert Camus, and he turned to newspapers and magazines as well. He went to college and later to law school. . . .
At a high school reunion, Grady stunned Neal by confiding to him that she had spotted him stealing that first book. Her impulse was to confront him, but then, in a flash of understanding, she realized his embarrassment at being seen checking out a book.
So Grady kept quiet. The next Saturday, she told him, she drove 70 miles to Memphis to search the bookshops for another novel by Yerby. Finally, she found one, bought it and put it on the library bookshelf.
Twice more, Grady told Neal, she spent her Saturdays trekking to Memphis to buy books by Yerby — all in hopes of turning around a rude adolescent who had made her cry. She paid for the books out of her own pocket.
column yesterday about Judge Olly Neal: